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Customer Service Tips: Do You Treat Different Customers Differently?

Seth Godin brought up this thought-provoking question in a blog post. My answer? Yes, I treat different customers differently. I treat all customers with respect and in a professional manner. But the customers who take responsibility for their marketing and who are willing to be a partner with me in the process — those are the ones who get top priority.

By the way, those customers are not always the ones who spend the most money with me either. When it comes to working with people, I’m like a blood hound. I NEED to see the customer succeed — it’s more than just a want. In order for that to happen, though, the customer needs to be a part of the process, at least for the type of work I do. This is why those customers get top priority.

How ’bout you? Do you treat different customers differently?

Customer “Engagement”: But What if the Conversation isn’t Satisfying?

Dear Copy Bitch: I keep reading that I need to engage my customers in conversation, and I feel that my team and I already do that. So why am I not seeing more “benefits” from this engagement?

—Confused in Manchester, NH

Answer: Indeed, the buzzword these days is “conversation.” Engage your customers and have conversations with them. That’s all well and good, but I have a question: what if the conversation isn’t satisfying to your customers? Is it enough for your business to simply be having the conversations, or should the goal be to have satisfying conversations?

Here’s my philosophy: don’t try to engage your customers in conversation unless you’re willing to make the commitment to having satisfying conversations. Now, I realize that you won’t be able to please every customer or prospect you come in touch with. And I’m not saying all conversation has to be intellectual or life changing. Like porn, a satisfying conversation isn’t something I can necessarily describe. But I know it when I see it and experience it.

Here’s a true-life example that recently happened to me. This example is a mixture of some satisfying and unsatisfying conversation.

Here’s the story: Since I live in Massachusetts, I’m required by state law to have health insurance. Since I’m a freelancer, I pay for my own health insurance. The Health Connector is an independent state agency that helps people like me find the right health insurance plan, and it promotes Commonwealth Choice and Commonwealth Care on its website. I get mine through Commonwealth Choice. Back in February, Commonwealth Choice offered e-pay, which I immediately signed up for. I do 99% of my personal and business payments this way for two reasons:

  1. It’s ultra convenient for me
  2. It’s a green solution–no more bills in the mail.

However, after having been on e-pay for six months, I kept getting paper bills: the amount due was listed as $0, and there was a return envelope for payment. This went against my whole greener solution. I went on the website to see if there was any information about why I might be getting a paper bill in the mail.

On the FAQs section of the e-pay website, it said (and still says) this:

Question: Will I continue to receive bills through the mail if I enroll in e-pay? Will it show my payment status?

Answer: We will continue to send you a regular monthly bill in the mail.

I don’t know about you, but that FAQ didn’t make any sense to me. So I called Commonwealth Choice and had a very unsatisfying conversation with the customer service rep who took my call. I explained my conundrum, and she didn’t make me feel like I had a valid question. She simply told me they were “required” to send me paper invoices. I asked if she knew whether this would change since it was a policy that was wasting paper, and she said she didn’t know but that maybe people in IT were working on it.

I decided to turn to Twitter, and sure enough @HealthConnector had an active account. So I tweeted. Here’s how it played out:

ME: @healthconnector Why do you waste paper by sending me “invoices” for $0 (with a return envelope for remittance) when I pay automatically online?
4:10 PM Oct 22nd from web

HC:  @RobynBradley Hmmm. Good question. Are you a Commonwealth Choice member? And if so, how long have you had E-Pay?
4:57 PM Oct 22nd from TweetDeck in reply to RobynBradley

ME: @HealthConnector Commonwealth Choice. Signed up for E-Pay right when you started it back in Feb/March. One reason I do epay is 2 b green!
6:09 PM Oct 22nd from web

So far, so good. I was pleased with the rapid reply. And for the record, I respect “I don’t know, but let me find out” responses–I appreciate the honesty. Satisfied so far? You betchya.

But then four days went by (including two weekend days, so we’ll forgive that). Here’s what happened next.

ME: @HealthConnecter Any word on why I’m still getting paper invoices? Signed up for auto e-pay back in February. ’tis a waste of paper.
9:50 AM Oct 26th from web

And another two days…

ME: @HealthConnector Any word?
1:47 PM Oct 28th from web

Finally a response…

HC: @RobynBradley E-pay is here, but the e-billing is not yet built out. Until it is, paper is how we confirm your payment status. We’re on it.
5:04 PM Oct 28th from TweetDeck in reply to RobynBradley

HC: @RobynBradley Sorry for the delay, btw. Needed to confirm the status of e-billing. Thanks for reaching out — and for going green!
5:07 PM Oct 28th from TweetDeck in reply to RobynBradley

How satisfying was this conversation for me? I’d label it “so-so,” and here’s my point: I had someone or something engaging me, the customer, at every step of the process (i.e. the FAQ section of the website, the customer service rep, and @HealthConnector). But not every engagement step, not every conversation, left me satisfied, and here’s why:

1. The FAQ section left me unsatisfied. An easy fix? Simply explain that e-pay and e-billing are two separate things (I’ll admit it; I didn’t know this until I went through this experience). I’d also recommend that the FAQ section not only explain the difference, but also why the Commonwealth Choice folks decided to release e-pay first as opposed to waiting and releasing e-pay and e-billing at the same time (like most other companies do; out of all the vendors that I pay electronically, this is the only one where the e-billing component isn’t working in tandem with epay).

2. Customer service reps should be prepped on these answers as well, and they should be encouraged to acknowledge a person’s query about it and express their understanding as to why someone who is trying to go green would be frustrated by getting a useless invoice for $0 AND a useless return envelope in the mail.

3. My initial interaction with @HealthConnector was totally satisfying. Then it wasn’t. But then it sorta was. I appreciate the “sorry for the delay,” but the answer didn’t make sense to me (I actually then had to research that e-pay and e-billing are two different things) and the “thanks for going green” comment felt a little hollow because my whole point is that the current situation isn’t totally green yet (it won’t be until e-billing is released, whenever that will be; saying “we’re on it” is okay, but vague).

So what are the takeaways from this?

  1. Simply engaging with customers isn’t enough. You need to make the commitment to leave them satisfied, which requires you to try to get in their head and think like them.
  2. Look deeper into their questions. My first tweet to @healthconnector mentioned the waste of paper and my second tweet mentioned that I do e-pay because I want to be green and my point is that receiving paper and an envelope in the mail every month detracts from my feeling of greenness. But neither one of these important issues was really acknowledged anywhere along the customer engagement process (not by the FAQ, not by the customer service rep, and not by the Twitter exchange)
  3. Now, I realize you won’t be able to satisfy all customers. But what can you do and say differently that would satisfy more of them? How can you change the tenor of the conversation to make it more effective and satisfying?

So what would have satisfied me?

  1. Better FAQ answers
  2. A customer service rep who didn’t make me feel like I was wasting her time
  3. Acknowledgement that the company isn’t totally green yet (since it just has e-pay), but that it hopes to be totally green within x-amount of time. Oh, and thanks for my patience during the wait b/c it must be frustrating getting the paper bills.

What do you think? Is simply having the conversation enough…or do we need to strive for satisfying conversations?

UPDATE: I originally published this post in November 2009. Today, as I write this update, it’s 7/31/17 and the Health Connector finally launched paperless billing a couple of months ago. It only took EIGHT (!!!) years. Think of all the wasted money on paper and postage.