Brandt On Leadership -- Service with a Painted-on Smile

Learn how to offer customer service without actually providing it.

If you're going to make things and sell them, you're going to have to provide customer service -- or at least pretend to. How you do this will have a significant impact on your career, because -- let's be frank -- customer service is a pain in the derriere that will kill profits faster than you can say, "Oh, sorry, it was our supplier in China."

You know it, I know it, even they know it: Customers are cranky types who want things on time and then expect them to work as advertised. Spending time and energy making these losers happy after the sale only gnaws away at the bottom line, and, more importantly, annoys the living daylights out of you.

Your mission is to minimize the intrusiveness of these whiners in any way possible. Strategies that other firms have found useful include:

Web-based Customer Service: Really the signature invention of the 21st Century, as all requests, complaints and comments are funneled to a Web site that promises quick response without actually providing it. For optimal customer service prevention, be sure to include an e-mail option that guarantees action within 24 hours, but don't actually forward the e-mails to a real person.

If you feel compelled to read the e-mails, make it fun by holding a contest for the most persistent customer ("15 e-mails in 22 days is our current leader") or the most irritated client ("used the F-word as five different parts of speech in a single sentence!"). Whatever you do, don't publish a phone number for your company, especially since customers will be furious after already being ignored digitally.

Customer Service "Hotline": If you must offer telephone access, a low-cost option is to simply place each caller on permanent hold with the most annoying Muzak subscription you can find. You might also add a recorded voice that predicts wait times for each caller via a random number generator. Nothing makes even a determined complainer hang up faster than having the estimated wait time change from 11 to 136 minutes.

More technologically advanced companies will invest in interactive voice response or voice recognition software. Think of the fun you'll have programming the system so that none of the function keys work, or that no matter how clearly the caller speaks, the recorded voice responds: I didn't understand that. Sorry you're having trouble. Please try again later. Customers will become so enraged that they'll beat their phones against their desks until they break and they can no longer call you. Problem solved!

Actual Customer Interaction: Eventually one of your customers will become so irate that he or she will employ drastic measures -- using a false name to sneak through the corporate switchboard, driving a backhoe through the front window -- to confront you directly. Just remember the four steps of Customer Conflagration Management (CCM):

  1. Listen: Nothing is more important than looking the customer in the eye while he babbles on, nodding your head as if actually listening instead of replaying your Saturday morning round of golf in your head. Nice putt on 17, by the way.
  2. Empathize: Customers like it if you seem to genuinely care about their predicament. Delivering obviously rehearsed phrases such as "I understand your frustration" in a disinterested tone will let your customers know exactly where they stand.
  3. Apologize: This is tricky. Although you want the customer to stop bothering you, you don't want to imply that you'll actually do or change anything (the last thing you want to give an angry customer is hope or satisfaction). Try "I'm sorry for your trouble," which seems contrite but could just as easily be the first half of a phrase that ends, "because it certainly made a lot of trouble for me, too, you clueless hump."
  4. Act: Are you joking? Give them the hotline number again and tell them to ask for Sylvia, the "Special Cases" person. With any luck at all, they'll realize in a month or two that Sylvia doesn't exist and they'll take their lousy business elsewhere. Let your competitors worry about providing service to these nincompoops!

You'll have a lot more time once they're gone.

John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is CEO of the Manufacturing Performance Institute, a research and consulting firm based in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

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