Start-ups don't always have the edge on customer service

Think slick digital start-ups always trounce the analogue old guard when it comes to dealing with customer problems? Not necessarily, says John Sills.

by John Sills
Last Updated: 01 Jun 2016

A new brigade of uber-cool companies are seeping into every area of our life, built for our digitally mobile world, and finding new and better ways to do things we never knew we needed new and better ways for.

But if my experiences as a customer for the past four weeks are anything to go by, there’s still a lot they can learn from the business behemoths who’ve been in our lives since even before billionaires were a thing.

I’m going to tell you a story that involves sixty emails, three companies, two phone calls, and starts with one mis-used credit card…

I’d used Eventbrite, the first company in this tale, to buy my Nudgestock ticket. It turned out that, as well as that ticket, someone had purloined my card details  and used them to fund a small but still fraudulent shopping spree at a Texas jewellery store (one which must aim for a stack-them- high-sell- them-cheap approach based on the fifteen payments of £7 that were made).

Happily I was alerted to the dodgy transactions on my statement and cancelled the card, but I didn’t know about the Eventbrite connection until its explanatory email appeared in my inbox until a couple of weeks later.

Its arrival fired the starting gun on a couple of weeks of multi-channel chasing on my part. (People doubt the value of Twitter, but I remain amazed and impressed that the quickest way to get a reply to your email is to tweet the company and say you haven’t had a reply to your email).

Eventually Eventbrite said they would refund the money, but it wasn’t so easy because, of course, I’d already cancelled the card and the firm didn’t seem to grasp the functional and emotional knock-on effect of this. Thank God for PayPal.

This brings our second company into the story, Social Media strategists Buffer with whom I had a £6 a month subscription paid from my old, now cancelled, card.

I received a nice, polite email from Joel, their CEO, saying that they seemed to have trouble processing my card, and could I be so kind as to check it was still valid. So far, so good – a helpful email with an easy action, so I went online straight away and updated the card details.

Something went wrong in cyberspace however, and the emails from Joel, all saying the same thing, kept coming. More and more, on the hour, every hour, some kind of email groundhog day.

I really wanted out of this automated copy and paste hellhole, and after sending several fruitless emails back to Buffer I gave up and cancelled the subscription. But not before I’d received this email mid-way through the debacle. I’ll leave it to your imagination what two-word phrase sprang to my mind in response to their three-word sign off.

The third and final company in this tale of woe was my bank, the big bad villains of the customer experience world. Except, more often than not, the service is understatedly excellent, and this time was no different.

In fact it was HSBC that noticed something was going on with my card in the first place. When I called them back, they picked up the phone straight away, answered my questions, cancelled my card and got a new one to me before I’d missed it.

They refunded me the money that had been taken, even though it was clearly nothing to do with them, and were insistent I kept it as a gesture of good will to a long-standing customer.

They even called back a few days later, when a big payment went out, just to check it was me that had made it and that there weren’t ongoing problems.

Whilst the eager young start-ups Eventbrite and Buffer were clogging my inbox with enthusiastic but ultimately unhelpful emails and taking weeks to resolve issues, old stager HSBC had sorted my problem within minutes, with a minimum of fuss, and gone beyond the call of duty.

Image credit: Wikimedia

So, what are the tricks these new dogs can learn from their forefathers? Three things spring to mind:

Be proactive – Don’t wait for me to find out there’s been an issue. Let me know as soon as you know, as it might just stop me doing something unnecessary, like cancelling my card...

Keep me informed – Even if you don’t have the answer yet, just let me know youhaven’t forgotten about me.

See the bigger picture – Understand the bigger impact your mistake could have on my world.

And never, ever, tell me I rock when you’ve sent me 24 emails in a day.

John Sills is a Senior Consultant at The Foundation. If you enjoyed this article, you can sign up to his personal blog for more of the same.

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