October, 2007
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors

When Good Customer Service Rules Go Bad


Tony did exactly as he was trained. He sent a hand-written thank you note to his customer. However, when his customer received it, she was furious and tore it up before throwing it out.

How could something as well intentioned as a thank you note create such a negative reaction? As it turns out, this
customer was still in the process of getting a serious issue resolved with Tony and his company. The thank you note arrived before this issue was dealt with, he never mentioned it and he never apologized for the problem. Even though the thank you note was handwritten, it was as impersonal as a mass-produced letter that starts with “Dear Customer.”

If you train your employees to routinely do things without understanding the subtleties and context of their actions, you run the risk that they’ll do the right things but in the wrong way.

Here are some of the most common customer service rules, when to break them and alternative best practices to apply instead.

Rule One: Always use the customer’s name

Dale Carnegie said, “The sweetest sound in any language is the sound of one’s own name.” Though it may be true that using a customer’s name can create a sense of intimacy, it can also have the opposite effect.

Watch out for the following mistakes:

1. Using the customer’s name too often.

“Well, Bob, you can see that this is the perfect solution for your business, don’t you agree Bob? After all Bob, studies have shown this to be true. And Bob ...”

Overusing your customer’s name may make him or her uncomfortable, seeming like an insincere gimmick rather than a true connection.

2. Mispronouncing your customer’s name.

Some people have names that are hard to pronounce or have an unusual pronunciation. In either case, it is always good to ask the proper way to pronounce their name. Once you’ve heard the proper pronunciation, it’s essential that you pronounce it correctly. Customers may forgive you for not saying it right, but it will still grate on their nerves to hear it said wrong repeatedly.

3. Being too formal or informal when using your
customer’s name.

Some people prefer to use their first name; some prefer an honorific such as Mr., Miss, Ms., Mrs., Ma’am, Sir, etc. It is far more respectful to start off by being formal, letting your customer tell you his or her preference.

Best Practice:
Use your customer’s name in a way that shows respect and begins to build rapport.

Rule Two: Always shake your customer’s hand

For decades, salespeople have been taught to shake hands in order to connect and build trust and rapport with their customers. However, there are a number of situations where offering a handshake can create more tension than trust.

1. Cultural issues.

There are cultures and religions in which handshaking is either forbidden or considered rude. If you are dealing with a multi-cultural customer base, learn all you can about the appropriate ways to greet and welcome them.

2. Social anxiety.

For some people, the mere thought of having to shake hands creates a level of tension that can ruin the entire interaction.

3. People with compromised immune systems.

In 1918, the town of Prescott, Arizona, outlawed handshaking to slow down the spread of the flu epidemic. Many people have been told by their doctors that they should not shake hands in order to protect their fragile immune systems. There are also perfectly healthy people who are afraid of the germs that can be transmitted by a handshake.

Best Practice:
Instead of initiating the handshake, it is better to wait until your customer makes the first move. Keep your arms relaxed, but ready to respond. If they start to shake your hand, you can easily reach out and grasp their hand in return.

Rule Three: Always send a handwritten thank you note

In this impersonal business world, a handwritten note will help you stand out and make a great impression, but sometimes a note can have the opposite effect.

1. Sending a thank you note before a problem is successfully resolved

As in the opening story, don’t send a thank you note if your customer has an unresolved problem. Don’t send a note unless it’s an apology, not a thank you.

2. Impersonal note

A perfunctory “thank you for doing business with us” can fall flat like a form letter, ruining whatever connection you may have with your customer.

Best Practice: Although a handwritten note is still somewhat personal in its nature, you need to take it a step further by writing something unique that relates to each customer. Your note should include references to what you have spoken about with the customer.

Rule Four: Follow the Golden Rule

From the time we are children, we have been taught to follow the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as we would have them do unto us.” Following this rule can create a number of problems:

1. Treating your customer in a way that makes them uncomfortable.

It is somewhat egocentric to assume that your customer has the same wants and desires that you do. For example, if you are a gregarious person who likes lots of conversation and connection, you risk pushing your customer away if that kind of treatment makes them uneasy.

2. Missing an opportunity to surprise and delight.

When you only use yourself as a reference about what would impress your customer, you lose the ability to be
nimble and creative. When you listen carefully to your customer, he or she will give you clues about what you can do to go the extra mile.

Best Practice: Use the Platinum Rule: “Treat others the way they want to be treated.” This ensures that your customer will be treated in a way that meets his or her needs.

The bottom line to all these rule breakers and best practices is to keep your customer service personal. Don’t just follow the rules; choose the best way to apply them to meet and exceed your customer’s needs.

Laurie Brown is an international trainer and consultant who works to help people improve their sales, service and presentation skills. She is the author of The Teleprompter Manual for Executives, Politicians, Broadcasters and Speakers. Laurie can be contacted through www.thedifference.net, or 877.999.3433, or at lauriebrown@thedifference.net.