Why Over-the-Top Customer Service Is a Horrible Retention Strategy

Adam Fout

Sometime in the 80s, something horrible happened.

Some twit started spreading a new gospel: The Gospel of Over-the-Top Customer Service.

The idea was so simple it just had to be revolutionary — provide customer service that goes so far above a customer’s expectations that the customer is simply bowled over with appreciation for your brand, and in their ecstasy of gratefulness and amazement, become that one thing we’re all searching for…

A customer for life.

That’s what we’re all looking for, right? That magic formula that turns customers into–at the very least–churn-resistant advocates–and at best–super-evangelists.

So, to the poor customer service managers of the 80s, before the concept of the customer experience was even a twinkle in a marketer’s eye, the idea of doing MORE than simply providing competent, basic customer service was mind-blowing.

So Everyone Started Doing It… And Customer Service Suffered

It’s sad but true. At some point, the average, regular, every-day customer service interaction just got… forgotten.

And the focus became identifying opportunities to provide over-the-top customer service in isolated, specialized, and often-non-recurring situations.

So you started to see these hand-written letters appearing in call centers, in front offices, on the walls of oil change stations, in doctor’s offices…

Silly little letters about how the proprietors of the establishment had just made their customer’s day by providing simply phenomenal service.

It was usually something ridiculous, like “They didn’t just change my oil — they changed my whole car!” or “Doctor such-and-who gave me three new kidneys and rescued my orangutan from a burning building!”

And you’re over here thinking “Well, Dr. Such-and-Who can kiss my you-know-what ’cause my appointment was at 3 and it’s 8:30 and I’m starving and my children are wandering the streets of Texas hitting the neighbors’ cats with sticks.”

And, in the meantime, something terrible was happening while all these super-duper-special-and-rare customers with unique needs were getting above-and-beyond customer service…

All those regular customers, with regular issues, who just wanted their damn cable turned on, or their damn washer to work, or their damn oil changed quickly, or their damn teeth cleaned in less than 30 minutes, or their damn computer fixed…

All those normal folks got left behind as customer service reps focused heavily on picking the most miserable, angry, or down-and-out customers to receive over-the-top customer service.

Ironically, This Strategy Didn’t Work

The squeakiest and saddest wheels got the most oil, and the normal folks, who probably would have stuck around if they’d just gotten regular, normal, quality customer service, well, those folks left.

And those sad, loud wheels? Most of them didn’t care that much anyway that they had gotten this supposedly amazing service.

This isn’t conjecture — study after study after study after study has shown that what people want is not over-the-top customer service, or even someone who cares about their problem. Instead, what people want is to have their problems solved, solved well, and solved fast by someone who seems to know what the heck they’re doing.

Further, the people who get the over-the-top treatment aren’t affected much by it.

From that first article up there (my favorite):

“Exceeding their expectations during service interactions… makes customers only marginally more loyal than simply meeting their needs.”

How ’bout them apples?

Apparently this was beyond the big thinkers a few decades ago, which makes sense — it’s not sexy, it’s not exciting, it’s not revolutionary, it’s not “disruptive.”

It was common sense. It is common sense. But that’s why I figure it had to be a bunch of high-end hotel owners or Bugatti GMs pushing this stuff, because they work with the ultra rich who, generally speaking, must be wowed to be kept around.

Us lowly peasants can usually scrape by with merely satisfactory customer service.

And Yet, This Ideology of Over-the-Top Is Incredibly Persistent

No matter what you do, no matter where you go, no matter how hard you try, you can see the slippery tendrils of the over-the-top ideology still clinging desperately to the minds of business people the world round.

I want to share a personal example of exactly what I’m talking about here to really illustrate the point.

Buckle in — it’s a stupidly long ride.

For the past 1.5 years, I’ve had my internet through a company who shall remain nameless. This company has always provided stellar internet service and speed in my area — I cannot once think of a time when the service foundered or failed.

However, this is not the case for other customers in other parts of the country. This particular company took over a large portion of another ISP’s market and infrastructure, and the transition was truly horrendous across a large portion of the U.S.

But I never experienced that, which was awesome, so I really had no problem with this ISP.

That is, until I had to call them to cancel my service (we moved, and we couldn’t keep the service as they don’t serve our new apartment complex).

In my naive little mind, I thought this just had to be as simple as warm apple pie — I mean, seriously, how difficult can shutting off service really be?

Apparently, It Can Be Extremely Difficult

On my first attempt to call these people, I could tell right away that it was going to be a real PITA-type of experience.

First, I got into their call tree and realized, very quickly, that they didn’t use the voice-recognition technology that’s pretty standard for large brands across the world these days.

I listened to their interminably long menu and gradually got more and more frustrated at how deeply hidden my customer service issue was in the call tree. It was at least three levels deep into the tree, and that’s after I convinced them that I wasn’t a new customer or a Spanish speaker.

So at least 5 minutes into this stupid phone call to cancel my service, something that should have taken all of 2 minutes start to finish (or, God forbid, 30 seconds on their website…), I finally get routed into a waiting service and I’m told I have 5 minutes to wait (on top of the 5 minutes I spent navigating their archaic phone tree), but hey, no worries, because I can get into a queue, hang up the phone, and have someone call me back when my time is up.

