Thoughts on Finding Good Customer Service

Whenever I mention a company on The Simple Dollar – Apple, Dell, Nintendo, Williams-Sonoma, etc. etc. – I usually receive an email or two from a reader telling me how absolutely horrible the company in question is. They tell a long story about how their customer service from that company was nightmarish and that they tell everyone they know how awful the company is.

Here’s an example, from “Monica,” relaying a bad experience with Apple’s customer service:

In December, my iPod started acting really weird. Since it was still under warranty, I called Apple and got the runaround. I had to call their customer service line three times and ended up yelling at a supervisor. Finally they gave me an address to send it to and it took them a month or two to send it back.

Here’s the thing, though. If a large company deals with a million customer service issues in a given year, some small percentage of them will turn out badly. Simple human miscommunication, an overly demanding customer, unreasonable expectations from both sides, a customer service rep on a bad day – all of these can turn a routine customer service situation into a nightmarish one.

As a result, any sufficiently large company will have bad customer service stories floating around out there. Many of them are likely true and, if you believe that to be the norm of a customer service department, you’d likely be scared to ever use that company.

But it’s not the norm – far from it, actually. To put it simply, I ignore most horror stories about customer service when evaluating a company.

So how can you know if a company has decent customer service or not? I usually look at three things.

First, I look for stories of exceptional service. A company that goes the extra mile to stand out from the crowd enough that people will publicly talk about their service usually has very strong customer service. For some reason, as I write this, Land’s End comes to mind.

Second, I look at customer service awards. Such awards are typically done as a result of examining typical user experiences with customer service, often through extensive surveying that averages out the rare awful experiences.

Finally, I look at the company’s policies. If I can’t quickly figure out how to return a product, how to handle obvious customer service issues, or how to contact the company and get a live person quickly to address my questions, that’s a bad sign. The easier a company makes it to interact with them, the better, and one can usually tell this with a short trip to a company’s web site.

To me, there is significant value in good customer service. I will pay more for a product backed up with a solid customer service reputation than one that’s backed up with a poor customer service reputation.

One final note – local always trumps international. In other words, I’m willing to spend 20% more to buy a homebrew computer from a local store than one from Dell, for example. Why? The local store has stellar service – I can just go drop off a piece of equipment there any time I want and they’ll repair it quite inexpensively. They also dispense advice and information whenever I need it. The same goes for many products that can benefit greatly from good customer service, like a game store that offers free game nights or bookstores that facilitate book clubs and the like.

When we, as a customer, immediately boil a transaction down to the minimal dollar, we usually lose in the long run. The company that shaves a few dollars off the price at the expense of good service will end up leaving you high and dry when the product fails.

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