I recently had an experience involving very poor customer satisfaction. This isn’t at all surprising — less-than-brilliant customer service is increasingly the norm, as good customer service can be rather expensive to deliver with no direct economically measurable benefit — but the nature of the particular interaction got me thinking about the nature of customer satisfaction.
The industry, organisation, and individuals involved aren’t, for the purposes of this story, relevant; the fact that I’m personally familiar with many of the parties, much more so, but only to the extent that it allowed me the ability to take a step back and think through what the problem was.
The story in general goes like this: back in June, I contacted the organisation involved in this story and pre-paid for a particular, easy to deliver service. Roll around a few weeks, and — while I’d complied with everything that was required from me for the delivery of that service — there was still no sign of the service being delivered or commenced. So in late July I contacted the organisation to find out what was going on, and was told that yes, my service would be handled by one individual, who would be working on the service next week, and that I could expect to hear from that individual in that week should there be a need for clarification.
Roll forward to this week, already a week or so late from the last updated timeframe.
I receive an email out of the blue, as the first communication from the individual assigned to my service, stating up front that the individual had spoken with their manager, and that there would be a need to charge a further two fees – a total of about double the original fee, meaning triple the total cost for service due to a change in scope – and that they had a half-dozen or so questions in order to continue delivering the service that I’d pre-paid for. The whole email ran to about a page and a half, and consisted both of questions that were reasonable in the context of the service (and that should incur no additional costs), questions that were arguably reasonable in the context of the perceived change in scope (ignoring for a moment the implied acceptance of the change in scope this requires), and questions that could have been avoided with the benefit of a little up-front research by a specialist in the field. Nowhere in the email did it really explain why the additional two fees were necessary or what paying them would achieve.
Suffice to say, my reaction was not pleasant: a tripling in price for a pre-paid service, with the relevant clarification questions being asked after the indication of an increased charge, and in a sense also implying that not only was the work being started later than had originally been suggested, but that the individual doing the work had not familiarised himself with the circumstances surrounding the service, was how I interpreted the communication. No phone call to discuss before or after; the email was sent after close of business; and less than complete clarity as to the reason for the substantial change in costs.
The net effect of all of this was a degradation in my trust level. Can I trust this organisation to provide this service — or should I now invest time and effort in greater scrutiny, something that paying for the service is supposed to avoid? Can I be sure that, should I choose to pre-pay for this kind of service again in the future, that there won’t subsequently be unpleasant, costly surprises after the fact? Given the nature of the queries, will I now have to invest my own time and effort in reviewing the work done to ensure it’s of a suitable standard, defeating in part the purpose of paying for an expert’s service?
The resulting discussion is still underway. Time will tell whether it’ll be resolved to a mutually satisfactory outcome. I suspect there may be grounds for one of the two fees, although perhaps not to the level of doubling service costs; I’m not at all convinced at this point that the other fee is justified.
I can think of many ways that this particular set of issues could have been avoided. First, proactive communication would have assisted in lowering my initial levels of concern. A quick phone call by the individual responsible for the service, upon picking up the task, acting as introduction and reassuring me that they were going to start work on my service, would have provided a basis of personal interaction (to both parties’ benefit, I suspect); subsequently, a phone call to clarify the questions — followed up with an email clarifying the answers if necessary — would have then allowed a clear determination of what, if any, additional scope was justified. If a change in scope is justified, then a further detailed dialogue would be warranted, in order to flesh out the what and why.
As it is, as a result of my lack of trust as to the service being correctly delivered, I’m now far more likely to scrutinise the work being done — both during and immediately after its delivery — driving up the organisation’s (and my own) costs. I’m more likely to be a high-friction customer, particularly when the matter of scope change comes into play, than if I were comfortably of the belief that all was going well. The individual involved is more likely to be micro-managed by their manager, which in turn further drives up the costs of delivering the service. I’m going to think twice about pre-paying for the service in the future, and if I do, I’m going to expect reassurance that I won’t get any surprises. And all of us end up with a less than happy view of the eventual outcome, even if the eventual outcome is in fact exactly what was paid for. And these kinds of breakdowns tend to take longer to recover from than they take to create, leading to long term negative impressions and outcomes, and more than equivalent effort in order to recover.
It’s lose-lose all round.
And to think: with better communication, I may well even have agreed to the scope change, without too much argument. Perception management: manage how a customer perceives something, and they can agree to many things, as long as that customer is willing and able to also trust the specialist’s judgment.
The upshot is that trust is the currency of customer satisfaction, and effective communication is the carrier for that trust. Yet people in specialist customer-facing roles are more often than not hired for their specialist abilities first and foremost, with communication skills a distant afterthought.