On Customer Empathy: A Tale of Two Customer Experiences. Apple Versus HP. HP Is the Gold Standard.

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by: Idris Mootee

Continuing on the subject of empathy, Empathy is key in customer service and it’s not something you can embed in a script or redesign process flow to make it happen. Especially in call centers, medical services, technical support, hospitality — places where expectations are high and people feel vulnerable … those are the place we need applied empathy to convey to the customer that they understand them and truly care to help resolve their issues. Not reading from a script.

Almost everyone has the ability to empathize. It’s just easier not to. It’s easier to rely on the script so you don’t have to involve yourself. But until you do just that, the customer perceives your service as inauthentic, unfeeling, uncaring. I suspect over 95% of our daily interactions with customer service people are like that, the other 5% truly sets the gold standard in customer service beyond processes.

Here’s a story in point. I was having a few problems with my Macbook Air for a few months, only recently I had to send it in because the hinge actually broke in additional to audio issues. So my EA brought it after making an appointment, the technician said that the broken hinge was not covered under the warranty and it was damaged due to user’s fault. I asked him to show me any signs of physical damage if it was caused by an external force. He repeated what he said and asked me to call Apple if I wasn’t happy with his conclusion. I asked him to take pictures of it and make sure the person I called understand the case.

A few days later, I called Apple Care and after talking to an AppleCare agent, a product specialist and then transferred to someone in California, she told me could not find any pictures. So she called the store, located the picture and read the notes. The notes said there were many scratches on the cover. I asked them what does scratches have anything to do with the issue. They said nothing. 3 hours into the call, she finally came to a conclusion that the damage was not caused by the user (that”s me) but classified as unexplained accident, whatever it means. She offered to share the replacement cost.  It was not only an uncaring experience, it shows hot broken the system is. I am paying an extra $250 plus for AppleCare and this is what I am getting. I wasn’t happy because clearly there’s a manufacturing problem here. AppleCare doesn’t really care. That’s my experience.

The same week, my son’s HP laptop was more than a year old and last week its logic board blew and translation…you might as well buy a new one than replacing the it. I asked him to call HP anyway. When I came home later that night, he told me the HP service was so helpful and they had agreed to replace it even it is out of warranty. It is a known issue. It was disruptive for my son since he loaded the machine with tons of applications, he still needs to back up all the files but he wasn’t upset because HP promised to fix the problem. The box arrived the next day for him to ship the machine back. He is telling him his next laptop is a HP.

When I went to work the next day, my colleague Nick was telling me how happy he was with HP. Two weeks ago his HP Pavilion Notebook died…which is not the good part of the story. Here’s his story. He called their 1-800 # and was talking with a real life person within 20 seconds of calling…a welcome surprise. As an added bonus he was engaging and helpful. 

They walked him through a couple of steps to see if there was a quick fix, which there wasn’t. They then acknowledged that it was out of warranty and my Pavilion was not part of any recall…but that HP would fix the problem anyway. They walked him through the whole process, including suggesting to back up the hard drive.

The next day an UPS box arrived for Nick to send back the laptop. He received emails at every stage of the repair and shipment. Two days after the email telling him it had shipped, he received his laptop back (with the Hard Drive still working)…fixed and as good as new. Apparently the problem was with the motherboard. For Nick, this experience pretty much guarantees that his next personal computer will be an HP.

Back to my story, I ended up going into a Mac Store and bought a new MacBook Air, Time Machine is great, in 3 hrs I am up and running. A problem occurred when I try to use my HP printer at home, so I had to call HP. A friendly voice on the other side told me my warranty for the printer has expired, but I might have the date wrong and he could help me to correct it. He then spent 30mins helping to get it to work. Half an hour later, we still couldn’t figure out why but he tried everything. Strangely I was not upset and in fact I felt sorry that he wasn’t able to help. Next day I went out and buy another HP printer. They deserve my business.

What’s the difference between Apple Care and HP? When handling strong emotion or frustrated customers empathy is key, Apple failed the test. I was a stressed out customers in a desperate situation. Unless one can convey the customer that he/she completely gets what’s going on and feel for them in an authentic way they will never feel satisfied. Even sometimes they may not be in a position to help. To be heard, respected is step one. Nothing else but empathy can immediately deflate an angry customer, and be a release valve in highly charged situations. Empathy is not a “nice-to-have;” it is a must in building strong customer relationship. Many companies don’t get it.

An article in the most recent issue of HBR “When Should a Process Be Art, Not Science?” by Joseph M. Hall and M. Eric Johnson highlights many of these challenges. The idea that some processes should be allowed to vary flies in the face of the century-old movement toward standardization. Process standardization is taught to MBAs, embedded in Six Sigma programs, and practiced by managers and consultants worldwide. Thousands of manufacturing companies have achieved tremendous improvements in quality and efficiency by copying the Toyota Production System, which combines rigorous work standardization with approaches such as just-in-time delivery of components and the use of visual controls to highlight deviations. Process standardization also has permeated nearly every service industry, generating impressive gains.

With success, though, has come overuse. Process standardization has been pushed too far, with little regard for where it does and does not make sense. According to the authors, scientific process management calls for blindly reducing variability. But sometimes variability cannot be avoided. Take the inconsistencies in the wood used in the soundboards of pianos. In other cases, the costs of decreasing variability outweigh the benefits—for instance, if doctors applied a cookbook approach to treating complex diseases. The traditional scientific approach to such situations is to try to tame the environment by imposing complex rules that spell out what to do in every possible circumstance. Not only does that reduce accountability, but it often causes workers to switch to autopilot instead of trying to understand the specifics of each job.

Of the 9 out of the 10 Apple customer service people I’ve spoken to the last 20 days, only one of them have shown empathy, all the rest were on autopilot mode, shown zero empathy and all were acting like a piece of code. Next time if anyone from Apple try reading a script to me again, I have some nasty things words for them, because I am a very pissed Apple customer.

HP deserves a five stars rating. It is the Ritz-Carlton equivalent for computers and printers. See below the cool Vivienne Tam’s design, truly fashion meets technology. For AppleCare, all you get is free phone support and three years of sub-standard mail-in repair service.

Original Post: http://mootee.typepad.com/innovation_playground/2009/03/customer-empathy-apple-versus-hp-hp-is-the-gold-standard-it-is-the-ritzcarlton-equivalent-for-pcs-an.html