Can You Hear Me Now?

What buying a new phone teaches you about customer service.

I experienced a trial last week known as buying a new phone. Buying a new phone sounds simple enough—except that it wasn’t.

The process began by making an appointment with my mobile provider. I tried to give as much information as I could, including the specific reason for my visit to the store and the particular phone I wanted to buy, including the amount of storage capacity I wanted on the phone.

It had been a few years since I got a new phone, so I was excited! I got there at the precise time designated for my appointment, and found the store entirely empty except for two sales representatives. Despite that mine appeared to be the only appointment set aside for that time slot, the sales reps didn’t know who I was or what I was there for. You’d think with hardly anyone there, they would have had time to look at their appointment calendar on their computer to anticipate my arrival.

I said, “Hello,” told them who I was, and why I was there. They then told me they would have to verify that they had the phone in stock that I wanted to buy. They did, fortunately. I thought I was home free! Then I threw them off badly. I shared with them that I was a customer who was originally with the mobile provider that this other mobile provider had acquired about a year ago. The representative attending me then expressed concern that she might not be able to help me because she was still getting used to looking up customer information in my original mobile provider’s database. She called her colleague to join her at the computer to see if they could figure it out together. They seemed to figure it out finally—only to let me know 5-10 minutes later that the computer system connecting to that other mobile provider’s database wasn’t working. They apologized and told me they couldn’t help me.

“It would have been nice to know that before I made the trip here,” I said. Their store was only about a 10-minute walk from my apartment, but regardless, I had set time aside for this appointment, and had to put on shoes and leave my cozy apartment. I would have preferred continuing to lie on the couch if I had known their computer system was down.
“There’s no way we would have known that ahead of time,” they told me.

“Could you reschedule my appointment?”

“Oh, you don’t need an appointment,” they said.

“But what happens if I get here and a lot of people are waiting?”

“You would have to wait anyway even if you had an appointment.”

The thing that pushed me over the edge was they seemed not to want to exert the effort to reschedule my appointment, and indicated that, even if I had an appointment, their store was so disorganized and inefficient, it wouldn’t matter because I would still have to wait. “Then why bother having appointments?” I wondered to myself.

I got very angry then, took a deep breath, and turned to leave. “Just pathetic,” I said to them before sweeping out of the store.

I took out my phone to Google other nearby store locations. I found that my phone was in the process of breaking. I was too uncomfortable to go back to the store I just indignantly swept out of, so I kept tinkering with my phone until I got it to finally show me a list of a few other nearby locations. I walked about 15 minutes to another location. They didn’t have the phone I was looking for. I had to ask if they could call the next closest location to verify that they had the phone. They did! I asked the sales representative to let the other store know I was on my way.

Three time’s the charm: The third store I visited had my phone and had a staff competent enough to access and use the database of my original mobile provider. They even counseled me about the best screen protector to buy and made sure everything was in perfect working order before I left. The only snag about this visit was, when I got there, they didn’t know what I was talking about when I said I was the customer sent there by the other store that just called them. It seems the sales rep at the previous location I visited called the wrong store or didn’t call at all and only pretended to be on the phone. Or perhaps the sales reps at this third location had already forgotten the call they had gotten 20 minutes earlier?

I found an article on Forbes by Micah Solomon on “Muscle Memory and Customer Service,” which made me think a well-trained staff could have reflexively done all the things that would have made my experience getting a new phone seamless and simple. “I’m talking about mental muscle memory: a default of being helpful, of actively listening, of doing everything you can to ‘get to a yes’ for the customer in front of you. Once your mental ‘muscles’ get these patterns ingrained, they allow you to serve your customers both spectacularly and consistently—even on those days when your back aches and your feet are cramping and your customers are more abrupt and less understanding than usual,” Solomon writes.

In my case, the sales reps should have had it ingrained as protocol to prepare ahead of time for all customers with appointments. Preparing ahead of time is not a hard concept to explain to employees, and with practice, it becomes a routine part of every workday. At the beginning of the day, right after logging into the computer, check to see who’s scheduled to come in. See what each customer has said he or she needs and check to make sure you are going to be able give those things to each customer. That means checking the inventory in stock and making sure any computer systems that have to be accessed to serve the customer are up and running, and that the employee who will serve the customer understands fully how to use those computer systems.

Anticipating pre-appointed arrivals creates a huge wow for customers. It’s reassuring to open the door, tell the sales reps your name, and have them say, “Welcome, Margery, we’ve been expecting you. We have the phone you want to buy in stock, so we should be all set to get this done for you today.”

There is also muscle memory that should be trained into place for when all else fails and you can’t serve the customer. “I do apologize! Can I reschedule your appointment for you or see if any of the nearby stores have the phone you are looking for and can help you today?”

When that kind of customer service—anticipating and being ready for customers with appointments—and knowing how to help the customers you can’t help yourself—is so well trained that it’s ingrained in your employees, you exceed expectations every time.

Have you bought a new phone lately? Does my experience sound familiar? How do you ensure your employees have muscle memory that reflexively guides them when serving customers?

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