The Case for Consistent Customer Service

I recently had an experience with the customer relations department of a restaurant chain. Out of professional courtesy, and the lack of relevance to this article, I’m not going to mention the name of the establishment. I will however, state some of the characteristics in order to show what I consider to be a silly shortcoming in their customer service.

This particular restaurant is one in which I almost always get a good meal. I have probably ate at one of their establishments 250 times in the past 10 years. I cannot recall more than one or two issues with my food. Four or five times, the service may have been less than desired, but overall the service is what I’d consider to be much better than most. Any time I have had any issue at all, the restaurant manager would make it right. I always walked away satisfied.

While this doesn’t seem to be relevant to the typical technical nature of this blog, the topic of customer service is important to all of us. Whether working at a help desk, for a VAR (value added reseller), or in consulting, we all have customers that need to feel like they’re cared about. Depending on the role played, customers could even be the coworkers that supported by you or those under your leadership. In any case, it is important that they feel like YOU care about THEIR problem. This requires an important skill called empathy.

My previous employment was in the realm of technical consulting. With this employer, one concept was clear. That concept was that it was a whole lot easier to keep your current customers happy than it was to find new ones. Even if your customers are your coworkers, this remains a true statement. In that case, finding new customers probably means finding another place of employment.

Jumping back to the specifics of my experience, we need to rewind to the beginning of summer. On my way home from family vacation, I stopped at a gas station and bought some gift cards for those who had taken care of my house and dog while I was away. Since I enjoy eating at this particular restaurant, I chose their gift cards. A few weeks later, I found out that the gift cards were not activated properly. At that point, I called the gift card department of this restaurant chain.

I knew this would be a battle from very early on. Although the two cards only totaled $50, I wanted this taken care of. One challenge was the fact that I had bought the cards from a third party establishment. Another challenge was the fact that I only had one of the activation receipts (I hoped they could look for the transaction prior to and following the one I had the receipt for). The final thing was the fact that the thermal paper from the receipt was faded to the point it could not be copied. I did make out the terminal and reference number as well as the words “Format Error” in the status.

Challenges That I Needed to Deal With

  • Cards were Purchased at a Third Party Establishment
  • A Credit Card was not used to purchase the cards
  • The Third Party Establishment was 500 Miles Away
  • I only had one activation receipt
  • The activation receipt was 97% faded

With that being said, I had always been satisfied by this establishment. I figured they could find the one transaction, look at the prior and subsequent transactions, and activate the card. At the end of the day we were looking at a $50 value and management readily resolves any issues that arise in the restaurant establishments. I figured as soon as they believed me, they would activate the cards. After all, we all know that gift cards are a lucrative part of these businesses and they’d want to protect the reputation. Additionally, I [mistakenly] expected that the customer service was ubiquitous and flowed from the top down.

My assumptions were wrong. At this point, I have been waiting over three weeks for their “guest relations” and “gift card” areas to investigate whether I purchased the cards. I have contacted them five or six times. While they are always cordial, they don’t seem to ever be able to tell me anything. There is never any follow up and the contact is always initiated by me. At this point, they tell me they are still “investigating” and we’ll have to wait until they hear back from a third party.

So how could this have been better handled?

  • Set realistic expectations
  • Call or email with status updates and expected resolution time
  • Provide updates when something prolongs the process
  • Treat the Customer Like a Customer

Had this been an issue with a meal, the management would have fixed it with an immediate credit. However, it seems like there is not a ubiquitous culture of customer service in this particular organization. Specifically in this case, something seems broken at the top.

In our technology related jobs and engagements, it is easy to get lost in the chaos and minutia. However, we have to realize that the problem that we are supposed to be working on for a user is at the forefront of their mind. Keeping the user or users happy is the same as it SHOULD be for the restaurant chain. When something isn’t immediately resolvable, keeping the customer happy is mostly about communication.

Points for Effectively Handling Issues

  • Set Expectations
  • Provide Updates
  • Notify when something prolongs the process
  • Treat the user like a customer (they should feel like you own their problem)

As for my restaurant experience, I seriously doubt they’ll ever work it out and activate the gift cards. I still enjoy eating there and actually done so twice last week. However if this doesn’t get resolved, I’ll probably never buy any more of their gift cards (directly or otherwise). In any case, I will be much more cognizant of the status on the activation receipts.

For myself and the readers of this article, I think we should continually strive to make sure those that we’re in contact with feel like their problems are important. If there are challenges to solving those problems, it is better to be up front than for the user to believe their problem isn’t being solved because it is unimportant. Continual clear and constant communications is very important.

PacketU would love to here about challenges you have faced with customer support. How have you dealt with a difficult customer? Have you ever been that difficult customer? What shortcomings do you often recognize from a customer perspective?


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About Paul Stewart, CCIE 26009 (Security)

Paul is a Network and Security Engineer, Trainer and Blogger who enjoys understanding how things really work. With over 15 years of experience in the technology industry, Paul has helped many organizations build, maintain and secure their networks and systems.
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