Just fess up, already!

As a company, you’ll get stuff wrong. It’s part of the game, but people don’t mind. How you deal with it is a different matter altogether…

I think Helmuth von Moltke the Elder got it right, when he said ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy’. The fact that we need customer service and customer support at all is already in recognition with that.

It also means, however, that you don’t need to expect that your customers are unable to understand that life sometimes gets in the way. For example: This week, I was waiting for a British Gas engineer to come install a new meter in our house. We’ve already been waiting for six weeks, because that was the first time they had an engineer available. Now, whether or not having a six-week waiting period for an engineer is appropriate may be the topic of another blog post, but the key thing for now, is that the engineer never arrived.

He (or she) was meant to come between 8am and 1pm. So I waited patiently at home for the full duration of that time… And didn’t leave the house until 6pm, just in case. Did they arrive? No. So, the next day, we called British Gas to find out what had happened. We were told that the engineer showed up at 13:15, but that there was nobody home. At 13:20, they left again, apparently.

Now, any number of odd things may have happened here: The engineer may have been at the wrong house (but should have called…), they may have problems with the door bell (it works. I checked.). But realistically, I think it is pretty fair to assume that the engineer never came close to the house.

I get it…

Now, as I indicated in the start at this post, I do understand that things sometimes go wrong. Perhaps the engineer injured himself. Perhaps he was running from job to job that all were running late, and simply ran out of time to fit us in. Maybe their car had a flat tyre, an engine failure, or they had to install the meter that was meant to be allocated to our property somewhere else.

All of these scenarios are annoying. Nonetheless, all of them would have been acceptable, depending on how you propose to rectify the situation. What wasn’t acceptable, however, is lying to the customer, claiming that an engineer came to the house.

British Gas never called us — we had to call them to find out what was going on. Surely, now that we had suffered a frankly ludicrous customer service experience, we would be getting the VIP treatment, and they’d send out somebody very quickly, in an attempt to fix their mistakes?

You’d think so. Instead, we were told that it wouldn’t be possible to book another appointment for another six-to-eight weeks, despite the fact that we had an appointment, despite the fact that I stayed at home for a whole day instead of going to the office and getting some real work done, and despite the fact that we had already waited for six weeks for an engineer to come out.

So, what can you learn?

Lesson 1: If you know you won’t make the allocated time slot, call the customer to discuss whether it makes sense to come after or before the promised time slot.

Lesson 2: If you can’t come at all, call the customer, to let them know.

Lesson 3: If you can’t keep a promise, fess up, and find an alternative solution.

Lesson 4: Whatever you do, don’t lie to your customers. That’s just bloody stupid, and if you get caught out, you cause severe reputation damage to your brand.

Lesson 5: If you do screw up, it’s an opportunity to shine at customer service. Actually giving worse service after a screw-up is going to make people shout bloody murder.

Scffld is a blog where Haje Jan Kamps covers the great, the terrible, and a sprinkling of best practices of customer service. There’s a bit more background here.

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