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Make customer service your company's top job

Almost everyone has experienced calling a company for customer service and being bounced from one hapless soul to another. The result: No service, just frustration. It leaves you wondering whether anyone is running the company.

I experienced this when I needed help making a long-distance phone call. It was Sunday afternoon, and some of my partners were in a meeting in London and we needed to talk. Twice, I dialed a long string of access, account and phone numbers only to get a recorded message that I was not authorized to make the call. I had never, in several years of using this account, received such a message or had such a problem.

I tried a third time but was interrupted by an operator who said she would look into the problem while she put me on hold. I was treated to some classical music until I was cut off _ but I stayed on the phone for a long time, thinking she would return.

Next, I called an operator directly. This time, I was told I had to call another number for business customer service. Fine. Then I reached a new person to whom I described my problem.

By this time, my temperature was rising. When I gave this latest contact my calling-card number, he explained that his department handled small businesses, and mine was a large business. He gave me another number to call.

Once more, I thought, as I dialed again. This person said she would look into the matter if I could stay on the line. Of course, I would; I needed to reach London. A few minutes later, she returned to tell me I was authorized to call every country in Europe _ but not England.

I couldn't understand the restriction. It didn't make sense and I had called London many times using this calling card. The service person told me that she couldn't give me any more information and that I would have to call back on Monday.

That was the end of my search for help. After six calls, all I did was increase my frustration level. It was one of the most time-consuming searches for help I had experienced.

How can companies improve their telephone customer service? It is not rocket science. Just use common sense.

First, if you have different kinds of customers calling in, find out immediately who is calling and get them to the right place on the first call. You might want to begin by asking yourself whether you really have different kinds of customers. At first glance, you might think the needs of small businesses are different from large businesses. But people making telephone calls have the same needs: They want to connect to a person on the other end of the line. Maybe they should be treated the same way, with efficiency and courtesy.

You also have to recognize that business today is a 7/24 affair. That is, in a global world, someone is always working, and you need to be able to support your customers whenever they need help, seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

It is not very satisfying to be told that you have to wait a day to get a problem fixed that could be handled in minutes. If I am working on a Sunday afternoon, I expect that my long-distance telephone carrier is working _ and not just with a partial crew.

Finally, if you are having service problems, don't just add more telephone operators or service people. Fix the systemic problem so you get fewer service calls in the first place. Something is obviously wrong with the authorization processes of my long-distance carrier. If my call had gone through the first time, everyone would have saved lots of time.

If things break down, design a service process where, as often as possible, one person can solve your customers' problems. There is little worse than bouncing around a disgruntled customer _ except, of course, disconnecting that customer.

Telecommunications companies should know better. They should be examples of the best practice, not the worst.

_ Tribune Media Services

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