I recently wrote a post describing an experience I had with an Empowered customer service rep at American Express. To sum it up, my 2-year-old was getting credit card applications in the mail so I called to get it stopped. The agent was surprised that this could have happened and moved quickly to get my daughter’s name off the marketing list. She was genuine and helpful. It was a great experience.

Since then, I’ve had a couple of not-so-positive experiences with other companies that have amplified the impact of the experience I had with American Express. I’ve also witnessed another that a colleague of mine had that made the American Express experience even more genuine.

First, let me start with one of my own experiences. I was having trouble setting up a password to access the online version of a magazine I subscribe to. My copy of the magazine hadn’t yet arrived in the mail (yes, I still get magazines in the mail), and I wanted to have a peek inside. I tried to log in several times with my account credentials and continued to get error messages telling me that I didn’t have an account. When I called to find out what the problem was, I was told in a not-so-patient way that I needed to register to view the online version, which didn’t make sense to me since I was logged in to the site and was a current subscriber. Shouldn’t I automatically be able to see the electronic version without having to register for it? My question was met, not with a sympathetic understanding that the system was out of whack, but with a “this is the way it is, so just do it” attitude. I played along and was unable to register because the site was telling me that my account wasn’t valid. When I voiced this concern to the agent I had on the phone, I was told that the system was down and that she couldn’t check on the status of my account. When I asked what I should do, I was told to call back tomorrow. Yikes! They wouldn’t even call me back? The whole thing left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I can handle a system being down. These things happen (even though they really shouldn’t). But what disturbed me was the treatment I got.   

Let’s shift gears for a moment to another experience that one of my colleagues recently had and I witnessed secondhand via a chat transcript. My colleague was trying to access an account she had with her cable/Internet provider, but she couldn’t find her password. Happily, her issue got resolved, but not until she endured paragraph after paragraph of phrases that were intended to show empathy but only aggravated my colleague. Here are a few excerpts (I’ve deleted simple “yes” responses from my colleague and have taken out her name and the name of the company only.)

  • "My pleasure to have you on this chat! Remaining committed and focused on my goal, which is to provide quality customer service at my fullest effort, will always be at the pinnacle. It is with utmost sincerity that I want to extend apologies for any trouble, inconvenience, and frustration the login issue has brought along your way. I simply hope you are doing fine."
  • "No worries. As your [company X] service representative, I want you to know that issue resolution and your satisfaction are my top priorities for today. Together, we can work this out, Elizabeth."
  • "As I understand your concern, you want to retrieve your user name and password for you to be able to access your online account, right?"
  • "I genuinely know how it feels to be in your shoes right now and how inconvenient it is for you to contact us for this. I admit I sometimes encounter the same problem as yours, like whenever I am not aware of my logins, which makes me realize where the feeling of frustration may come from."
  • "Don't worry, the wait will be worth it; together, we will make sure to get this issue done for you. All we need to do is to check your account, look up your email address, and generate a temporary password for you to use in accessing your account."

These examples show high levels of frustration with the level of empathy and problem solving involved in seemingly simple requests. In my first example, there was almost no empathy at all (and no problem solving, either). In the second, there was empathy and problem solving. But the empathy was forced, and it actually stood in the way of getting the problem solved. In fact, at one point, my colleague asked that the agent stop with the empathy and just answer the question.

These experiences highlight why my experience with American Express was so good. It was because the agent showed genuine empathy and then quickly moved to solve the problem. So what can companies learn from these experiences?

Be human. Show empathy, but don’t overdo it. When it’s forced, it’s fake.

Answer the question. Sounds simple, right? But companies can get in their own way when they try to message about how great they want to be at customer service. It’s annoying and delays the answer to the question. (I can recall a time when I called a catalog retailer and got a recording that said that they were hurrying to give me the excellent service I deserve as a valued customer. But what they didn’t get is that excellent service means putting me in touch with someone right away.)

Own the problem. If the magazine publisher had empowered its reps to do outbound follow-up via email or phone, the experience could have been salvaged. But leaving it up to the customer to take action after contacting you once is a denial of ownership. And guess what? Customers don’t want to own your problems.