I’m thinking “Great, that’s fine.”

I get in the queue and hang up.

The Queue Doesn’t Work — What a Shock

About 10 minutes later, I get a call from this company. Apparently, their call failed, because my phone rang for about one second and then promptly hung up before I could answer.

Maybe five minutes later, they call back, so I’m thinking “OK, at least their system is smart enough to call me back when the first call fails.”

I pick up, and guess what greets me.

If you guessed “A customer service representative ready to take my call and fix this tiny problem that I’m now much more annoyed about than I was 20 minutes ago,” you’d be wrong.

I’m greeted by the beginning of the call tree — as though I had just called the number for the first time.

As though I’d never been in a damn queue at all.

Now I’m starting to understand why people hate this company so much.

Eventually, I get someone on the phone, and they’re worse than useless. It takes them a good five minutes just to figure out who the hell I am because I don’t have my account number memorized.

This bumbling customer service representative then tells me that, no, he cannot schedule my service to be turned off, because if he sent that request back to whoever is in charge of such things, they’d just turn my internet off then and there.

So apparently the modern tools you and I know as “The Gregorian Calendar” and “Scheduling” are beyond the reach of this national company.


So I say “Thanks, I guess,” and I hang up. I am now super annoyed because I just spent almost an hour of my day accomplishing precisely nothing.

It’s a Simple Problem, Yet They Couldn’t Solve It

And here’s the funny thing — up to this point, I didn’t love them, but I certainly didn’t hate them. I had nothing against them, and I would tell anyone who asked that my service was good and always had been.

Now I could give a heck about my stinkin’ service because I can’t turn the frackin’ thing off.

The story really just goes on and on, and it gets worse and worse as it goes. It was very clear that no one knew what anyone was doing, and it was equally clear that the man on the phone didn’t know what he was doing and wasn’t getting nearly the level of training that he needed.

About two weeks prior to this irritating encounter, I tried to do the exact same thing — and I got through to a person almost immediately…

Except that person told me two things:

  1. We can’t turn your service off until the month you’re moving, but if you call next month, we can totally do it
  2. That I’ve been overpaying on my bill for the entire 5 years I’ve been their customer, and they’re really sorry, but they’ll reduce my bill for next month! (and no, they won’t be crediting me for that 1.5 years of overpayment… *double sigh*).

After I had moved, I made the call.

I was, once again, routed through the call tree, only to find out that I was calling on the wrong day — the customer service department was closed.

A few days later, when I (apparently) called on the right day, I went through the same call tree (which I’ve memorized at this point) and then had to go through the same silly rigmarole of proving who I was because, with all my memorization, I’d neglected to memorize my account number.

And then, finally, like a light at the end of the tunnel, just when the dark seemed darkest and the Orcs were closing in, I heard those magic words:

“Your service will be turned off.”

Thank the Frackin’ Lord

But that’s not all folks — they had one final task for me.

That modem they lent me… yeah, they needed that back.

Did they have a simple way for me to return said modem?

No, they did not.

They’re going to mail me a box… sometime… in the near future… probably in like… 30 days or so.

And then I have to put my modem in that box and… oh, gee, I dunno, give it to my local mailman or mailwoman?

No, that would be too simple.

Instead, I have to take it to one of their dedicated locations and ship it myself, but hey, I won’t have to pay for postage! So I’ve got that goin’ for me, which is nice.

In the meantime, I have that modem tastefully displayed above my mantle, right next to my wedding photos and my signed copy of OK Computer.

I Now Basically Hate This Company

And it didn’t have to be this way!

OK, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m being a bit of a baby about this, but seriously, it should NOT take 45 days and 2–3 hours on the phone to just shut off an account.

That’s crazy. Even leaving aside the modem issue, that’s just nuts.

And you know, there’s literally nothing they could have done to go above and beyond to make this better.

They have not lost me by being boring — they have lost me by being incompetent, an experience more common than we’d all like to admit.

In my new favorite article of all time, the authors argue that, indeed, all people really want is a smooth, simple experience.

And that’s all I wanted here, really — I had a simple problem with an overly complicated answer.

I’d rather have a slapping match with an ill-tempered tiger than work with these people again. Their awesome product is not awesome enough to make me want to put up with their incompetent customer service.

Competence Matters Most

If you want customers to stick around, you have to prove that you’re competent. It’s a baseline, and if you can’t provide basic customer service in the most simple, straightforward manner possible, you’re going to lose customers.

When you force your employees to constantly think about ways to go “Above and Beyond,” you take their focus off the mundane, daily details that matter most to the majority of your customers.

But, if you’re flying high and kicking ass at customer service, then the next thing you need to do is employ some of Sam Hurley’s magnetic retention strategies to make things even better for your only-too-lucky-to-have-you customers.

Because truly, if you’re just avoiding being like the ISP above, you’re making the world a better place.

Good luck out there, marketers.

Originally published at postfunnel.com on July 27, 2017.

PostFunnel, by Optimove, covers the intersection of data, technology, design and innovation in retention marketing, helping practitioners to excel at their work