When the Clock Starts Ticking

One of the key principles of customer service is understanding our clients’ perception of their interaction with us. It does us no good to do an incredible job if, at the end, a customer thinks we’ve failed them in some way. If we fail to see the total experience as our customers do, we will initially make mistakes in our relationships.

When does a customer’s experience begin? Is it the moment a portion of their project falls into our laps? It actually starts the moment they initiate contact with us, and it ends only when they are satisfied, not when we’ve completed our tasks. This discrepancy of perception accounts for many customer relations issues. If we take into consideration that the clock starts ticking for the customer well before they’ve reached our department, we’ll find a dramatic decrease in the number of times we think we’ve handled a client wonderfully only to discover that they have major complaints. We all know how to tell time, but we tend to only think about the time that personally involves us, as though no other employee’s contribution adds to the minutes, hours, days and, unfortunately, sometimes weeks. We may act as though we operate in a personal bubble instead of as the customer correctly perceives us: as a unified company. If a client has a problem with one of us, their gripe is with the entire organization. If they receive sub-standard service, the company as a whole gets blamed.

Let’s say a customer has a frustrating problem and reaches out to us for assistance. Before he even talks to somebody, he may be on hold for 10 minutes. Although the clock started ticking for that client the moment he made the phone call, our representative assumes that, because he just became aware of the issue, the clock starts when he answers it. He doesn’t feel responsible for the problem, the call or the wait time until the point when he picked up the phone. The customer might as well be on another planet, though, because his view of the situation is entirely different. He now has a problem with the company — The company caused him a problem, left him on hold for 10 minutes and now is blithely ignorant as to why he’s annoyed.

How do we handle this disconnect? Rather than working only to complete our assigned tasks, we should realize that we are always working as part of a team that exists to fulfill our corporate goals. At ITX, we had a system set up whereby a project commenced when a customer faxed us their signed contract. Whoever received the contract would then forward it to the marketing department. The marketing department would then go back to the salesperson with any questions before recording the contract. Then it would go to our vice president of delivery, who would assign it to a delivery team. Finally, the delivery team manager would call the customer, thank them for signing on and schedule a kick-off meeting.

The problem was, sometimes that process would take four weeks! During that period, the customer would obviously be impatient, knowing that he did his part by signing a contract, but we hadn’t done ours by getting back to him. Our customers had to call the salesperson to follow up, and they were not happy about having to do so. We disappointed them before even starting the project. What’s even worse was when the customer had paid us a deposit at the time of signing, because then their money was being held up, as well.

When I investigated this, I quickly saw what was going wrong in the process. When the contract came in by fax, often it didn’t get delivered to the marketing department the same day. This didn’t concern the person who received it, because they didn’t look at the fax machine at the end of the day but figured, okay, I got it today and am passing it along – no big deal. When marketing got the contract, they might have questions for the salesperson about some items and there would be a delay in the recording process. It took three days to get it over to the vice president of delivery via email, on average. That person didn’t handle it immediately, and took two to four days before the contract was assigned to a delivery team. The delivery team manager often refused to call the customer right away because he wanted to get his team together so that they could understand all the details of the contract before calling the customer. The team was unwilling to compromise its own comfort for the customer’s comfort. That delayed the process for another few days, and all of those days in between compounded to be several weeks.

At each point along the way, our team members started their own “clocks” when it was their turn to touch the contract. No one considered that the clock started ticking for the client on Day One and didn’t stop and start like a sports watch. Each person had an excuse as to why he couldn’t do his part any faster and refused to consider himself responsible for the entire delay the customer experienced.

It’s natural to want to be held accountable only for something we think is fair versus being held accountable for the level of service the customer receives. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to say, “Hey, wait a minute. I didn’t know about the contract until yesterday. It’s not my fault.” But if that’s the way we’re thinking, then we’re signed up for the wrong job. At our place in the corporate chain, we’re not hired to do things quickly and correctly, and then have an excuse when they’re not. What we signed up for is giving the customer great service, and therefore it is our responsibility to find out what is going on.

We ultimately changed our procedures to give our customers better service. Now the marketing person checks the faxes, not an intermediary who passes it on when they happen to notice it. Marketing needed to understand that they could pass the contract along to the vice president of delivery even if they didn’t finish processing it yet. The vice president of delivery is now willing to call the customer and say thank you within 24 hours instead of adding more time to the clock by handing off that responsibility to his team. A two- or four-week process becomes a streamlined 24-hour transaction that makes a favorable impression upon our client because we are making ourselves accountable for any delay the customer is experiencing.

A favorite motto of mine, which I learned from customer service guru John DiJulius, is “It may not be my fault, but it’s still my problem.” Our clients are the sole judges of when they are satisfied. Our job is to look at the totality of their experience and do whatever we can to facilitate great customer service at all points in the process.


© 2012 Ralph Dandrea. All rights reserved.

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