Friday, September 24, 2010

Speak Easy Note #35 - Those Folks Who Answer Customer Service Phone Lines

So we’ve all been there, waiting on hold. We all are familiar with waiting for someone to tell our product complaints to, hoping that when someone finally answers, the person will be speaking our language so we can understand clearly what he/she is saying and will actually be able to listen to what we’re describing and carry on a real conversation with us - without reading aloud to us the exact scripted mechanical responses that were just said to the person who called that number with a complaint right before we did.


I attended a party and ate delicious quiche there. I asked the person who brought the quiche to the party, “Did you make the crust for the quiche or did you buy it ready-made?” She replied, “I didn’t do either. There's no actual pie crust. The recipe is made with ‘Fast-Bake’” (The brand name has been fictionalized for obvious anonymity protection and legal reasons.) I was so excited to learn this. The quiche tasted delicious; I had always loved quiche; I had never made quiche because I didn’t want to fool with buying or making piecrust; I had been cooking recipes with ‘Fast-Bake’ for more years than I could remember because I loved the flavor it added to the recipe and because it was so fast and easy to use; ‘FastBake’ was a family tradition; my grandmother baked with it; my mother baked with it … and like that.

Following the party, I became a “quiche maven” - baking quiche with ‘Fast-Bake’ every opportunity I could find. A few weeks later I was on the phone with a friend and told her that I had a wonderful new quiche recipe that required no piecrust. She was ecstatic. “Will you give me that recipe?” she asked. I answered, “Of, course, I will.” and began reading her the ingredients. When I got to ‘Fast-Bake’, she immediately and emphatically told me that she never uses ‘Fast-Bake’ because it contains harmful ingredients. I was shocked and said to her, “What are you talking about? I’ve been using ‘Fast-Bake’ for years. It’s a staple in my kitchen and I’m very health-conscious.” When I hung up the phone, I rushed to my pantry to read the ‘Fast-Bake’ ingredients and found among them, “partially hydrogenated oil” much to my surprise.

I buy zero products containing hydrogenated oils or so I thought. I've been using ‘Fast-Bake’ for so many years that it never entered my mind that this old reliable product would have such an unhealthy, undesirable ingredient.

"Hydrogenation of unsaturated fats produces saturated fats and, in some cases, trans fats."

You can read more about hydrogenation at

The next morning, as soon as the designated time zone allowed, I made a call to the customer phone number on the opened box of ‘Fast-Bake’ that was still in my pantry. The voice on the phone sounded like it belonged to a very young woman; she sounded like a child. I immediately let her know I was extremely upset and assured her that my comments were not directed to her personally. I let her know that ‘Fast-Bake’ is a product that I and my family have relied on for years. I told her my story and that I was calling to express how horrified I was that a venerable food product like ‘Fast-Bake’ contained hydrogenated oil. I let her know that I never purchased any food products with such an ingredient. I asked her to verify the date ‘Fast-Bake’ came into existence. She asked if she could place me on hold while she got this answer for me. I told her that I was happy to wait while she obtained the response to my question and that I didn’t want to be placed on hold while she searched for it. After a short wait, I learned from her that this product entered the marketplace in 1930, long before I was born. I said that I was wondering when ‘Fast-Bake’ first contained hydrogenated oil. She didn’t offer to get that information for me. She didn’t say anything else about that. I told her that I wanted to be sure the President of the Major Consumer Food Products Company that makes ‘Fast-Bake’ knew that I had called and that I was appalled about what I had learned about ‘Fast-Bake’ containing hydrogenated oil. She didn’t respond at all to this. The only repeated comments she made during the entire conversation were questions to verify my purchase of ‘Fast-Bake’ and my name and mailing address, and statements to let me know I would get a refund for the price of the small box of ‘Fast-Bake’ I had bought three days before. She made no comment when I told her that I always buy the large box, that I have bought many, many large boxes of ‘Fast-Bake’ over the years, and that a refund was far from why I had called that day.

When I hung up, I was very unsatisfied, even though a check was going to arrive in my mailbox in a day or two.

Here’s what was missing from her communication to me.



In a timeframe much shorter than the one in which she located the original date that ‘Fast-Bake’ was first produced, I was able to go to the Web to find and read the entire history of this product and how the ingredients were developed for it. To my surprise, there had always been hydrogenated oil in ‘Fast-Bake’ going all the way back to 1930. If I had known and understood this history and how the hydrogenated oil had been substituted originally for lard, I would have had an entirely different understanding of the product and would have been much less upset, even though I would probably still never purchase ‘Fast-Bake’ again. This was informative history that was readily available on the Internet that the customer service associate who worked for the company that makes ‘Fast-Bake’ didn’t even know or else chose not to tell me. It would not have changed my desire to eliminate hydrogenated food products from my purchases and from my diet. It would though have completely changed my emotional response on that call and the level of dissatisfaction with the conversation I had had.

Customer service representatives need to be well-informed. They need to know the relevant information and history of the company’s products. They represent the company to its customers. If all they are trained to do is give refunds and read/repeat scripts, they will only enrage and disengage people and eliminate customer loyalty and brand appreciation. It would be beneficial if they knew, understood and could distill information and provide clarification.


Offering me a refund for the one small box of ‘Fast-Bake’ that I had just purchased was a positive gesture that I could appreciate. It provided nothing though to assuage any of the feelings and reactions that prompted my phone call. What I wanted was to know I had been heard. What I wanted was to hear validations for my complaint. What I most wanted was two-way-human interaction and true dialog.

The following potential comments are the types of comments I would have loved to have heard that woman say when I described what I was calling for. Companies would get tremendous positive mileage from having customer service representatives who communicate, genuinely and specifically, like this:

“I hear how upsetting it is to you to learn suddenly that a product you have trusted for so long has ingredients in it that you feel are harmful.”

“We are so appreciative of your call and thank you for taking the time and making it a priority to speak up about something you care about very much.”

“It’s extremely important to us to know what our customers value. I will do everything I can to make sure our product managers and company executives learn about your concerns. I would also like to make sure that someone contacts you to discuss this in more detail with you since you have taken the time to share your concerns with us. Our highest goal is to be responsive to our customers.”

“What is your interest in participating in a product focus group to share your views openly with an objective market research group?”

“I can clearly understand your view about food products that contain hydrogenated oil. (There is NO “but” at this point in the response.) My understanding of this product is that the hydrogenated oils have always been in it since its inception back in 1930 in order to duplicate an old special recipe with lard in it that one of our executives learned about back in the day. Using the partially hydrogenated oil was the only way to reproduce this recipe for mass production without requiring refrigeration.”

Representatives who answer customer service phone lines are often the only personal contact consumers ever have with the supplier of products and services they purchase. What a golden opportunity lies in these human resources for companies to exploit their brands as fully as possible and to gain a customer connection that is solid and unbreakable. Most of the people in these customer service roles are extremely junior, poorly paid, badly trained, way under utilized, don’t actually know how to listen or demonstrate appropriately what they have heard, and worst of all, often are outsourced personnel who don't actually work directly for the company.

And wouldn’t you know it, the last thing this young woman said to me was, “No problem!” There it was again, that omnipresent hacknied expression meant to be positive, comprised of two negative words - one of which is problematic!

There are a great deal of excellent guidelines about validation in SPEAK EASY, The Communication Guide for Career and Life Success.

Until next time,
The Wordsmith