The Place That Sends You Mad

September 17, 2008


I know, I know. Just hearing the phrase ‘bad customer service’ sounds like a squeaky wheel. But what blog would be complete without a gripe about some kind of a customer service horror story?

My inspiration comes from both personal experience, but also from a comic book series I used to read as a youngster. My dad would often surprise us with the latest copy of The Adventures of Astérix a series of comic books that follows the quest of two characters – Astérix and Obélix who defend Gaul (old France) from the Romans by drinking a magic potion brewed by an old druid (aptly named ‘Getafix’), which gives them superhuman strength. The characters often run into all kinds of problems that create situations nothing short of hilarity.

When it comes to relating to horrific customer service experiences, the story that comes to mind is when Astérix and Obélix are challenged by Julius Caesar himself to prove they are gods. Caesar doesn’t believe that they have superhuman strength, and as such, challenges them to a series of twelve tasks, based on the same ones completed by Hercules.

One of their tasks is to find Permit A 38 in a large building complex which resembles a maze. The organization is founded on bureaucracy and the staff is typically unhelpful directing all the clients to other dazed staff in the building. The lady at the first kiosk insists on being on the phone with her friend discussing the latest piece of gossip. At the second window, another woman is filing her nails. Asterix decides to turn the tables by asking for an imaginary permit, sending the whole place into chaos. Eventually they give him Permit A 38 just so he will leave!


I love this comic strip because it captures so perfectly the enraging behaviour of customer service clerks that so many of us experience on a daily basis. The poor customer often gets pawned off to another person until finally the customer is ready to give up. It’s truly enough to drive you mad! One of my favourite stories is told by our COO, Laurie Clarke who was trying to resolve an issue with her phone and was connected with a call center (ostensibly found in India). She was in Charlotte, NC and her phone wouldn’t receive calls, but would allow data to come through. The customer service representative was making small talk and asked her where she was and why. “I’m here on business,” she replied. Yet throughout the conversation, he kept asking about her vacation, and what there was to do for fun in Charlotte. “I don’t know,” she replied irritated, “I’m here for business.” At the end of the conversation – and after fixing her problem – he said, “Enjoy your vacation!” Even though he resolved her issue, it shows the complete and utter lack of care placed in providing good and sincere customer service.


In an article published by the Globe and Mail last August, reporter Peter Cheney quotes Greg Daugherty, executive editor of Consumer Reports magazine as attributing the increase in customer service complaints to a corporate culture that is all talk and no action. Most companies, according to Daugherty are focused on cost-cutting rather than building meaningful relationships with their clients.

Then you have companies like Lee Valley Tools, founded by Leonard Lee – an ardent disciple of the old-school approach: talking to customers directly. In an interview with Gordon Pitts (another Globe writer) he says, “What I find most amazing is watching Canadian and American businesses farm out their customer service. You might as well put a gun to your head and pull the trigger. It’s Russian roulette if you farm it out because the outsource specialists don’t know your business and they don’t know your culture. When you’ve farmed out customer service you’ve lost the connection with the customer, and you will eventually die a horrible economic death.”


The bottom line is that many companies have become so focused on getting their product out the door that they’ve created a “push” mentality – in other words – forcing their service (and their version of quality) onto their customers whether they like it or not. These same companies often pass the blame onto their customers for not dialing the right number or citing the correct reference. I borrow from Cheney when I echo, “since when is a customer always wrong?”

Customers are a company’s lifeline. We all know that without them, there would be no company. A truly customer-centric organization allows the customer to “pull” the service they want and listens to the feedback in order to improve on the customer experience. The Tatham Method insists on beginning with the customer and ending with the customer for this very reason.

To be fair, much like Mr. Lee, there are a great deal of companies who have caught on. (These include JetBlue, ComIT Solutions, and Lexus among others.) Still, any company that continues to send their customers to ‘The Place That Sends You Mad’ is deluding itself. Whether your customers give up or turn on you, none of them are Hercules – you have to be the god of Customer Service. And trust us – when you consider your customers the number one priority, you will be able to say, “Veni, Vidi, Vici.”