THE BLOG
09/03/2014 09:34 am ET Updated Nov 02, 2014

Why Is Customer Disservice Becoming the Norm and What Can We Do About It?

"The entrepreneur always searches for change,
responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity."

- Peter Drucker

If you haven't yet heard the 8-minute diatribe leveled by a Comcast customer service rep to a customer and his wife who were trying to cancel their cable service, tune in here. When the customers rightfully wanted to terminate service, the rep became aggressive, challenging them over and over again for their "legitimate" reasons. Finally, he cancelled their service.

Comcast, appropriately embarrassed after the recording of the call went viral, apologized to the customer and instructed their employees that, "...we are using this very unfortunate experience to reinforce how important it is to always treat our customers with utmost respect." Even so, when customers think about examples of customer disservice, Comcast is now the poster child.

This is not totally fair. What may have been an extreme example isn't isolated to Comcast, and unfortunately variations of this experience are happening every day to millions of Americans.

In my own case, I tried to cancel Internet service with Time Warner Cable because every time it rained, my service kept going out. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, my wife and I tried repeatedly over two years to fix the problem. Finally, we decide to cancel and switch to another carrier. Four calls and eight hours later (over the course of many days), my internet service was finally cancelled, with some but not all of my money refunded. This imposition on me, the customer, occurred because I kept on being referred to "customer retention," a separate department which, I presume, means keep the customer -- no matter what! I complained, but never received an apology; not even a phone call from local executives. Believe me, if Time Warner didn't have a lock on cable TV in my neighborhood, I would be overjoyed to switch our TV business, as well.

What was perplexing to me about my Time Warner experience was that it came from a company that claims to have exemplary corporate core values. Just the prior fall, its chief operating officer, whom I met at a media conference, told me about what great values they have. As an example, he raved about the goodness Time Warner's employees showed their neighbors who were hit by Superstorm Sandy.

What he confused as "good values" in a disaster situation is very common in corporate America -- philanthropy and community volunteerism often substitute for just plain treating the customer and one another with decency and respect. Simple courtesies such as returning phone calls and sending response letters to job applicants, routine practices a generation ago, have largely gone by the wayside. The idea that "the customer is always right" has morphed, similar to the attitude of many Millennials, into an attitude of "you show me respect and then I'll show you respect." When I was growing up, you're the one who showed respect first.

Compounding this problem is the plethora of consumer product and utility companies that only do "customer service" on the Internet, engage customers in endless recorded phone attendant loops, or employ call center personnel who don't speak comprehensible English, and you have a recipe for many more Comcast and Time Warner incidents.

I thought that I had shaken off my own customer disservice trauma until I heard the Comcast viral recording. I just could not mentally resolve this disconnect: How can a company with supposed good values have such poor customer service? How can the CEO reconcile this dichotomy? How can that company in good conscience believe that they have stellar corporate values? How did American consumer businesses get this way?

For answers, I turned to Bernie Moreno, a retail automotive entrepreneur who has amassed an array of automobile dealerships. His company, The Collection Auto Group's philosophy is simple: "We aim to amaze the client." Bernie's insights shed light on what's wrong with customer service and how companies, if they want to, can fix customer disservice and reclaim customer-centered values. Here they are:

1. Most companies aim to be adequate. Adequate is the lowest rung on the ladder.
When you aim to delight the client, you create a positive memory and nearly always are rewarded.

2. American consumer companies seek to satisfy the client as long as they can do it
on the cheap. But, paying for good customer service yields good customer service,
customer loyalty, increased business and increased profits. Doing it on the cheap
doesn't cut it, and doesn't yield results.

3. Executives don't trust that good customer service can pay for itself because
they're reluctant to spend the money in the first place -- so they don't have the data.

4. Companies have chosen efficiency rather than good customer service. Whether
through outsourced call centers, recorded messages, or the like, efficiency trumps
service. Service -- and customers' good will -- suffer, as a result.

5. Major CEOs are out of touch with the front lines of their companies. They believe
that everything's OK and that their posted values are being translated on down to the
customer touch point when that is not happening consistently. Their workers are
confused and, in a crunch, choose their own interests over the customer's.

Bernie and his senior managers always look to empower and trust the people who are closest to the problem. When customers at his Mercedes dealership complained that they didn't like their seat position being moved when their car was returned to them after servicing, Bernie asked his porters and delivery people to resolve the problem. He challenged them through his values: to do so in a way that would "delight the client." They, in turn, came up with the customer-centered solution.

Bernie asked me rhetorically, "When do you think was the last time a major CEO called an 800 number to check on their company's customer service?"

My opinion: Except, maybe, on Undercover Boss, not anytime recently.

Therein is the problem. CEOs live in a bubble, disconnected from their own customer service. As long as that occurs, their companies and employees will be disconnected from their own values. In the meantime, lest we all suffer the current state of disservice in customer service, let's rebel against those companies that treat their customers poorly by canceling our service -- period. They don't deserve our loyalty -- Bernie does.

Kudos to Bernie Moreno and other entrepreneurs and executives who are doing the right thing by their customers. May this trend take hold for the rest of American business!

Muszynski is Founder of Purple America, a national initiative of Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialogue around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.PurpleAmerica.us