The July 2011 edition of Consumer Reports has a great article entitled, “What’s wrong with customer service?” Consumer Reports conducted a survey to find “the customer-service problems that infuriate people most.” The number one complaint is “Can’t get a human on phone”. One of the pieces of advice in the article was to contact the CEO’s office of the company that is giving you the problem. They say that “They want their problem solved before it reaches them. But when top executives hear from an unhappy customer, they’ll often be sure that person receives a response”.
Of course getting the CEO of any company on the phone is easier said than done. I agree that top executives “want their problems solved before it reaches them”, but that sword cuts both ways. Often employees “protect” their top executives and, of course, protect themselves at the same time by not allowing customers to climb into the ivory tower.
It ‘s unfortunately true that the owners and top executives of businesses often care more about customer satisfaction than many of those who report to them. This is true because owners and top executives’ careers and fortunes are more directly related to their company’s overall success. They are also more likely to see the big picture of how important their company’s brand image, largely dependent on customer satisfaction, is critical to its success. Last but not least executives have far more power to remedy a customer complaint than their subordinates.
The problem is that most owners and executives exist in a “Disney World” created for them by their subordinates in which all of their customers love their company. They rarely, if ever, hear from or even see any of their customers. After all, why take the time when everything is humming along marvelously? What they do see and hear are reports from their subordinates telling them how happy their customers are. They read these reports on their computers and it’s reinforced verbally in management meetings. The only thing they hear from their customers is what their underlings what them to see and hear. This policy is easy to understand. Nobody likes to hear complaints or be shouted at but we all love to hear compliments. The subordinate is well aware that his boss looks at a customer complaint as a failure by that subordinate. What better way to make himself look better for his next evaluation than to allow his boss to hear no complaints from angry customers?
There is only one way that a boss can find out what’s really going on and that’s by communicating directly with his customers…not reading reports or speaking to just those customers his employees allow to pass through their filter. An owner or CEO has to make himself totally accessible to his customers. Every customer must be able to contact him for whatever reason. Now this is too frightening for most top executives to even contemplate. I have to confess that it even frightened me when I first tried it. Needless to say, I was highly advised not to do such a thing by virtually everyone who worked for me. But looking back on that move several years ago, it was the best business decision I ever made. It not only caused my customers’ satisfaction to soar, but it raised my company’s sales and profits to record levels. It has made my car dealership the largest in Palm Beach County, Florida, 7th in the Southeast USA and 31st in America.
It all started with one red phone that I placed in the center of my dealership’s showroom. Next to the red phone (inspired by the Kennedy-Khrushchev red phone of cold war fame), is a sign with my picture on it that says “CUSTOMER HOTLINE to Earl Stewart. The buck stops here. Have we not exceeded your expectations? Then please let me know. Simply pick up the receiver and wait for me to answer.” This worked so well that over the years I added three more red phones. They’re located next to the service cashier, in the service drive, and in the body shop. When anybody picks up the receiver, they are automatically connected to my cell phone, no dialing required. I carry my red cell phone with me seven days a week and turn my phone off only when I go to bed at night. I have a special ring for hotline calls so that I can prioritize answering them. This includes while I’m at a restaurant eating or in the shower (yes I will get out of the shower to answer a hotline call. I’ll even answer my hotline when I’m in my boat fishing.
Probably the most common question I get is “How many calls do you get every day?” I get surprisingly few when you consider the size of my company. I have tens of thousands of customers but I average about only a half dozen calls each day. Many of my hotline calls are “I just wanted to see if you would really answer” and I also get compliments on my hotline. I believe that the reason I get so few calls is that the red phone has become a deterrent to making my customers unhappy or failing to resolve a problem when it occurs. When one of my employees sees a customer walking toward one of the red phones, he will do everything possible to make that customer happy.
I take direct communication with my customers to an even higher level. I give all of my customers my business card with my home and personal cell phone numbers. My wife, Nancy, got very nervous when we first added the home number, but we were both pleasantly surprised how respectful and trusting our customers are. We get very few calls at home, but when we do, we are glad the customer called because it’s usually very important. I also expand direct customer communication to all of my employees. No manager in our company has a secretary or assistant to take his calls…all calls go directly to him. Our telephone receptionist never asks, “May I say who is calling?” or “May I ask the nature of your call?” If that employee is not in, the call is automatically put through to his cell phone. But wait, there’s more! We have a real live person answering our phone after hours, 24/7, and if there’s an emergency, the person in my company that can handle it is contacted…even in the middle of the night. If it’s not an emergency, the message is given to the appropriate employees via email.
I’ve learned more about my business from my customers in the last ten year than I learned in the 40+ years that I’ve been a car dealer. When my customers call me with a complaint they are often apologetic because they are so unused to speaking with the owner of a business. I always say, “Please don’t apologize. I should be thanking you for taking your time to call me. You’re allowing me to correct a process and/or coach an employee in my company to ensure that this same thing doesn’t happen to another one of my customers. The only complaint that I fear is the one that I don’t hear because I’m helpless to correct the process or employee who was