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The Dark Side of Extreme Customer Service

Sometimes I think the common wisdom on customer service is too common and not all that wise. We oversimplify and we leave the dark side out of the story. Extreme customer service isn’t always good for a business. There’s a dark side to it.

You’ve probably heard this story; I certainly have. It comes up a lot in customer service lore. Some swanky department store’s customer service is so good that they even take back clothes that weren’t purchased there. No receipt required. Even if the store never carried that line.

It may or may not be true. That’s not the point. It might as well be true because it’s customer service bible now, chapter and verse. I read some great stories along these lines in the Heath Brothers’ Made to Stick book (which I reviewed and recommended here, by the way). And I noticed another well-written post by Seth Godin as Win the fight, lose the customer last week too. That’s what brings this to mind. Seth wrote:

Given the choice between acknowledging that your customer is upset or proving to her that she is wrong, which will you choose? You can be right or you can have empathy. You can’t do both.

However, I say it’s not nearly that simple. Extreme customer service has its dark side. Let’s go back to the fable of the swanky department store and look at two problems:

1. It Burns Out Good Employees

Nobody tells the real story of the guy with the jacket in the swanky department store. Just for sake of illustration, assume he’s rude and mean and insulting. He’s berating the poor salesperson and annoying the other customers. He’s talking about the stupid store and the stupid jacket maker and so on (probably using a word stronger than stupid).

The salesperson, meanwhile, notes that the brand is one the store has never carried. She’s dying to say, loud enough for the sympathetic customers around to hear her, “I’m sorry sir, but I know you didn’t buy this jacket here because this store has never carried that brand.” And, after saying that, to send him on his way. “Now please let me attend to customers waiting for my help.” The other customers want that too.

However, because of the lore of extreme customer service, she has to swallow hard, apologize, and process a return. This is bad for her morale, bad for her health, bad for her spirit, and didn’t do much for the store either.

We forget that good employees in good companies come to care about the company and its policies and they don’t like rude people complaining unfairly. When the policy is to swallow hard and comply with any outrageous request, those employees resent it.

And don’t they matter too?

2. Not Everybody is a Customer

Here’s the other thing that bugs me about that story: that mean guy with the jacket isn’t a customer. He didn’t buy it at that store. And after he gets his ego rush with the screaming customer game, is he going to become a customer? No, probably not.

Somewhere in the oversimplified lore of extreme customer service we forget that there is a market segment focus in the extreme customer service. It depends on good customers. It doesn’t work when you take bad customers, who won’t ever be good customers (is the jacket guy going to be shopping at Swanky Department Store in the future? No, lets just say he isn’t. So the extreme customer service annoys customers, stresses employees, and does no long-term good.

Don’t you think that as humans we have a built-in instinct that wants fairness? That resents unfair demands and having to give into them? I do.

Do you think this kind of extreme customer service trains people to be mean, by giving mean people what they ask for, unfair or not? Should we worry that reasonable people pay more and get less than mean people do, because of our business lore of extreme customer service? I’m just asking.


  • Charles Robinson says:

    I’ve been on all sides of this. As a customer I have had vendors I never used previously pull through with heroic efforts that really saved me from some catastrophic failures. I rewarded them by continuing to go to them and telling my incredible story to everyone who would listen. I have also been the loyal customer who wanted what I considered a small thing and the vendor was unreasonable. The rules were the rules, end of discussion, so I chose a different place to do business.

    As a retail employee I have been bullied, harassed and degraded by people. I worked very briefly at a store where anyone could return anything to us for a cash refund. I quit after refusing to process a return for an obviously used toilet bowl brush and the socks someone was wearing.

    I also worked at a department store part where the store manager allowed her personal friends to ignore the return policies. Woe be unto anyone who didn’t know who these privileged people were and questioned their attempts to get cash back for items we never carried. That was schizophrenic and stressful.

  • Sad Stories Are Bad Business says:

    […] wife said my extreme customer service post here Monday encourages anti-customer stories. She has a good […]

  • Marge Laney says:

    A customer, any customer, is a terrible thing to waste. I would say that any service provider who goes to heroic lengths to calm an irate customer or go the extra mile in unusual circumstances is just doing what they are, hopefully, trained and paid to do. I am not suggesting that they should take abuse, but the service provider should do what they can to mediate and calm a disgruntled customer.

