Sunday, October 5, 2014

Unhappy Customers

Reading time: 12 minutes 18 seconds.

Here is another essay in line with VMM’s pursuit of happiness in the workplace. The proposition here is that happiness in that workplace is dependent in part on good customer service.

As my saddle time increases, I’ve started exploring ways to make long rides safer and more comfortable. This is a natural progression for most riders. Trying to anticipate and prepare for issues that may come up during a ride may be hard work, but the payoffs during the ride are increased safety and higher comfort. I’ve found two ways to prepare—I educate myself on potential issues, and I buy farkles and motorcycle gear.

I depend on vendors for education, products and services. There are countless products and services available for those who are determined to spare no expense in pursuing their love of riding motorcycles. For a product to solve a motorcycle related problem, it must work and the buyer must know how to use it. Some of the products need services, to install, maintain, troubleshoot, and repair.

Most of the time, the products work just fine. If a product does not work or I do not know how use it, I seek help from the manufacturer and/or the seller. If I cannot use a product or use it improperly, my dissatisfaction rises rapidly, and in turn, I create costs for the manufacturer and service provider by asking questions and requesting remedies for problems that either should not exist in the first place, or I should be able to solve in self service mode.

For example, I have a motorcycle GPS. It is waterproof, it does an excellent job of providing directions, it tells me where the nearest gas station is, and it has all kinds of interesting data I need, such as direction of travel and moving average speed. However, I am using a fraction of the capabilities of the GPS. My attempts to create a “trip” or “route” using the software provided with the GPS have been tedious, time consuming, and largely unsuccessful. When I manage to create a trip, I am unable to delete it from the GPS. The GPS manufacturer may scoff at my learning disability, but I am a customer and they do not have a way for people like me to quickly learn how to use the full potential of their GPS. I know the answer is “on the Internet” but my point is, I've spent more time than I feel I should to figure out how to use the GPS. Time that I could be spending doing something more productive, like, ummm… riding!

Over the past few months, my frustration with poor customer service has been mounting—it is now time for me to channel my negative energy into something constructive, like writing this essay to educate others on how to deal with similar frustrations.

I reflected on Robert Pirsig's lament on lack of quality (in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). His frustrations would have been higher if he dwelled on the same issues I did. The picture below captures how I analyze the root cause for poor customer service, and my optimal response to each situation.

The scenarios in green are ideal. If you get competent vendors, hang to them for dear life. They will save you time, cost, and aggravation in the long run. If you have to be flexible in how you work with them (it really should be the vendor who needs to be flexible), it may be a small price to pay. For example, I found a BMW motorcycle mechanic who chose to remain small so he could provide quality service. But a service appointment has to be made six weeks in advance. At the end of the day, unless your livelihood depends on it, getting a motorcycle fixed  is not an emergency that requires immediate attention.

The scenario is yellow is most common. I find incompetent sales people trying to cover up their incompetence by providing incorrect facts or trying to bluster their way out of a tricky question. I recently bought motorcycle boots that use Gore-Tex, and the salesperson assured me they are “guaranteed for life.” I asked to see the guarantee in writing, he was unable to produce it. Even the Gore-Tex web site does not use the phrase “lifetime guarantee.” It does not have a time limit to the warranty either, but I always get nervous when information can be interpreted in more than one way.

The scenario in pink is the most frustrating. You should not have to put up with rudeness and bad behavior. This scenario is rare, it is usually the customer who is irate and abusive. I recently had to deal with sales reps who were clearly new and inexperienced, and were hiding their nervousness under a veneer of gruffness. My approach is to be nice to them, hoping to turn them around. Unfortunately, and predictably, such people move from the pink scenario to the yellow scenario, but never the green scenario.

Notice that I did not mention cost as a factor in poor customer service. You get what you pay for. If you define quality as “fitness for use”, you do not always need to buy the most expensive product or service. In general, price is an indication of quality, but you have to be careful of the exceptions.

So how do I identify poor customer service? Some of the symptoms of poor customer service are listed below:

  • The sales person cannot answer questions about product.
  • The sales person lies or makes exaggerated claims about the product.
  • Sales person has no real life experience in using the product. 
  • Return or exchange policies are unclear.
  • The staff has an arrogant and cocky demeanor.
I’ve found BMW’s marketing efforts at creating a premium image being repeatedly undermined by poor customer service. When I was researching motorcycles to buy, I wandered into a BMW motorcycle showroom, and asked the sales person for a recommendation. He nonchalantly pointed out a model to me, but was not ready to engage. His demeanor was, “You should do your research and come ready to buy, and not waste my time with questions.” I can vouch for BMW's brilliant marketing campaign for the F650GS, it is a logical choice for a first bike, but the sales person did not bother to persuade me. For me the tipping point was when I asked about the different between a chain drive and shaft drive on BMW bikes. From the sales person’s answer, I knew he had no idea what he was talking about. I politely thanked him and left.

Here is a good one. I recently asked a BMW service mechanic for the location of the sticker that certifies the bike to meet emissions control in 50-states. I needed this information to register the bike in my name. None of the staff at the BMW shop could help, they said “I don’t know” and were happy to ignore me, hoping I would just leave. They declined my request to get me a duplicate emissions certificate, even though BMW customer service directions were that a dealer has to put in the request on my behalf. When I refused to leave till my questions were answered, one of the staff started peering all over the bike and finally found the emissions certificate.

