Customer Service: Turning Gruesome to Great

By Blake DuBose, Mike DuBose
March 05, 2014

In a 2013 New York Times article, business writer David Segal laments, “How did so much customer service become so wretched?” Indeed, while working with 50+ vendors in 2013, we saw huge variations in their service, quality, dependability, pricing, and communication. We experienced both disappointing companies—those whose bad ideas represent what not to do when engaging customers—and outstanding companies, who apply smart techniques to attract and keep clients happy. Here are some “bad ideas” we noted, followed by smarter strategies.

Bad idea:
Focus all resources on profit. Simply chasing dollars won’t build long-term stability.
Better idea: Reinvest in the business. Your staff needs the resources to do their jobs well and provide high-quality customer support, which will then create customer advocates and increase profits.

Bad: Rely on temporary and contract employees to save money on benefits.
Better: Invest in competent, knowledgeable, long-term staff. Employees should be experienced, thoroughly trained, and friendly. The right ones can make a huge difference in clients’ perception of your business.

Bad: Expect new employees to “wing it.”
Better: Develop specific job descriptions and clearly define your organization’s expectations, culture, values, mission, and purpose. All employees need to know their role in helping customers.

Bad: Rule with fear. In a negative environment, employees can’t feel safe discussing ideas and risks.
Better: Promote an open, positive culture with a good work/life balance. Good communication helps organizations run smoothly, and staff members are happier when they have lives outside of work, which transfers into better customer experiences.

Bad: Try to sell (and be) everything to everyone. Pursue every trend that makes money.
Better: Use the “Hedgehog Principle.” As Jim Collins noted in his bestseller Good to Great, successful companies focus on their passions, their areas of expertise, and the activities that are most profitable to them.

Bad: Automate everything. Endless mazes of telephone menus, elevator music, constantly repeating messages, and hold times may save money—but at the cost of frustrated customers. While on hold recently, Mike was quoted a two-hour wait!
Better: Make human contact a priority. Machines don’t build lasting relationships or make consumers want your products and services, people do. Don’t remove the personal touch.

Bad: Contact with customer service representatives who don’t care or are located overseas.
Better: Keep it simple, local, and fast. Let customers speak to a person familiar with the business. Supervisors should be readily available for extra help resolving issues.

Bad: Let policy trump all. Few things are more frustrating than hearing “That’s our policy!” delivered with a shrug or a smug expression.
Better: Give staff the freedom to deviate from the policy manual. If the customer’s request is reasonable, employees should have flexibility on the solutions they can offer.

Bad: Make a quick buck. Many companies rush customers in and out trying to make the most money possible. Some doctors are even being pressured to spend no more than 10 minutes with each patient!
Better: Build quality relationships. If you truly listen to your clients, care about them, and deliver stellar service, you’ll set yourself apart—and be rewarded with their loyalty.

Bad: Close the deal no matter what. Don’t “overpromise and underdeliver” just to make sales.
Better: Underpromise and overdeliver. Be upfront about what people will receive for their money, surprising customers only in a positive way.

Bad: Make them jump through hoops. Some reps speak in confusing terms and quiz callers on endless security questions before speaking to them, even on general, non-confidential issues.
Better: Link callers to the information they need. Representatives should connect customers to the appropriate contact, staying on the line until the connection is complete.

Bad: Booby-trap contracts. A major telephone company duped us by placing a very small clause about automatic renewal every three years into our contract. They aren’t even required to send us a notice! Service fees can also get ridiculous—like the time we were billed $50 for a legal assistant to grab a document from a fax machine.
Better: Practice transparency. Write contracts and other documents in plain, simple language and be clear about any charges. Bill reasonably, and don’t try to push “additional offers.” Customers will appreciate it!

Bad: Refuse to accept responsibility. Nothing is quite as infuriating as a bland, insincere apology from someone who clearly feels they did nothing wrong—except, of course, no apology at all. Sometimes, reps even argue back!
Better: Offer a genuine apology. Many times, all customers want is a sincere “I’m sorry.” Then, remedy their complaints.

Bad: Fail to communicate. It’s amazing how long some places take to return phone calls…or never return them at all. Recently, Mike wanted to buy two new cars, so he called the person who sold him his last car. The dealer promised to find the exact car Mike wanted and contact him later that day. Mike never heard from him again!
Better: Respond within one business day. A timely response not only increases your chances of securing the deal, but also lets customers know you truly care. Andrew Darling of Lugoff Ford got Mike’s car sale by responding quickly and providing great service. Sam Cassell of Cassell Brothers Heating and Cooling also scored with Mike when he promptly responded to a generator sale and provided excellent service. At the DuBose Family of Companies, we strive to return all calls before the end of the same day.

Bad: Over-communicate. Many organizations annoy customers post-sale with numerous phone calls, surveys, and e-mail offers.
Better: Keep contact brief. Checking on customers shows that you care, and surveys can collect valuable feedback. Keep communications short, simple, and well spaced out. Always include an “unsubscribe” option in your e-mail messages.

The bottom line: Set yourself apart in a crowded market by making better customer service decisions. Your clients will thank you! Visit for a detailed version of this article and for Mike’s 2014 Quality Vendors Guide.

About the Authors: Our corporate and personal purpose is to “create opportunities to improve lives” by sharing our knowledge, experience, success, research, and mistakes.

Blake DuBose graduated from Newberry College’s Schools of Business and Psychology. He is president of DuBose Web Group. View our published articles at

Mike DuBose has been in business since 1981, authored The Art of Building a Great Business, and is a field instructor with USC’s graduate school. He is the owner of three debt-free corporations, including Columbia Conference Center, Research Associates, and The Evaluation Group. Visit his nonprofit website

Katie Beck serves as Director of Communications for the DuBose family of companies. She graduated from the USC School of Journalism and Honors College.

© Copyright 2014 by Mike DuBose and Blake DuBose--All Rights Reserved. You have permission and we encourage you to forward the full article to friends or colleagues and/or distribute it as part of personal or professional use, providing that the authors are credited. However, no part of this article may be altered or published in any other manner without the written consent of the authors. If you would like written approval to post this information on an appropriate website or to publish this information, please contact Katie Beck at and briefly explain how the article will be used and we will respond promptly. Thank you for honoring our hard work!

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