Earlier this year we sold our home. We met with our lawyer to sign papers as part of the sale process. At the time of signing he asked us if we had a void cheque we could leave with him in order to coordinate transferring funds once the dust settled. We provided him with one which, unfortunately, was from a bank the lawyer wasn’t able to directly transfer funds. Being a resilient sort of problem solver he offered he would be able to arrange to wire funds to our bank, but this would incur a $150 additional charge as well as possible charges from our bank. No thanks, was our response. We didn’t want to pay an additional $150 for the privilege of receiving funds we were already paying him separate legal fees to coordinate collecting. We settled on them preparing a cheque for us.
The next day we happily picked up our cheque only to encounter our next problem. How to deposit it? Our bank doesn’t have branches in every nook and cranny. We tried to use our tech savvy and deposit the cheque electronically through our bank’s phone app. No luck. The amount is over a limit. I contacted our banker in Calgary in order to request that she raise that limit as a one off customer service concession. She couldn’t do that I was told. She, in the same form as our intrepid lawyer was able to offer an alternate suggestion. Their bank was part of a “Exchange” network that allows deposits at bank machines. There is a credit union near where we live that is part of this exchange. We could deposit the cheque to our Calgary bank there. Good news. Off my wife went to deposit the cheque. It’s true you can learn something new every day. The cheque made it into the automated teller machine and we thought things were good. In the conversation with our banker, she pointed out that, yes, we could deposit the cheque through the other institution’s machine, but there would be a hold on it. I asked if she could make a concession here as the funds related to the sale of real estate in which she had been involved. As part of the transaction, funds were used to clear a mortgage balance with her institution. They would have been part of the back and forth with the lawyer’s office and knew exactly what was going on including what settlement funds were due us personally as a result of the sale. No, she couldn’t help us here either. Not even with a partial release of a hold. Nothing. Good news, funds deposited, bad news, can’t access them. At least she gave us a date when they would be available and we weren’t pressed with any other obligations so it wasn’t impacting our ability to do things, it was just more of a nuisance to manage.
A few days after we had been told the hold had been lifted, the funds were burning a hole in our pockets. We couldn’t hold ourselves back any longer. I logged into an investment account (held with the same financial institution as our bank though requiring a different log in) and sought to transfer a little bit of money from our chequing account into an RSP account. This app said things went fine. I then logged out and back into our bank accounts. I then sought to transfer some funds from our chequing account to a separate savings account. Denied. Insufficient funds or funds on hold my screen told me. Hmmm. Insufficient funds? From what I could see the bank balance presented was close to eight times what I was trying to transfer. Moreover, the number presented made no distinction between account balances and available funds. I wasn’t trying to take the funds anywhere away from the bank. I simply attempted to move some from one account to the other.
Back to contacting our banker. This too posed challenges. In person visit? Ha, ha, not happening. Phone call? Welcome to voicemail jail. Email? Yes, we have her address and that’s where the inquiries went. Yes, replies came. Yes, they were reasonably timely. However, inconsistently, the messages received from our banker would show up as encrypted. This imposes a burden on the receiver to create a username and password to a new system, log on to the new system, and retrieve the message contents from here. The chain of communication in one’s own inbox is blown up and the time and burden to retrieve the message is complex. I relayed in an email what had happened and reminded her as politely as I could that these efforts had been attempted several business days after when she had communicated to us that the hold would be lifted. She was able to quickly find that the hold had conveniently been extended. For what reason we wondered. None was given. Well can you lift it now, we asked? She would make the request and follow up later that day. She then mentioned that if other transactions had or would transpire during the hold that would take our account into overdraft as a result of the funds deposited not being available, fees may apply. There weren’t any of these transactions, but we scratched our head as this made no sense to us. How could we be responsible for transactions slipping sideways where they occurred with full funds available with access limited by the bank’s decision to institute and extend a hold against what was communicated to us? She kindly noted that they would waive any fees once we identified them. She thought she was doing us a favor. Why is it our responsibility to take more time to fix their mess? Sigh…
We were beginning to think that late rapper The Notorious B.I.G. had things figured out with his hit song titled “Mo Money, Mo Problems.” My goal is not to bore you with banking stories. I imagine there are plenty of other even more pesky problems many of you have experienced at the hands of those trying to “help” offer customer service. Sadly, customer service has become for many businesses an oxymoron. Besides offering endless material for budding stand up comedians, these experiences aren’t much fun to endure. Even more depressing is that our experience isn’t anything special or rare. It’s the norm for so many of our interactions. The bigger the business, the bigger the bureaucracy. The layers of policies and procedures developed suck the soul out of staff such that all they see in front of them is their workflow manual and not other humans. Empathy evaporates faster than liquid nitrogen when exposed to room temperature.
