Every year at this time, I use this space to remind consumers to be on their toes.
The advice is always similar — read your contracts, check your bills, fight for your consumer rights, yadda yadda yadda.
I could do it again, but I'm pretty sure we've got these things covered by now.
So this year, I'm turning the tables and giving some advice to businesses and the people who work for them.
I'm talking to you, Mr. or Ms. CEO, small-business owner or customer service agent.
Raise your right hand and repeat after me:
I resolve to be nice. It sounds simple enough, but it's amazing how often the basic concepts of civility, sympathy and empathy prove difficult. I've literally received thousands of emails and letters over the years from consumers who felt as though their complaints to businesses, agencies and organizations fell on deaf ears, or that their circumstances were ignored. Train your employees to put the customer first, and good will shall follow. Think of how much money you can save by resolving issues on the first call, rather than gumming up everyone's time by requiring people to call repeatedly. It's a win-win!
I resolve to give my customer service representatives more flexibility. Nothing frustrates a consumer more than calling a company with a legitimate complaint, only to find the call taker has no ability to help. Empower your representatives to fix problems, and teach them to err on the side of compassion. What a concept.
I resolve not to outsource my customer call centers overseas. Nothing against the folks in India or the Philippines, but trust me on this one, consumers would much rather talk to someone in Chicago. Or California. Or even Missouri. It might cost you a little more, Mr. or Ms. Corporate Bigwig. Perhaps you'll get a slightly smaller bonus. But, hey, do you really need another yacht? Keep the jobs at home, bring unemployment down and market the heck out of your new Americans-first strategy. It might even attract you more customers.
I resolve to streamline the process. You listening, mortgage lenders? It's amazing how many emails the Problem Solver receives from homeowners who have followed the rules but run into a series of brick walls trying to obtain a loan modification or get approval for a short sale. A consumer should only have to fax information once. Keep track of the documents, train your employees and make things less cumbersome. Please. It's tough out there for a lot of families. You wouldn't believe the tearful calls I've received from stressed-out homeowners. It pains me to hear them. It should pain you too.
I resolve to call back. This is mostly for customer service agents. If you tell a consumer he or she will receive a call back in the next 24 hours, make sure someone actually, physically picks up a phone and calls back. It's a simple concept really, but one that a large number of companies don't seem to get. Basically, if you make a promise, keep it.
I resolve to be more accessible. That means providing multiple ways for consumers to get in touch with you. Providing online chats is great, but not everyone has Internet access. Make it easy for customers to get in touch, including by phone or through the mail. Don't run and hide. It will only make the customers go away.
Speaking of which, I resolve to get rid of automated phone systems. This should be self-explanatory. But if not, why don't you trying calling your own 800 number? If it takes you 10 minutes and a dozen key punches to get to a human being, perhaps you'll understand the problem.
Finally, I resolve to think of every customer as a family member. I recently took a tour of a customer service call center and was struck by the same concept in reverse. All of the call takers were incredibly nice, earnest and, well, human. As a customer service rep once told me, "We're your mother, your sister, your family. We do care." And they do have feelings. As I drove home, I vowed to be a little nicer the next time I called in with a complaint about my cable television going out or my phone line going dead. But it works both ways. If companies remember that their customers are more than just numbers — more than just people who fork over money — perhaps we'd all be better served.
Happy New Year, everyone.