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Main Street Business: Excuses for Bad Customer Service that Rile Customers

"The devil (sometimes pronounced debil) made me do it!" With that one phrase Flip Wilson, the popular funnyman of the 1970s and 1980s, insured himself a place in comedian immortality. Actually, Flip had a clever routine where he portrayed a character named Geraldine. Geraldine was married to Pastor Leroy. (See a hilarious version of this on YouTube at Geraldine seemed to have a problem when it came to spending, and when questioned by Leroy, she goes on for three minutes trying to convince him and us that she had no intention of buying that dress—she only did it because "the devil made me buy that dress."

Why this story now? The memory was triggered by a customer service encounter I had a couple of weeks back. An issue came up with a company that I really like. They have treated me very well, so I will not mention the name of the company here. By the way, if you have a great customer relationship going, one or two minor glitches are not likely to undue it.

But, here is what happened. I made a reservation online and everything appeared OK. I usually just call or drop by rather than doing it online, but the convenience of online reservations is sometimes very appealing. When I got out to the business, they told me that "the deal" was neither what I had agreed to nor what the official online confirmation from the company stated. So I protested just a bit. What was the problem? Well the devilish computer did it.

Suddenly Geraldine came to mind. Not the fault of anyone you see, because the devil made them do it. We have all probably, at one time or another, had that line used on us or used it on someone else. We understand and accept glitches, but frankly, this was not a glitch. It was a systematic problem with the computer and the software. The appropriate thing for a manager to do in this situation is more than just apologize and fix the problem (which he graciously did.) Rather, he should report this to the company and seek a permanent solution. I suspect I'm not the first one who has run into this issue.

For readers who are a part of the information technology business, we understand your plight. I have a brother who has been a systems analyst/programmer for more than 35 years. He explains to me that what seems like a small, insignificant program change can be amazingly complex. I grant that, but I also think the consequences of not fixing a systematic problem—again note the word systematic—is incredibly damaging. Had I been a first-time customer, I likely would have not gone back there. The larger message, however, is you cannot just blame the devil or his minions for your problems. The devil probably gets way too much credit and blame for self-inflicted customer service problems.

Since I'm talking about customer service systems, let me relate a compelling story that my students and I heard during one of our summer corporate visits a few years ago. We had the privilege of visiting the Hyatt Lodge at McDonald's—the home of Hamburger University up in Oakbrook. The Hyatt managers told us that their guests pay for, and have the right to expect, first-rate treatment. The hotel chain must deliver every time. To achieve this they use their computer systems in a creative way. When customers have a special request—say they want a feather pillow at the Hyatt in Chicago—this preference gets recorded into the Hyatt system. Whether that traveler is checking into the Hyatt in New York, Los Angles or Atlanta, the customer service representative knows about the special request and chances are the request is delivered even before the guest arrives.

How novel-- actually acting as if the customer is not a stranger or a bother. If only the medical system operated that way. Recall the dozens of times you have had to fill out medical forms over and over again when you go from doctor to doctor or clinic to hospital. I wonder what the hotel receptionist says when the customer is surprised that they know them. I suspect "An angel made me do it."

Here are three important lessons we can learn. First, all of us who serve the public need to take responsibility. If a customer complains, carefully analyze what is going on. By all means solve the customer's problem. Second, and even more important, proactively try to anticipate and solve problems ahead of time. Go beyond that, though, and see if there is something basic that needs to be worked on. Computer issues are but one concern. Are your lines too long? Are your refund policies too complex and difficult? From the customer's perspective, are you easy or pleasant to deal with? And do you provide so much value to the customer that they would not think of leaving you, even when the devil seems to challenge your best efforts?

Finally, if there is a major problem, don't just report it, champion a solution through to completion. This is not always easy, because you may have to step on some toes to get the necessary changes. As an employee this will take courage. If you are the boss, you need to go out and look for the issues and not blame those little demons that are hiding everywhere. Tom Peters' famous MBWA (managing by walking around) still works today. You also need to create a climate of trust where your employees get rewarded rather than pounced on for bringing issues to your attention.

We may empathize with Geraldine, who in the end buys the dress, but we also need to tell her to "fess-up" and admit what she did. It was her after all, not the devil, who bought the dress.

Dr. Don Daake, is professor of business at Olivet Nazarene University and director of the Donald H. Weber Leadership Center. He teaches management, marketing, entrepreneurship and advanced applied statistics. He holds a Bachelor of Science from Kansas State University, an MBA from the University of Iowa, and a Ph.D. from the Florida State University. Contact him at

Dr. Edward Piatt, is a manager with the state of Illinois with 27 years' experience. He holds a Bachelor of Science from Purdue University, a MBA from Governors State University and an Ed.D. from Olivet. He also serves as an adjunct professor of business at Olivet, where he teaches management courses. Contact him at

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