A tale (or two) of customer service

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20 August 2004

Though not strictly a computer thing, I have a classic tale of customer service. And hey, customer service is an issue for everyone, all the time. As computer professionals we provide a service to our customers, whether internal or external. And providing good customer service means we get better raises and/or get to keep our job.

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This tale of customer service is actually two interlinked stories. They illustrate that customer service is all about how you treat the customer. It is all about interpersonal relationship and interaction.   Many years ago I changed the oil in my car myself. My wife and I couldn’t afford to pay to have it changed, and it wasn’t hard to do on cars built in the 70’s and early 80’s. But over time it became harder and harder to dispose of the used oil, and my income improved as my career moved along.   So eventually we started going to Valvoline Rapid Oil Change. They were quick, efficient and inexpensive. More expensive than me doing it, but by this point in life it was worth the extra money. After using their services for quite some time, they offered to change the PVC valve in our car. It was a $6 part. Not overly hard to change, and their price wasn’t much higher than the price of the part itself. In other words, it seemed worth it, so we said sure, go ahead.   In those years <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Minnesota required annual emissions testing for all cars in the Twin Cities area. Our test was scheduled for perhaps a month after the PVC valve had been replaced. And the car failed. Of course the state test doesn’t say why the car failed, just that it failed.   So off we went to the Chevy dealer. $60 later it turns out that the emissions failure was due to a faulty PVC valve.   Now I knew darned well that the valve was new. After all, Rapid Oil Change had just changed it less than a month before. So I went over to the oil change place, with their receipt for the PVC valve, the state emissions failure form and the dealer receipt showing the work done at the dealer.   I asked to talk to the manager. He didn’t look happy, and as I explained the story, he looked less happy. Before I could even explain where I hoped this conversation would go, he cut me off and told me that there was no way he could know if their PVC valve was faulty or if the problem had some other root cause.   In other words, he shut me down. No apology, much less offering to defray the $60 his shop had cost me.   In all the years since then we’ve never used Valvoline Rapid Oil Change. Any time I get a chance, I tell people to avoid the chain. Just by my wife and I not using them, they’ve certainly lost more than the $60. And I like to think that I’ve cost them other business as well, thus hopefully providing some just punishment for employing such a crappy manager and for installing faulty parts.   Contrast this to an experience I had just this past week. Last weekend we bought a small pop-up camper trailer so it will be easier to go camping as a family.   The trailer has a round 6-pin wiring plug for the lights. It has the 6-pin plug so it can get power directly from the car alternator/battery and thus it can charge the deep cycle battery in the camper while we drive down the road. Unfortunately my van has a flat 4-pin connector, which works great for most small trailers (like my boat trailer), but doesn’t match up to the 6-pin.   I figured I could rig up an adapter that would at least get the lights working. My thought was that I just didn’t need to recharge the battery from the van, and that it would be cheap and easy to get the lights working.   It turns out that modern cars are finicky and have complex wiring… They aren’t nearly as easy or fun to work with as my 1976 Datsun F-10, or my 1987 Cavalier… So I managed to blow out the fuse for my tail and brake lights on the van, and I still didn’t have the trailer working right.   I called around and ended up going to Burnsville Trailer Hitch, a specialist in these sorts of things. $110 later I had a fully wired 6-pin connector on my van, along with a 6 to 4 converter for my boat trailer. I thought that was money well-spent, since I’d explored running power from the battery back to the plug myself and it would have taken me far longer than the 45 minutes it took them.   But my story isn’t done. Here’s the catch. When I got home, I tried the plug and it didn’t work. The signal and brake lights on the trailer just didn’t work.   I called back to the store, and they offered to look at the problem if I brought the van back. I wasn’t totally thrilled, since we’re talking about a 15 mile drive each way, but there was nothing to be done. Off I went.   About 10 minutes after I got there, the guy comes in and says that there’s this converter unit that safely combines the signal and brake light wires from the van (which has separate bulbs for signal and brake) into a single pair of wires for left and right on the trailer (which has one bulb on each side for signal and brake). Turns out this converter was blown.   Now I knew about the converter, having wired one into my previous car. With him pointing out that it was blown, I strongly suspected that it was my doing, from my earlier attempt to wire the trailer.   Over my protests, he said they’d replace it for free. Seriously, I protested a bit, saying that it could easily have been my fault. His answer? It could have easily been their fault since they might have blown it when they did the wiring for the 6-pin connector.   So here we have a store with awesome customer service. I was and am impressed and will recommend people go there when ever it is appropriate.   But here’s the real kicker. The oil change place pissed off a regular customer, losing not only me and my wife, but everyone we can convince to avoid the place. The trailer hitch place has no reason to expect I’ll ever return. After all, how often do you need a trailer hitch? Yet they were professional and went above and beyond the call to provide great service.   As I said to start, I’m not sure this has anything to do directly with computers, but I’ll bet you that if you treat your customers like Burnsville Trailer Hitch that you’ll have happy customers, get better raises and have a more secure job overall!