Monday, October 1, 2007

Customer Service: Some Days You're the Pigeon; Some Days You're the Statue

Yesterday we discussed integrity, which I believe to be one of the most important characteristics in any relationship, be it business or personal. Today I want to talk briefly about customer service.

To me, the two are inextricably linked. After you read this blog entry, you'll see why.

I conduct many transactions online, frequently doing business with unseen people on eBay and through my pal William Shatner at Priceline. Almost every single transaction I have conducted with sellers and buyers on eBay has been flawless (with the exception of the unscrupulous and often hilariously transparent scams); every time I have conducted business with Priceline (usually via the man-magnet "name your own price" function) the website has delivered on its promises.

eBay and Priceline make it clear and easy for their customers to follow through on their unique brand promises. They've staked out virtually unassailable market positions and defend their positions not through traditional advertising but rather through the immensely powerful tool of "word of mouth" marketing. Every chance I get, I laud eBay and Priceline for their ease of use, their depth of service, and their follow through.

That's customer service in the Internet age. Tell us what you're going to give us, make it convenient for us to get it, and then--if we really need help--make it easy for us to access customer service. Every once in a while--not every day, please God--send us informative and interesting notices about what's new on your site or in your business. Smooth out the path for your customers and let'em run. Put out some signs to keep'em headed in the right direction.

Of course, on the other hand (the "Some Days You're the Statue" part of the title, above), you've got businesses like Jiffy Lube, where I went today for an oil change. Jiffy Lube has also carved out a highly profitable niche in the oil change and car care market. They charge a premium for fast, convenient, consistent and predictable service, and most people appreciate it. I know I do; having changed my oil myself a few times, I happily (and cleanly) pay more for Jiffy Lube's fast, efficient service.

But here's what I don't like about Jiffy Lube: The knowledge most Americans have about their cars boils down to "insert key in ignition and turn" and "fill with gas when necessary." To their credit--and profit--Jiffy Lube has conditioned us to "every 3,000 miles just bring it in to Jiffy Lube."

The fact is, most cars today don't need to have their oil changed every 3,000 miles. With normal use, most new cars don't need an oil change until 10,000 miles or beyond! When you do bring your car into Jiffy Lube--lured, perhaps, by the $5 discount coupon you received in the mail (or found online)--you get what Jiffy Lube has promised. So far, so good.

You also get up-selled. There you are, in the waiting room, and a uniformed manager sticks his (or her) head from inside the service bay and calls your name. You dutifully follow him into the service bay to arrive before a computer that displays your car's entire service record--whether or not you have ever been to that Jiffy Lube branch (that is only if you have taken your car to any other Jiffy Lube). There you are, fully clothed, your car is digitally exposed.

The manager proceeds to tell you about your oil change, recommending a higher quality oil--"because winter's coming and the oil in your car will work harder... Less viscosity, you know." OK, at an extra $5 that sounds reasonable. Then he shows you your car's air filter, casually flicking a finger over the dirt lodged therein and saying, "We recommend you change your air filter; it'll improve your gas mileage and engine performance." That's another $19.99. Then he says, well, you're due for a change of wiper blades: Another $15, should you say to yourself that winter's coming and you really do need to see out that windshield.

Then he hits you with the fuel injection cleaning, the air conditioning ("also puts out heat, and winter's coming"), et cetera, et cetera ad nauseum. Abracadabra alakazam! What was going to be a $30.00 oil change has suddenly turned into a $100 repair job.

Since you know very little about your car, you trust the Jiffy Lube professionals to help you: Why, if they recommend it, my car must need it. And I need my car, so I better take care of it. I'm here, after all, so let me just get it done and not worry about it later.

Knowing this psychological dance, you can bet good money that Jiffy Lube's senior managers strongly encourage their branch managers to push these ancillary--often unnecessary (at the time)--services. I'd like to see their demographic studies: Ladies, you'll forgive me here for generalizing, but you are sure to be a "goose that laid a golden egg" at your local Jiffy Lube. It's good marketing and great salesmanship. But it's somehow... duplicitous.

After all, do you really need what they say you need? Is your car really going to stop running without that fuel injection cleaning system overhaul? And couldn't you just go down the street to Advance Auto Parts and buy that air filter (still easy to install in most cars) and those wiper blades (again, a five-minute installation)?

There are those who will argue that Jiffy Lube provides an indispensable service to our harried, auto-ignorant society. I understand their perspective. What bugs me about Jiffy Lube is that I don't think they really care about my car and how things are working under the hood... They just care about my wallet and how they can get at what's inside. And that, to me, is false customer service.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

After reading your blog, I thought I should share with you something from a while ago.

LOS ANGELES -- In a Team 4 Reports undercover investigation, Joel Grover exposes how some of the state's biggest car repair chains could be cheating customers -- even breaking the law.

Here is a link to the video clip -