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Anthony Jenkins / The Globe and Mail

Anthony Jenkins/Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

Axle Davids figures he's spent at least 30 hours trying to get his cloud software provider to switch his company's e-mail accounts, documents and calendars from an old domain name to a new one.

But today – four months after Mr. Davids first e-mailed the technology company for help – the problem remains unresolved.

"The whole promise of their product was to make life easy for companies that don't have an IT department," says Mr. Davids, president and CEO of Distility Branding, a Toronto firm that helps companies create brands and brand strategies. "Instead, I've spent hours and hours of my own time trying to fix this."

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Mr. Davids is stuck in a spot many consumers are familiar with: That period after the purchase of a product or service when what was paid for falls short of expectations.

Business and branding experts like Mr. Davids observe that while many companies invest so much of their money and energy into building their brand and selling their wares, they frequently overlook an equally important part of their business: The after-sale customer experience.

"Far too many companies see after-sales support as a pure cost centre versus an opportunity to build an even better reputation for themselves with their buyers and their buyers' connections," Mr. Davids says. "It's really a short-sighted view because they're failing to build customer loyalty and increase their overall corporate value."

It's not that companies are necessarily indifferent to their customers, Mr. Davids adds: Many companies – small businesses especially – run a lean operation and don't assign enough people to after-sales customer service. Others underestimate the possibility that their product or service won't work after it has been sold.

It doesn't help that today's consumers have such high expectations of the products and services they're buying, says Susan Abbott, principal customer experience strategist and researcher at Toronto-based Abbott Research & Consulting, which helps companies create positive experiences for their customers.

In part, this is a result of advertising and packaging that promise so much, Ms. Abbott says. But it's also a result of the fact that many companies do such a good job of delivering a great product and service that when something does go wrong, customers feel more surprised and betrayed than usual.

"Most things today work so well and don't break, and that's what customers have come to expect with every purchase," she says. "And when expectations are this high leading to the point of purchase, the customer's expectations are also high that if something doesn't work, you're going to either replace it or fix it right away."

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So how can companies prevent after-sales glitches from turning into a nightmare for them and their customers?

Ms. Abbott says it's important for companies to have a plan that maps out what needs to happen when a customer calls with a complaint. The plan should also set clear targets for actions like how long it should take to fix a problem and how quickly customer service people should answer a call.

Bill Checkley, vice president and general manager for services at Pitney Bowes Canada, agrees. The Toronto-based company, which sells and services office equipment such as printers, shredders and postal machines, follows a strict protocol for service where, at every stage, the performance and response time of Pitney Bowes service staff are measured.

"When our call centre staff can't help you over the phone and they pass along your information to our service technician, the technicians have to respond within a certain period of time," Mr. Checkley says. "And then when the technician goes onsite, we measure things like how long it took him to resolve the issue and did he fix the problem the first time."

Ms. Abbott says companies need to apply best practices at every stage of the complaint and resolution process. For example, when there's more than one service person helping a customer, it's important that everyone knows what the problem is. Nothing is more irritating to an already disgruntled customer than having to repeat the same story to yet another party, Ms. Abbott says.

Companies also need to make sure they keep their customers in the loop, she adds.

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"People want to know quickly what's going on," Ms. Abott says. "They don't necessarily need a solution quickly but what they do need is to know that you're looking after the problem, what you're planning to do, and how much, if anything, it's going to cost them."

Just as important is a sincere apology, offered as soon as a customer complains.

"Even when the customer isn't always right, you need to respond with empathy and say 'I'm sorry that this is causing a problem for you, let me see what I can do to fix it,'" Ms. Abbott says. "When people hear that, you see them immediately relax."

Companies that don't do a good job of handling after-sales customer complaints will pay for it in the end, in lost sales opportunities, Ms. Abbott says. Some customers may stay with a product or service for a while because it would be too expensive for them to replace or because they have a contract. But as soon as they can, they will transfer their loyalties – and their money – to another company.

Sara Moore, vice president of marketing for Mobilicity, an upstart Canadian wireless provider that launched last May, says her company has seen first-hand how angry customers can get when they feel hard done by, and how quickly they'll defect to another product or service.

"We have gotten customers who still have money left on their previous contract and are breaking those contracts because they're just so fed up," says Ms. Moore, whose company works on a no-contract model. "So it's not just a case of customers choosing us because they think we have a great offering, it's a case of customers who have been biding their time, waiting for the right opportunity to leave their previous provider."

Could this be how Distility's saga finally ends?

Mr. Davids says he hopes he won't have to leave his current software provider, but unless his problem is fixed, there's always a possibility.

"I've just run out of energy," he says. "So if this doesn't get resolved soon, well, then I'll have to look at other options."

Special to the Globe and Mail

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