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Ken Magill

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No, We Don't Expect Crap; We Demand Excellence (And Usually Get It)

5/6/14
 
By Ken Magill
 
If you’re funny, you can apparently sell anything.
 
During his keynote speech at Silverpop’s annual Amplify client conference last week, Peter Shankman was his usual funny, engaging self.
 
However, he made one point that was pure crap. According to Shankman, we expect crap for customer service. As a result, he urged the crowd to “treat your customers one level above crap” to create loyal customers.
 
That Shankman would make this point in front of an audience in Atlanta was the height of irony.
 
“Has this guy ever been to a restaurant in this town?” I thought. The Atlanta service industry combines Manhattan-type efficiency with Southern hospitality. It is a marvel to experience.
 
To underscore his point, Shankman held up airlines as an example of the kind of crap customer service we will not only tolerate, but expect.
 
Shankman’s airline analogy doesn’t hold for a number of reasons. For one, we don’t have a choice with airlines. Oh, the logo on the tail may be different, but the product is the same. 
 
When we think of airline customer service, we’re really thinking of airport customer service.
 
Whatever airline you choose, you’re going to access it in a facility operated by a government agency of one sort or another. Shankman might as well have urged the audience to deliver customer service one level above the Department of Motor Vehicles.
 
Moreover, given the regulations and variables—weather, for one—airlines must contend with, their service is pretty damned stellar.
 
I have said for years that knowing what I know as a business reporter about organizational dysfunction, I am truly amazed jetliners don’t crash into each other en masse on a daily basis.
 
The reason we think airline customer service is so bad is because Western customer service in general is so excellent in so many other areas.
 
My father married my Indian stepmother in the early 1970s. Once a year they would fly to visit her relatives in then Madras, now Chennai. He once told me that under India’s nationalized banking system at the time, it would take half a day just to make a deposit or take out cash.
 
“You’d stand in front of a clerk who wouldn’t even look up to acknowledge your presence,” said my father. “Then when he decided you had waited long enough, he would finally look up, stamp your paperwork and send you to the next clerk.”
 
That was the level of customer service expected and tolerated in India at that time, according to my dad. I have no idea what banking in India is like now, and I have no idea what Indian airline customer service was like 40 years ago. 
 
But if Indians in the early 70s who banked and could afford to fly experienced the level of airline customer service we get today, they would have considered it to be spectacular.
 
In the U.S., we wouldn’t tolerate the kind of mistreatment my father described anywhere we have a choice. For example, I moved my primary checking from HSBC to TD Bank a few years ago.
 
With HSBC, every time I needed an issue resolved over the phone, I’d get a call-center rep who was unable to veer off script. I can’t remember a single time I was able to resolve an issue with HSBC without having to go to a branch.
 
I can personally attest that TD Bank truly lives its “Bank Human Again” ad campaign.
 
It’s safe to say the vast majority of the Silverpop clients Shankman addressed in Atlanta last week don’t compete with an airline. More likely, they compete with—or are—their vertical’s version of a TD Bank, or an Amazon.com or a Zappos.
 
And if they came away thinking all they have to do to thrive is deliver customer service one level above a possible cavity search, they’re screwed.
 
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