This weekend I refilled a prescription at an online pharmacy. Just as I clicked submit on the order, I saw that the scheduled ship date was Tuesday.  I had a business trip planned for later in the week, and I was worried I would not receive the medication in time. I promptly called the company to request that my order be updated to expedited shipping.  It was Saturday, so there was more than enough time to change the shipping method before the Tuesday ship date.

I explained my situation to the customer service rep who pulled up my file, and told me that he apologized,  but my order was already being processed. He said canceling it and placing a new one with rush shipping would take too long and I would risk not getting it in time.  After ascertaining that despite “being processed” already, it would not ship any earlier than Tuesday, I again asked why the shipping could not be changed to overnight, stating I was perfectly happy to pay for the upgrade.  He reiterated the situation to me, using the same textbook phrases as before, and said my order was already being processed. Canceling it and placing a new one with rush shipping would take too long and I would risk not getting the medication in time. 

I asked him what he suggested I do. He responded that he didn’t know and offered no solution.  Clearly, it should have been possible to switch the shipping method—their system had two full business days to update the shipping before the medication was to ship, and this change would cost the company nothing. In fact, it probably would have made his company more money if he had agreed and required me to pay a rush fee. But instead the service rep told me again a rush was not possible, in that robotic way so many companies have condoned as acceptable from their customer service teams.  I told him I thought I had the wrong person on the line and angrily demanded a manager. 

When the manager finally took the call, I again explained that I requested the medication be rushed because I had to travel and needed the prescription prior to my departure.  She readily agreed, given the extenuating circumstances, and said she would be happy to rush the order.  Thirty seconds later we were done, and I had gotten what I needed.  This got me thinking.

Why did I have to talk to two different people and waste 15 minutes on the phone to get something so simple accomplished? The company I was calling could have saved both time and labor if it had only empowered its service rep with choices instead of a script.   A service rep who merely repeats what he has been told is like a deer in headlights—unable to move out of the way of oncoming traffic (the frustrated or furious customer), rather than moving adeptly alongside that traffic, guiding himself and his customer to the destination that they mutually seek (satisfaction).  Customer service reps who are restricted to certain scenarios when troubleshooting are far less cost-effective than reps who are taught to reflect and react. Problem-solving, when done incorrectly, is expensive for companies, both because it’s labor intensive and because it squanders customer loyalty.  

If a rep has the latitude to reason within certain guidelines, nine times out of ten he will be able to find a solution that would be the less costly for the company, more efficient for the customer, and most likely to preserve customer satisfaction.

This has proven true at my company time and again. My reps are told that the very last thing they should ever need is a manager.  Rather then mandate the way they are to handle a service situation, we give them a set of parameters within which they can operate to solve each customer’s problem.  They listen carefully to the situation, determine the best way to get the customer what he needs, offer the customer choices on how the problem can be resolved, and then follow-through with the customer’s preferred resolution.  The pharmacy rep could have done the same with me, and I would never have had to cost his company valuable time and resources getting a manager on the line.

Service is not something that happens according to a script. It is an intuitive interaction between a rep and a customer that has a different outcome every time. A company that encourages its reps to handle the situation the way the rep would want to have it handled if he were a customer is the company that wins repeat business--in spite of the problem that required the service in the first place.