Saturday, August 29, 2009

Customer service and the megacorp

Conventional wisdom has it that the larger the company, the worse the customer service, and a few exceptions only prove the rule. Sure, there's always the mom-and-pop store with crappy service, or the heartwarming anecdote of the big company that went the extra mile, but we're all usually sure that the rule is pretty solid.

I just had yet another excellent experience at customer service with Amazon. My call went to someone with a heavy accent, but Russian, not Indian; wonder if it's overseas or not. But the person I spoke to talked crisply and slowly, and more importantly, he got right to business, didn't make me jump through a thousand hoops, and took care of the problem. Amazon's not only sending me a new cable for my Kindle, they're doing it by two-day mail and I don't have to send back the bad cable.

In fact, I've made scores, maybe hundreds, of purchases from Amazon, and the only times I've ever had a problem that wasn't resolved with absolutely the most efficient, friendly, and satisfactory service, were always times I was actually buying from a third party through Amazon. (And even those were usually great, too.) Amazon is making money in an economy when even the oldest and best-established companies in the world are struggling, and yet they can still manage to treat customers well instead of pinching every penny. How does that work?

When it comes down to it, in a tight economy, a huge company (and Amazon is one of the hugest) is in some ways better positioned to treat its customers right. "Spend a few bucks making a customer happy, and the customer will come back tomorrow" is a sound policy if you have the scale of operations to be able to wait for good will to pay off as an investment. The big question isn't whether a company can invest in customer service, it's just whether they do.

There's something in the big corporate culture and its cover-your-ass mentality that tends to make customer service get forgotten or diminished. It's just that a company above a certain size can continue to exist without leadership, on its own momentum; and in that state, it will tend to diminish customer service because it's not in the best interest of any single cog in the machine to prioritize it. This won't be as likely to affect much smaller companies because they can't get by on their own momentum, they can't survive without the same kind of leadership that also means there's someone in a position to say "customer service matters" for whom there's an incentive to say so.

But if you have a big company that does have leadership, then it's my belief that they can be just as good as any small company at customer service. When you try to get customer service from a megacorp and get lost in a maze of twisty voicemails, all alike, the size of the company is very in-your-face, so you immediately blame that. And the same happens with other big companies, and you blame the size. When you get bad service from a small company, though, it's for different reasons, and those reasons don't remind you of the company size.

If you sat down and counted it out, you'd probably be surprised how many bad service experiences you had with small companies, how many good ones you had with big companies, and how much closer the ratios are than you'd've guessed. It's just selective perception that makes it easy to correlate the big-company bad-service experiences together as part of a pattern with a common cause, making it seem bigger and more consistent, but harder to correlate and count the small-company ones.

What this all means is that, yes, if you are dealing with a big company it's more likely you'll get bad service. Maybe not as much more likely as you imagine, but it is more likely. But at the same time, if you're a big company, despite the public perception that big companies almost always lead to bad service, you can very well have great service, and reap the long-term benefits of having it. It just means you have to have someone decide that, and then be an advocate for that decision. And you can do that just as well as the owner of the mom-and-pop shop. In fact, while your company's size might present challenges in giving them great service, it also presents opportunities and advantages in providing customer service which the mom-and-pop shop would envy.

Amazon may not be perfect (I'm sure someone will comment on this post with a horror story about their experience with Amazon) but no one is, not even the tiniest family-owned corner drugstore. (In fact, when you get bad service from a tiny shop, it tends to be worse, because it's more personal, more arbitrary, and harder to work around since there's nowhere else to appeal.)

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