Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Customer Service Then and Now

Anyone who deals with the public is in customer service. I don't care if the position is janitor. If someone deals with the public, then they are in customer service. And even if their position doesn't explicitly deal with the public, but they happen to run into a customer of their company, they are now in customer service.

Nana worked in customer service for 40 years for what is now Bank of America (it started as Ellis National bank, then it became NCNB, then NationsBank and now it's Bank of America). She started out as a teller and through hard work over the years, she was promoted to Vice President of the Tarpon Springs, FL branch. Every step of the way, she dealt with the public. And every single day, she loved helping her customers. Whether it was helping a customer buy a $50 savings bond, open a checking account, or helping them with bigger issues, she loved helping people. She believed it was an honor to be able to serve people and knowing her the way I did, I can say with absolute certainty that she never once uttered the words "it's not my job."

One time, an elderly woman Nana had known for many years came into the bank with a man wanting to empty out her account in cash. Nana was with another customer, but overheard the woman telling another employee of her desire. Not recognizing the man and knowing the woman's family well , Nana called the other employee over and told her to stall the woman until Nana was finished with her customer. When Nana finished helping the first customer, she called the son of the elderly woman to make sure this was legitimate. It turned out the woman was being scammed by someone with less than scrupulous desires and because of Nana's intervention this was prevented.

I remember another incident a few months after she retired. The phone rang one day and it was her former boss. It seemed that he had a rather prominent (read: wealthy) customer in front of him who was upset with something the bank had done and was prepared to withdraw all his funds from the bank. The bank manager apologized for the error and tried in vain to talk the customer down. Finally, he asked the customer if there was anything he could do to keep his business. The customer responded that the only person who could convince him that this wouldn't happen again was Frances Paulk, even though she had nothing to do with the problem he was experiencing with the bank. Nana was only asked to speak to the customer on the phone, but she had known him for years and so she got in the car and drove to the bank to meet with him and reassure him that the issue would be resolved in his favor and would never happen again. Nana kept this man's accounts with the bank.

Her outstanding customer service was rewarded many times over; she won many awards from the bank for her superior service and even won the "Courtesy Award" given by the Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce. Customers waited in line to be helped by Nana even when other bank employees were available and could assist them. She had customers who were loyal to her for all of those 40 years. On her last day at NationsBank, customers showered her with flowers and gifts to thank her for all that she had done for them over the years. They came in person to thank her for her service and to tell her how much she had helped them. If they couldn't come in person, they sent letters and cards. In fact, there are two drawers full of letters from customers (or their family members) written over 40 years thanking her for her service to them and the way she especially helped to protect her elderly customers.

At her visitation and funeral in July, I can't begin to count the people who came up to me with stories of how Nana had helped them and shown them how to balance their checkbook or explained the benefits of CDs over a passbook savings account to give them the best interest rate. Her service was based on a selfless desire to help others be their best. Of course, she also worked during a time when her paycheck wasn't based on how many CDs she sold or how much she "up sold" people, so they always knew that whatever she told them was in their best interest and had nothing to do with her own best interest.

Contrast that to the customer service of today.

Mom and I had to visit a large national bank today. While we were waiting for assistance, a woman who appeared to be in her late-60s or so asked the bank manager if this bank had passbook savings accounts. He said no. She then volunteered that a local community bank did. He again replied that they didn't have them. She said she understood, but that she wanted a passbook savings account (you remember the "old fashioned" kind where you had a book like a checkbook register and the bank would imprint your activity in it every time you came to the bank) and would be switching to their smaller competitor for this service. The manager's only response was okay. He did not attempt to help the woman who was clearly a customer with services the bank offered or even ask her questions about her perceived benefits of a passbook savings account. He simply said okay and let the woman and her business walk out the door.

I wish we could get back to a time when companies cared about their customers and not just about the money they could bring in. When a verbal commitment meant action would be taken or that a promise was sealed. When businesses valued their customers and would not be so willing to just let them walk out the door unhappy.

What I know for sure is that when Nana first went to work in the banking industry, her bank was a small community bank because that's all that existed in 1954. Up until the late-1990s, her bank had that community feel, even though they were nationwide. Or maybe it was just my perception because I could pick up the phone and call any branch, say I was her granddaughter and have the red carpet rolled out for me.

I think that the solution for this problem is simple: Patronize only locally-owned, small businesses whenever possible. Reward businesses that provide superior customer service with more business. Say thank you for outstanding service. Go up the chain of command and not only thank the employee, but praise that person to his or her manager.

As for myself, as a business owner, I am committing myself to upping my own customer service and loyalty to my customers in 2010.


  1. In some ways, I think that poor customer service is related to a business climate in which workers don't care about their work because they know their employer doesn't care about them; in essence, they are mostly disposable cogs in a machine that does nothing but bring profits to a corporation that returns little to none of it back to the worker in the form of job security, good health insurance, decent wages, pensions, etc. It is a rare person who is willing to give customer service their all, when they are likely to get little in return (especially in an environment in which a significant percentage of customers feel they can be nasty jerks because "the customer is always right!").

    It's a horrid situation all the way around.

    I agree with you, though - I do go out of my way to recognize good customer service and pointing it out to the powers that be. Anyone who does it in the current toxic environment deserves a reward! I say this as someone who worked as a customer service rep for many years ....

  2. GG,

    I completely agree with you that it's related to a poor business climate in which workers are by and large responding to their employers lack of interest in them.

    That said, people need to take pride in their work. I am certainly no Pollyanna and I understand that satisfaction of a job well does not put food on the table or pay the mortgage, but taking pride in one's work is important.


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