Over the years, I've been told by executives at high-tech companies that every call that comes to customer service or technical support is an opportunity to take a problem and turn it into a loyal customer. The idea goes back even further. The great American industrialist Henry J. Kaiser -- who built the Hoover Dam, the Liberty Ships, and Kaiser Health, among other achievements -- is famous for quipping, "A problem is just an opportunity in work clothes." That attitude brought him great success, both business and personal, and has been much cited since.
But this being the Gripe Line, it's become clear to me over the years that the opposite is also true. It is possible to take a small problem and not only squander the opportunity but turn it into something irreparable. I recently tried to repair such a rift between HP in Canada and one of its customers.
Stacy wrote to me about a problem he had with his laptop, which was only a year and a half old when something went very wrong with its motherboard. He called customer support and, unfortunately, found himself speaking to someone who had not heard Mr. Kaiser's famous quip.
This support rep, according to Stacy, did not see this problem as an opportunity but as an irritant. He diagnosed the problem as caused most likely by a battery that had been, unknown to Stacy, recalled. The heat from the battery, which was too hot to touch, had likely fried the motherboard, the tech told him. He offered to fix the laptop for $450. This price seemed high to Stacy, who pointed out that the problem was caused by a known defect, that he had not been informed of the recall, and that a new laptop didn't cost much more than $450.
The technical support representative laughed, and while laughing may seem like a small thing, this time it wasn't.
"I have a stutter," explains Stacy. "It gets worse when I'm agitated or uncomfortable." This tech support representative -- and another one that Stacy spoke to the next day -- laughed and sighed with impatience whenever he began to stutter. "I felt belittled, embarrassed, and ashamed," he says.
These are emotions, and they can turn a situation like this one from a problem into an opportunity. If the tech support representative had been understanding and supportive, it's possible that the same offer of repair -- or the one that followed -- would have made a loyal customer out of Stacy. But the emotions Stacy was made to feel are those provoked by the schoolyard bully, and they have no place in customer service.