Forget customer service; invest in customer education

As much as we'd like to talk about good customer service, much, if not all, of it hinges on customer education. That's why PR absolutely needs to be intertwined with customer service.

This week, I became a victim of identity theft. My credit card information was stolen after I made an online purchase and then used to buy thousands of dollars worth of merchandise from two separate websites.

The most frustrating things about the entire situation, aside from having to spend two hours on my day off at my local police precinct to file a report (the upside was that I got a tour of the squad room—including the interrogation room once I told the detective I was reporter. News flash: it's nothing like TV cop shows, aside from the coffee and Chinese food containers) was the response of the companies involved—from my bank to the merchants that had been duped into letting a crook use my info.

When my bank called me to question why I had charged $3,000 at 2:30am (thanks to them for that!) and I told them it was not me, they did immediately waive the charges and issued me a new card number. However, when I asked what the next steps would be as far as finding the people who had done this the reply was, “Oh, we don't do anything to find that out. You'll have to file a police report.” I found out later from the detective handling my case that all of these companies—the banks, the merchants—just include costs associated with covering fraudulent purchases in their operational costs each year.

In even more frustrating news, when I called the electronics retailer to find out where the “perp” (yes, I do also watch Law and Order SVU  in addition to Mad Men ) had shipped the product, the customer service rep told me that she could not tell me that because the information was private. I asked to be transferred because I wasn't satisfied with that answer and the “expert” in the fraud department told me the same thing.

“But how is that information private when it's my card that someone used?”

 “It's just our policy,” she replied.

“But it was your system that allowed someone who was not me to purchase something with my credit card,” I argued.” So, how can I not be entitled to that information?” She had no answer.

Would it matter, I offered, if the police requested it? “Not really,” she replied. “It's against our policy to give that information, so the police would have to subpoena our legal department.” Every question I asked was met by the “that is our policy” retort.

Now, this is a company that has an excellent reputation for customer service. It is very active on Twitter and even reaches out directly to answer customer questions. My issue is not with the policy of the company, though it is absolutely ridiculous. Rather, it is with the fact that many of the customer service reps I deal with these days—it is not limited to this company—have a pat “It is our policy” answer whenever you challenge something. I do not need to know what your policy is; I need for you to explain why that is your policy. Now, if the person handling the call has no idea why that's your policy (another thing I've been told) then we have a problem.

As much as we'd like to talk about good customer service, much, if not all, of it hinges on customer education. That's why PR absolutely needs to be intertwined with customer service. It's the case at some companies such as Comcast, Best Buy, and Southwest Airlines, but it needs to be the norm. That's the only way to ensure that employees are properly educated and ready to answer all questions that consumers have. And that's also the way to prevent angry customer like myself. I was kind enough to not mention the name of the company here because after a call to its head of PR, I was treated like gold by the customer service department and consequently its legal department is fully cooperating with the police. But I am an exception in that I have connections that many do not—and those people who are given answers they don't like will go to Twitter or Facebook to voice their displeasure. Isn't a bit of investment in aligning communications and customer service worth it if it avoids a social media headache? It sounds like a no-brainer to me.

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