Is there a customer service yellow card?
September 7, 2012 6:25 AM   Subscribe

Customer Service Yellow Card - How do you handle poor customer service early, in advance of the main service being rendered?

Sometimes early in a customer service relationship, the customer sees a few warning signs that things may not go smoothly. For example, an installation date made without their knowledge, a rep hangs up in mid-customer question, emails are not replied to in a timely manner, or a waiter is clearly in the weeds or checked out.

Assuming that the customer is already 'locked in' to the transaction to some degree (they've already paid for the fabrication of something to be installed, there are no other restaurants, etc) and can't just walk away, how best to communicate that this sort of thing is not cool and will not fly? The goal would be to fix the problem before it recurs or compounds while avoiding any blowback to negative feedback early on.

So what works best for you, either in person or by phone/email with a company? I'd rather avoid posting bad reviews because that means I'd have to endure a bad experience first - better to nip it in the bud, right?
posted by robocop is bleeding to Human Relations (10 answers total)
Well, in a phone environment, I'd escalate the issue to a supervisor, then a manager, then their corporate office until I'm satisfied. The bigger the company, the more responsive they seem to be when you reach corporate. But don't go there until you're escalted through the hierarchy. In most cases, someone under them should be able to make things right.
posted by inturnaround at 6:31 AM on September 7, 2012

I get very explicit about my expectations and, depending on context, may share why I am concerned.

"I really need this done by the 10th. Do you think you can do that? I am only making a point about it because we had that mix-up over the emails yesterday and I am a bit concerned my project will fall through the cracks."
posted by shothotbot at 6:35 AM on September 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

One thing I try to remember to do in such a situation is to carefully note the time of my call and the name of the person I am speaking to. Not only does this provide some supporting evidence should you need to demand satisfaction for some mistake or another ("Christy told me on Thursday at 2 pm that these items would ship by Friday. Since they did not, I need you to overnight them at your expense.") but more importantly, it seems to make the person you are talking to more careful and conscientious, as they now know that they could be called on it by a supervisor should something bad go down. They are that much more likely to go the extra step to ensure your satisfaction when you know their name.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:44 AM on September 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

I start out by making sure that the person I'm dealing with understands that they are my only hope of getting whatever it is sorted out.

When they introduce themselves, be sure to echo that back, "Good afternoon Lisa." Use his or her name frequently, that makes them feel that you view them as a person, not as operator 255.

If a trades-person comes to the house, I offer a beverage.

If I know that my problem is thorny I say so first thing, "Gosh Lisa, I hate to dump this on you, but I've got a doozy."

If I'm in a restaurant, I acknowledge that they're in the weeds, "It looks like you're on roller skates tonight. I hate to pile on, but we're trying to make a movie, so anything you can do to get us out of here in a hurry would be appreciated."

When contracting with folks, especially for things that are to be fabricated or installed, be SURE to write into the contract, Time is of the Essence and put down a reasonable drop-dead date. That covers you legally.

If someone cuts me off on the phone, I call back and as sweetly and as politely as possible say, "Hi again Lisa, it's Ruthless. I think we got disconnected, I have a couple more questions..."

But when you've pushed me, and baby, as you can see, I have a LONG fuse, you can see the explosion from Space. I don't ever rant and rave at the first line service person. Usually, they have no power or control over what happened. I write a very long letter. Then I fax it to the president of the company.

Here's a thing worth knowing. Every President of every large company has a special little group that handles "Presidential Complaints". It takes a few calls, but you can get someone to give you the fax or email for correspondence. When you write the letter, be sure you put down exactly what happened, in chronological order. At the end, ask for something, a month's worth of service, the delivery charges waived, repair of something that was broken. Fussing without remedy is pointless.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:47 AM on September 7, 2012 [7 favorites]

Be careful about using front-line service people's names in a way that sounds pointed-- especially if nothing has really gone wrong yet. They know it's a veiled threat, and that's not going to make them do a better job for you. Ditto any kind of behavior that seems like an obvious power move, such as talking in a rushed tone of voice. If you make a front-line service person nervous, you will either rattle them if they are inexperienced, and they will be more likely to make a mistake, or they will be wary of you. That old-fashioned thing about being assertive rather than aggressive is important here.

(By the way, I do ask for people's names when it makes sense for future reference but I make it clear that's the reason, not intimidation.)
posted by BibiRose at 7:02 AM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Agreeing with BibiRose - I always try to get everyone's name all the time just so I have it for good, bad, or indifferent. Last night I was in a crowd of very upset people who were kinda taking it out on the messenger. Once she came back through with other information (useful, relevant, even if it wasn't what we wanted), I made sure to get her name then, and thank her for the information as she left (with a handshake). And tweeted a thanks up her chain of command.

