Circumvent customer service to get real customer support

As major companies attempt to rein in expenses, small businesses and consumers often encounter a tightly woven customer service loop seemingly designed to deflect and deter, rather than resolve customer issues. To get action, it’s becoming ever more important to think outside that loop.

When you need more than a routine response, reach up, out and past frontline customer service personnel to people with more authority and leverage.

It may take creative maneuvering to get through to executive/management offices. Or, you may want to find a company’s strategic partner or regulatory body able to exert influence. And, with the exponential growth of blogging and social media/bookmarking, you may consider launching a grassroots effort to help draw attention to a pertinent issue.

While different challenges require differing levels of investigation, perseverance and creativity, it’s often possible to get rapid relief. Whether it’s a credit card company or health insurer, there are surprisingly easy ways to wiggle up the food chain.

Following are real-world examples of my successes and strategies to get beyond lobby-level customer service:

Use PR to get into the higher echelons of major companies. Look for an edge. Look for someone in the organization with a strong vested interest in keeping customers happy. Often, the most cooperative, responsive and visible source is a public-relations representative.

Start by Googling the company’s name in quotes, then add the words, “press releases” to your query. Usually within the first page of search results, you’ll be able to locate a press release issued by the company, with a corresponding media contact. Call that person, explain in candid and concise fashion your challenge, and ask for help locating an executive-level manager.

Before calling, however, attempt at least one customer-service-loop contact. If you don’t get adequate results, you can share your frustration with the PR contact. This shows that you’ve made an effort to work within channels, to no avail. It also may help to record the customer service call(s) to document exactly what was said for later verification.

I [employed] this approach after receiving an officious customer-service response from a major bank regarding a credit card issue. Via Google, I quickly located the name and phone number of a corporate PR person, who put me in touch with an executive office contact able to offer assistance going far beyond that of the customer-service representative.

Use leverage. Both strategic partners and regulatory agencies can carry huge weight when it comes to resolving conflicts with a particular company. Two real-life examples detail how this process can work effectively and reasonably quickly.

The first case involves a major retailer partnered with a mortgage lending organization. Inappropriate and inadequate handling of a home-equity request through one of the lending organization’s portfolio partners prompted a phone call to the retailer’s corporate office. Anxious not to offend a loyal and lucrative customer, the retailer immediately contacted the lending organization, which consequently audited their lending partner’s entire home-equity portfolio. Ultimately, the lender offered very favorable home-equity terms, and the retailer covered all closing costs instead of the typical partial reimbursement.

Regulatory agencies also can carry major weight. Health insurers, for example, may be very wary of complaints filed with the applicable insurance regulatory body. Particularly with the expansion of transparency through the Internet, health insurers want to minimize the number of public complaints about their service. Don’t be shy about filing a complaint if you feel it’s warranted. This action alone, exclusive of any regulatory agency investigation, may get the company to respond favorably.

Use the Internet to inform and inspire. If subjected to lackluster customer-service performance, consider using the Internet to offer your views and generate suggestions from others.

One relatively fast and inexpensive way to gain search-engine visibility is to write about your experience — either providing constructive suggestions in the form of an expert advice column or just relating what transpired. Then, attempt to publish the story via some of the no-cost/low-cost online press release services. Each service has criteria for publication (e.g., some won’t publish an expert advice column; they want an article in the form of a press release announcing an event or occurrence) and their own pricing schemes, so you’ll need to do some research. There are many, including PRWeb (www.prweb.com), PR.com (www.pr.com) and 24-7 Press Release (www.24-7pressrelease.com). Provide readers a way to contact you, include salient keywords to improve search results, be truthful and use this as a forum for constructive advice — not just complaints. Hopefully, you’ll generate some buzz to leverage discussion with the organization(s) you’re writing about and/or elicit helpful ideas from others.

As more consumers and small businesses go beyond the customer service loop to find answers and assistance, expect the customer service loop to respond by becoming more effective and empowered.


ORIGINAL PUBLICATION: DENVER BUSINESS JOURNAL 090609

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