What starts as well intended companies trying to refine process and develop sound training procedures morphs into madness. The incessant internal focus on how we do things around here blinds the business to those around them. Processes have been added to while never subtracted from. Simple work has become complex. We struggled to make sense of the common sense nonsense experienced. How could any of this from either the lawyer or our bank be in our interest? How is any of this customer friendly? How do any of these burdens put the customer first? What’s being thought of outside of protecting the interests and preserving the processes of the businesses and their employees? It’s customer last and business first at each step of the way. It’s a game that for customers has become not much fun to play.
There are two takeaways worth considering from the expansion of experiences empty of empathy. First, should you be a customer of larger organizations, know this: NOCLYS. No One Cares Like You Should. Too often, we pass off responsibility for our own affairs with hopes that others will act with our best interests at heart. Unfortunately, others either don’t know or don’t care about our interests. They are running their business for their benefit, not for yours. They are developing their systems to satisfy their needs, not to support yours. This is true with respect to finances, nutrition, fitness, health, and much more. The extra warranty and undercoating package the car dealer is trying to sell to you isn’t because they desperately care about protecting your interests, it’s for the dealer’s (and their employee’s) benefits. When we’re the customer, we need to put in the work to identify our interests and exert effort to ensure they are protected when purchasing something. No one will care like you should.
Second, combatting pain in the a$s customer service experiences is a wonderful opportunity for businesses. Committing to common sense customer service is a differentiating factor that is and will only become increasingly important in an age of technology and A.I. Emphasizing empathy in customer service oriented enterprises may be the single greatest opportunity to add value to your business today.
Business consultant Martin Lindstrom has recently released a book titled, The Ministry of Common Sense. Lindstrom cuts to the chase with his subtitle, “How to Eliminate Bureaucratic Red Tape, Bad Excuses, and Corporate Bullsh…” It reads much like a book about humor. He offers example after example of poor process which leaves customers in fits. Common sense from the perspective of businesses is not so common. It is an entertaining and amusing look at the pain and misery we too often experience. A painful reality is that as much as we hate to experience poor customer service and bureaucratic BS as consumers, we forget to approach developing and reviewing our own business interactions this way.
Lindstrom illustrates in detail the evisceration of empathy. It has become rarer than a Malayan Tapir. Business is just a symptom of empathy’s diminished role. Lindstrom offers several contributing factors to our malaise. Specifically, compliance as a primary driver of customer complaints. Compliance departments are infecting middle management in businesses across industries. Their sole purpose is to craft complexity which protects the way things are. The prevalence of compliance either follows from or fosters a fear based perspective. The company is to be protected from its staff and customers. Many in the company become fearful of making mistakes. This leads not to leading but to hiding. The work is less about creating customer value and all about preventing mistakes. What rules can be relied upon to ensure we don’t mess up? Rules reward compliance. Lindstrom writes, “In today’s world, you’ll never get fired for obeying or enforcing rules.”
Compliance is crushing customer service and putting obstacles in the way of innovative approaches. Lindstrom offers, as an example, a company with a noble commitment to safety prevents staff from using even a stapler without first donning eye protection. What person is protected and what customer served by this type of madness? Compliance complicates. Worse yet, it breeds distrust and minimizes morale. It’s not fun being part of the policy police. Conversations avoid the topic of how can we do things better all together. The primary focus is about avoiding tripping on our shoelaces. How can we avoid any kind of mistake?
The path forward is as simple and straightforward as actively seeking common sense. Lindstrom writes, “If something doesn’t make sense, or goes against your own intuition, say something.” Working to develop awareness, as always, is the starting point. We won’t change what we don’t think is broken. Consider asking a question like is there an easier way?
Encourage input from everyone. Ask questions like where in the company is common sense missing? Ask for personal customer service pain stories experienced by staff with other businesses. Help others see that these are common experiences that we want to avoid providing to our customers. Dig in to the opportunity to make mastering empathy with colleagues and customers your business’s defining differentiator.
Awareness is accelerated where the lens is flipped from looking at your business from the inside out to outside in. Put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Walk through how they interact with your business. Where are the frustrations they will experience? Lindstrom encourages companies to task staff with taking pictures of internal policies and customer experiences that defy common sense. He then suggests posting these pictures publicly internally with a brief description of the situation and problem. Organizations can then rank these and tackle them one at a time. It’s a way of showcasing the seriousness of pointing out pain points for customers in order to improve.
From developing awareness of frustrations, take time to consider your utopia. What would a ideal or perfect customer service experience look like? Try things, experiment. Have fun coming up with ideas and implementing, even on a trial basis, a few things. It’s no fiction, you can free the friction of interaction between your business and customers. Finally, celebrate wins where wins are positive customer interactions as a result of a change made.
“A business absolutely devoted to service will have only one worry about profits. They will be embarrassingly large.”