KELLNER: A tech company need — Meaningful customer service

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The Sept. 28, 2012, passing of former Johnson & Johnson Chairman and CEO James E. Burke may seem to have little to do with consumer technology some 30 years after the Tylenol crisis for which he is best known, but I think there’s a lesson for today’s tech titans in Mr. Burke’s experience.

The obituaries for Mr. Burke – and doubtless several business school textbooks – record the details: in 1982, seven people around Chicago died after taking Extra Strength Tylenol capsules laced with cyanide. Four years later, another such capsule was linked to a death in Yonkers, N.Y.

Mr. Burke didn’t duck or spin; the firm recalled the product, apologized, and said it wouldn’t market capsules unless it could come up with tamper-evident packaging, which eventually was developed.

Contrast that example of forthright leadership – here shown as acceptance of responsibility at the highest level – with what consumers encounter with tech-based firms.

For example, try to call the customer support department at Facebook. For that matter, try to call Facebook at all. To do so requires a phone number, something conveniently omitted from the “Facebook Menlo Park” page on the Facebook site that discusses the firm’s California headquarters, or any other Facebook corporate “about” page I’ve viewed on the website.

In a little more than five years as a Facebook user, I’ve seen plenty of complaints about how difficult it is to reach a real person at the firm. (For those who are determined, however, a check of the firm’s filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission reveals a main telephone number: 650/308-7300.)

Google, at least, lists phone numbers for its corporate (and branch) offices on a page at its corporate website. And while I don’t expect Google CEO Larry Page to respond to a tech question I might have, it’s nice that Google’s users/customers have a relatively easy way to reach out when there’s a problem.

While it’s true that nine times out of 10 – perhaps 99 times out of 100 – an Internet search and a little ingenuity can help a user solve a tech hassle, there are those instances when you need to speak to someone in a position to help you. The best businesses “get” this. Sadly, too many do not.

Some of the most challenging, it seems, are in “monopoly” areas of life: cable TV and/or telephone providers. A recent problem with my home telephone service, provided as part of Verizon’s FiOS package, illustrates this.

One weekend afternoon, I reported a problem and was told a technician would come by between 4 and 7 p.m. the following Monday. I sat, waiting, and called Verizon about 20 minutes after the deadline. More than 30 minutes of phone time later, and after another 45 minutes of waiting for a callback, I learned what had happened: The technician who was supposed to have visited had had a family emergency and couldn’t make it. No one seemed to think it useful to let the customer know.

The same thing repeated itself the next day: An appointment was scheduled for late afternoon, the technician couldn’t fulfill the commitment, and someone else called offering a time that was inconvenient. I asked to have the supervisor call me to clear things up. That didn’t happen; I had to call Verizon instead. That meant another 33 minutes on the phone, ending up with a supervisor named “Mark” who said my only option was an “all day availability” appointment the following day. Despite repeated and respectful questioning, “Mark” doggedly refused to say whether or not this trail of missed appointments and non-answer answers would be considered reasonable customer service.

It wasn’t until more than four hours later, after a call to Verizon’s corporate headquarters, an unannounced (and thus missed) repair visit, and another half-hour on the phone, that, finally, another supervisor, “Chris,” had the guts to admit that, no, he would not wish to be treated in this manner were he a non-employee Verizon customer.

(With luck, they’ll get this fixed on Friday; like most working people, I can’t constantly jump away from my job to await a repairman.)

Without going into a long analysis of shifts in the telecom market since the old Bell System’s heyday, there’s little doubt in this observer’s mind that something may be amiss in Verizon-land. A good chunk of this is because of financial pressures: The “wireline” phone business isn’t what it used to be, and with declining revenues and profits comes less money to fuel an infrastructure.

All the same, accessibility, honest answers and a commitment to one’s customers shouldn’t be passe, even if money is tight. If something’s wrong, admit it, fix it and learn from it. Mr. Burke of Johnson & Johnson knew that, and today’s tech-world CEOs would do well to follow his commendable example.

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