Scenario: Crowd told they are queueing up on the wrong side of the building and must go somewhere else. Some people stay to argue up a compromise, but after a quick "Really? We have to move?" I simply note her face, say "Okay, thanks," and take off for the other side of the building and the end of the queue.

When she came back through to provide helpful information (but no updates), I listened to the whole thing, asked questions like the others (clarification on the related but not urgent thing we were all waiting for), and as she was leaving, caught her to thank her, asked her what her name was, then said "Thank you [name], you've been very helpful" (all true, she was!).

Then I turned around and tweeted a thank you to her bosses about helping out (she was a volunteer and doing the best she could in a miserable miscommunication problem.).

Demanding her name on the first encounter when she was being yelled at on all sides would have been pretty useless and threatening sounding* (and some of those people ultimately were turned away because they dawdled, arguing, and lost their place in the queue).

*threatening sounding not because of her gender but her position as messenger of bad news
posted by tilde at 9:26 AM on September 7, 2012

Seconding Ruthless' advice on sending a letter. True, it's not an immediate, correct-the-problem-at-the-moment solution, but it does make an impact and often results in compensation after the fact. When you do send a letter of complaint, take the time to research the company and find out the name(s) of the top executive(s) and then address the letter (paper letter, not email) directly to them. State your problem concisely and politely, avoid threats and cuss words. But do make your disappointment and dissatisfaction known. Send it via certified mail - that "Return Receipt Requested" notice gets your letter out of the slush pile and to the attention of the addressee. In the cases where I've had a service complaint and written a letter, I've always at least been given a price reduction for poor service rendered. In some cases I've gotten far more than I expected (free round-trip train tickets after a disastrous travel agency experience).

By the way, it will also behoove you to send a complimentary letter to the top executives any time you receive excellent service. True, sometimes this nets you unasked-for perks (for example, my Mom sent a letter to the Chief of Staff of the hospital where my Dad been treated for his heart attack complimenting the nurses by name who'd been so kind to her and tolerant of cranky Dad...for years afterward any time she happened to be there again with Dad the nurses addressed her by name and treated her like royalty. Turns out copies of Mom's letter had been placed in each nurse's file and was brought out at performance review time.) But it's also a common courtesy that often goes neglected. Everyone hears from their boss when there's a customer complaint; how nice would it be to be called into the boss' office to hear instead that a customer had written to compliment the person who served them?

PS As far as waitstaff goes, I personally would be as polite and cordial as possible throughout the meal, no matter how lousy the service. Wait until after you've eaten to express any criticisms to management. Just to prevent any disgusting tomfoolery with your food back in the kitchen....
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:17 AM on September 7, 2012

As somebody who works in the customer service trenches, I can say that civility goes a long way on either side, particularly on the customer's side. Getting passive aggressive or swearing or yelling at me are not winning moves. Nor are ignoring the emails in which I lay out our ordering process. I have had more customers hang up on me than I can count. Politeness, using "please" and "thanks" seem to be lost tactics these days.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 10:52 AM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I worked in retail for years, and I can tell you that getting someone's name right off the bat and then using it frequently, without fail, meant that the person I was dealing with was high maintenance. Rather than making me think they thought of me like a person, as mentioned above, myself and my coworkers talked often about how someone knowing you name was always used as a threat. Get their name so you can document what they tell you, use it casually, but be very careful. People in service positions deal with a lot of crazy people and pointedly using their name will probably make them feel defensive and less likely to help you.

Also, remember that low level employees (call center, waiter) usually don't have a stake in the success of the business. Negative reviews mean nothing when you work for a mega-corp that treats you badly; but when a customer appeals to you as a person and understands your limited powers, that goes a long way. Don't expect that the appeal of "I will give you repeat business" means much because (in my experience) as a human being I like helping people out, not making the crappy company I worked for make a profit. Getting a low-level employee to feel like you aren't preemptively convinced they'll mess something up means when you have to go above them to get something done, that supervisor has already been given a reason by the front-level employee to help you.
posted by thesocietyfor at 12:27 PM on September 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

I try to evoke empathy from them, by being polite and empathizing with their situation. Service jobs are often emotionally draining, difficult, stressful, with low pay and low status, and I find it helps to try to bridge the gap the relationship has created between you by focusing on your shared humanity.
posted by ead at 8:40 PM on September 7, 2012

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