    In many cases, customer service today has been reduced to a rule book with providers applying few reasoning skills when executing. Many service encounters leave customer’s feeling frustrated and disrespected and obviously in the case of the urban legend, confused. The position of the retail customer service associate should be viewed by both retailers and those who choose to practice it as a profession and not just a discount, or a job one takes while looking for something better to do. Service delivered by a well selected, well trained professional is a beautiful thing to experience and behold. It’s just too bad it happens so infrequently as to become a myth.

  • Strategic Growth Advisors says:

    Thanks, Tim, for the insightful post as always.

    In my own point of view, you can play extreme customer service in two ways: one is letting your store get bullied — no questions asked — by irate customers, or number two, intensify the communication lines in your store to resolve issues immediately.

  • Larry Sheldon says:

    Great America (and amusment park) is said to have used high-school student seasonals in their “guest services” operation.

    Their instructions (as I understand it–I never worked there) were to make the guest (they forbade the term “customer”) happy, and to try do do so with something that induce the guest to return so they could redeem themselves with the guest. (That translates to “avoid cash refunds if you can.”)

    So they could off coupons, and so on worth more than the cash refund would have cost.

    And the kids were assured that no matter what, no one would ever find fault with what they had done.

    So the kids knew that they were going to be dealing with unhappy people and what that meant.

    The closest to a reprimand, so the stories go, was that a manager might take a kd off-line to decompress, and there might be some mention of “Did you consider….a less expensive alternative…??

    If the kid said “yes, I did” the conversation ended.

  • Dawson says:

    100% satisfaction gauranteed works 99% of the time. The other one percent should be picked up by the corporation. It’s easy to give to a guest who just had a cold shower, rude waiter, or just a lousy experience the satisfaction of a material apology. We’ve been taking care of those folks for over 30 years. It’s the one percent that you need to give them their due and get them the hell out of your hair. Not fair to anyone at the property, but easier to swallow if you knew Mother was picking up the bill for the one percent and not just collecting the franchise fees. A slippery slope these days not to take care of the disgruntled guest, as the social networking and travel sites will kill you with comments with few taking into account the source.

  • Erika Leaf says:

    It’s like parenting. When all is said and done, we don’t actually do our kids (or in this case our community of employees and clients) any favors by letting irrational, upset people have it their own way and get what they say they want even when it’s unreasonable. Boundaries are healthy and appropriate, and can be delivered with polite firmness. But this takes practice. As in training and role playing. To stay polite but firm in the face of an irate person is quite challenging. Sticking with one’s integrity will strengthen employees and ultimately strengthen the brand whereas being told to give in to tantrums leads to staff demoralization and brand dilution.

  • Rob says:

    I was once at a Target in Idaho Falls where I witnessed an employee with no resistance accept returns from a woman (obviously substance-addicted) including a half package of toilet paper, shredded magazine, and used toothbrush. A sad, sad sight indeed, with no benefit to Target or its good customers.

  • Thomas Lee says:

    I hear your reasoning, and yet am unconvinced. May I?

    I have been that customer in the swanky department store. Not once, not twice, but three times that swanky store has come to my rescue. It sent me a tailored suit by overnight mail for my mother’s funeral. It stayed open an hour late to reclothe me after the airline lost my luggage the night before a big sales pitch. And it insisted on taking back the loafers I deliberately bought a half-size too small six months earlier.

    Today, what used to be the swanky department store in my hometown is like a ghost village, and swanky store is still bustling through a recession. Ask me if I shop anywhere else. Ask me how many other people I have evangelized into loyal shoppers at swanky store.

    Dark side to customer service? I have yet to see it.

    • Tim Berry says:

      Thanks Thomas, you make a good point, welcome addition. But you’re not arguing against what I said. You and customers like you are the reason customer service was invented, and works. Employees love doing you favors, because you appreciate and give back. You take the issue straight to the “who’s a customer” question. In your case, you are, and you are going to be. There’s no dark side there. Tim.

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