How about one more example? I took my good friend’s advice about  buying quality gear, and tried on a pair of BMW motorcycle boots. The quality was outstanding and the price was amazingly affordable. But they did not have my size, and to my utter surprise, the sales person did not offer to special order it for me. She was also unsure whether any of their boots came in a “wide” version and did not offer to research that fact. Her only strategy was to assure me that she had 30,000 miles on her boots and “everyone was happy with the boots.”

I am not suggesting you do not buy BMW motorcycles, that choice is yours to make. I am merely pointing out that their customer service does not always match their premium image. I've actually had better luck with dealers who sell Japanese motorcycles, though I've found enough fodder to complain about there as well. Perhaps it is because they do not boast of a premium image, my expectations are lower.

Before you ask, let me emphasize that I am merely curious to learn why there is poor customer service in a small market, where soon everyone knows everyone. I really, really care about happiness in the workplace, and the sales persons I met were providing me with priceless research material. Besides, I am a customer, and I am always right! Right? I am a profitable customer, because I willingly spend money on products that will meet and exceed my expectations. Therefore, it is not unreasonable for me to expect a certain level of customer service. I am also curious about what it would take to build a world class customer experience.

I consciously resolved to be a good customer and do my part to prepare for a meaningful conversation with the vendors of motorcycle products. I attempted to become an informed and responsible customer as follows:
  • I read up about the product to understand what it can and cannot do. Thus, my questions were focused, relevant, and designed not to waste anyone’s time. Especially my time.
  • I was careful to follow the product instructions and used the product properly, and as intended.
There are larger issues to be aware of, none of which I need to care about, but now we have moved on from complaining about poor customer service to analyzing it.

The problem (or opportunity) is—motorcycle parts and accessories need technical pre-sales support—the rider has to make sure the part will fit his or her bike and will not compromise safe operations. Riders may not buy because they do not understand the benefits and usage of a product, or they may buy the wrong product and get frustrated. If the product is used improperly, it endangers the rider and raises the possibility of bad word of mouth and perhaps, lawsuits.

  • I wonder if the industry has low volumes and/or low margins, requiring an extra emphasis on keeping costs low. This may mean under investing in customer service, hoping the product works as intended. Educating customers who do not ultimately buy is perhaps seen as an avoidable cost by vendors.
  • It is hard to find talent to staff retail stores. This is true for all retail operations, not just motorcycles. 
  • It takes time and money to train and retain sales staff. The Novice-to-Expert model (Dreyfus and Dreyfus) suggests that customer support people will move from being novices to advanced beginners, to proficient to competent to expert. As you may know, it takes 10,000 hours over ten years to become an expert. Is the cost of training and retention beyond the means of most of the small businesses that sell motorcycle products? I wonder how much effort the motorcycle product manufacturers put into sales enablement material when launching and supporting products.
In addition to being an informed customer (described above), here are some tactical approaches I’ve tried:
  • I try to be not in a hurry to buy, I know research and education are vital prior to purchase. I try not wait for a problem or need to show up, I try to anticipate them.
  • I try to be compassionate with the poor salesperson, help him or her by asking the right questions and get them to find answers. I focus on getting my needs met and not on humiliating those who fail to live up to my standards and expectations.
  • I am firm, polite, and respectful with sales persons who hustle and bully. I frame my questions so it is easy for the sales person to answer, and for me to verify if the product will meet my needs. I try not to worry about the sales person’s incompetence, I worry about my understanding of the problem or my needs and my ability to verify whether the product will solve the problem. I treat meeting an incompetent salesperson as par for the course and meeting a competent salesperson as a gift from the Gods.
  • I reward competence by buying from the sales person who does a good job of providing explanations. Well, before that, I don’t go to a retail store till I am ready to invest. I am very sensitive to the difficulties of small businesses, and try not to raise their costs of doing business.
  • I try not to compromise on quality, I know I’ll get what I pay for. Product manufacturers try to make products to fit every budget and they research costs and value. It is hard for them to understand buying behavior, heck, it is hard for me to understand my buying behavior. So I have to make the extra effort to understand the real costs and value of products.
  • I hold manufacturers accountable for the promises they made and the warranties they offer. I am reasonable in my demands, patient and persistent.
These actions may not improve customer service, but I prefer to show initiative in looking after my interests. It is more empowering and productive versus complaining and ranting in online forums. The industry is not big enough for a consumer movement, besides, I don't have the time or energy.

Happiness is a matter of following best practices in customer service. It is more that smiling and being polite. It starts with understanding the customer needs, designing a good product, communicating its value proposition, setting the right expectations, training those who will sell and support the product, honoring the warranty, and being easy to do business with. Very few manufacturers seem to understand and execute a 360 degree strategy to achieve excellence in customer service. Vendors who make it easy for customers to be good customers are rewarded handsomely with loyalty, and high margins.

Employees who can provide good customer service are happier, because they have the training, skills, and resources, and are empowered to do so. They are supported by a well designed product and business processes that anticipates and removes friction when customers interact with the product or the company. As an employee, you should not put up with the poor customer service from your employer, but know that going on a crusade is not necessary. You’ll need leadership skills, and perhaps need to upgrade your approach to find a win-win solution. don’t forget, your employer needs to make money and stay in business, they are not there for charity.