The Story Economy Blog

Be Nice to Your Customers: They're People

Everyone has a bad customer service story. Actually, everyone has multiple bad customer service stories. One for every day of the week, most likely.

But . . . why? Seriously, why do we all have so much experience being treated like crud? Economists, social psychologists, and your mother all have answers. I have one too: At some point, people forgot they were people talking to people, and adopted the idea that they were merely part of a system that had nothing to do with them personally.

A recent experience with T-Mobile perfectly illustrates this. I switched to Verizon when I got an iPhone in August, and Verizon ported my number. I knew I’d owe T-Mobile a tiny final bill for the two days of the billing cycle before I canceled. But apparently, I was supposed to call T-Mobile and ask them not to charge me for the remainder of the cycle. I was supposed to do this because it was somewhere in the 18,000-page contract I signed. Tiffany, the customer service rep explained this to me over the phone. “Because you didn’t call, we have to charge you,” she said.

“You got me,” I confessed. “I didn’t read it. The law is on your side. But you know that’s not a customer-friendly policy. So Tiffany, I’m asking you now: can you personally not charge me for the days I wasn’t a customer?” Tiffany seemed surprised that I was even using her name and talking to her like, you know, a person. But she transferred me (of course) to another person, who did dismiss the charges.

It’s not just complicated contracts. I get that a society needs contracts (although I think transparency is sorely lacking in many contracts consumers are being asked to sign these days). But that aside, it’s the overall language we use.

Just this week, I exchanged a series of emails with someone from the “Vendor Maintenance” department of a major magazine publisher. That’s not just their internal slang. That’s actually on this guy’s email signature. So, am I a car? A furnace? A fridge? Not only that, to explain the process for how to get paid and who had to sign off on what, he wrote: “Once the unit has filled out their area, they will in turn forward back to the Service Center.” Really, the “unit?” Not the associate, the supervisor, or Shelly in accounting? (To be fair, he was helpful, so thank you for straightening out my direct deposit paperwork, random vendor maintenance person).

Our language is terrible. It creates terrible emails, terrible phone conversations, terrible voice mail systems, and terrible structures.

It keeps people (“units”) separate from each other. It makes it okay that I can’t even get a direct number for anyone at my pediatrician’s office, to return the message that they left for me. “It’s just how we have the system set up!” the receptionist says. But a person set up that system, a person who was born to a mother, became a crazy toddler, experienced teen awkwardness, found the love of their life (or is still looking), eats food every day, and sleeps every night. We’re all just people. Is this really such a crazy concept that we should create nice systems for each other? (My attempt to create a nice system for you this morning is that origami flower picture up top. It’s pretty, and it will make your eyes happy I think. It can really be that easy sometimes.)

I’m not a systems person, so you can tell me, “Yes, Judi. It is crazy. You just don’t understand,” and I’ll listen to why.

But I am a language person, and I do know that we can do something about the language we’re using — from physical signage, department names, and email signatures, to user manuals and web copy. Language can connect and invite people in, or it can keep people distant. Language can create a horrible customer experience, or a customer experience that your ideal client will never forget. Of course, you have to be who your language says you are, do what your language says you will do, and act in a way that’s consistent with all of it.

What language are you using? What kind of experiences are your company’s words helping to generate? And, most importantly, is your company a mass of systems, or a group of people?



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