The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: A customer service story

In 2013 I attended a presentation given by a Director of a large UK manufacturing company. He explained how their organisation’s primary focus was on excellence in customer service. He then showed a corporate video that proclaimed their leadership in design and engineering but which didn’t mention customers once. Now, more than a year later, the executives still repeat the customer mantra at every opportunity but the workers are still at a loss to explain what it means for them.

The problem is that good customer service is difficult to explain as an abstract concept. It is one of those things that is obvious when you experience it and obvious when you don’t, so I am enormously grateful to the Ford motor company for recently providing me with a practical example that illustrates the good, the bad and the ugly sides of customer service perfectly:

Chapter 1: The Bad

Some time ago my daughter broke down in our Ford Fiesta. Unfortunately, the person who tried to help her by jump-starting the car managed to fry a number of rather expensive electrical components, most notably the Powertrain Control Module (PCM) which cost over £1,500 to replace.

7 months later we experienced intermittent problems starting the car. The Ford garage decided that this was caused by the chip in the key not being recognised by the transponder in the steering column. They charged us a few hundred pounds to replace the unit and the problem disappeared for a few weeks.

When we reported the reoccurrence of the problem, we were told that because the problem was intermittent, the garage could only help us if we could bring the car in when it was failing.

A few more months passed and eventually the car failed to start altogether, so the RAC took the car to the Ford dealership. On this occasion we were advised that it would require another new PCM. I didn’t think this would be a problem since, as the original problem was reported within the 12 month warranty of the existing PCM being fitted, I expected it to be covered by the manufacturer’s warranty.

Curiously, Ford did not agree.

Being rather surprised by this response, I spoke to Ford’s ‘Customer Relationship Centre’. They told me that there was ‘nothing they could do’. From a customer service and relationship point of view nothing annoys me more than someone telling me there ‘is nothing they can do’, as the statement is factually inaccurate – there are almost always things people can do. What they really mean is that there is nothing they are authorised to do, willing to do or permitted to do.

When I requested that the matter be escalated I was told that there was no one to escalate it to and there was no point anyway as they would simply provide the same response.

In the absence of anyone else to speak to, I wrote to Mark Overden, ‎Chairman and Managing Director at Ford of Britain.

Chapter 2: The Ugly

In response to my letter I received a telephone call from a lady who worked in the ‘Executive Office’. She repeated the appalling phrase ‘there is nothing I can do’ before blaming my predicament on my local Ford Dealership (Gates of Stevenage). Her argument was that had they contacted Ford UK at the time they replaced the transponder they would now be willing to replace the PCM under warranty as, under those circumstances, Ford would have been notified of the problem occurring within the warranty period.

Next I spoke to the Service Director at Gates of Stevenage. In direct contradiction of the lady from Ford, he assured me that they had contacted Ford UK at the time of the first incident and that they had records to prove it.

I therefore wrote back to Mark Overden explaining that on the basis of these conversations Ford should provide the parts under warranty. Again I was contacted by the same lady in the ‘Executive Office’ as it appears their Managing Director does not respond to customers who feel moved to write to him in person. By now she had spoken directly to the Service Director at the dealership and the story had changed somewhat. She again repeated the mantra ‘there is nothing I can do’ and later wrote to me confirming that Ford would not supply replacement parts free of charge under any circumstances.

Chapter 3: The Good

I sought the advice of a friend of mine who runs a nearby garage called JWJ Car & Commercial Repairs (http://www.jwjcommercial.co.uk/). He referred me to another company called Car Solutions Limited (http://www.carsolutionswelwyn.co.uk/).

Car Solutions were brilliant. First, they said that they had seen similar problems many times before and that in their opinion it was unlikely to be cause by the PCM. They felt it was more likely to be caused by the dashboard electronic cluster. However, the start point was to try reinstalling the software in the PCM. Interestingly, this fixed the problem and now, 5 months later, the problem has not reoccurred.

Since no parts were required, Car Solutions simply charged £60, which is their flat-rate diagnostic charge.

Moreover, two weeks after they completed the repair, they telephoned to check that everything was OK.

Conclusion

During 2013 Ford announced that they were ‘transforming customer care with a new breakthrough programme’. If my experience is anything to go by I would argue that Ford simply have no concept of what good customer service actually is!

It is not that customers want something for nothing - I believe all customers realise that service comes at a cost and that mechanical devices fail. The issue is that they want to be treated fairly - so to attempt to charge an exorbitant price for a solid-state component that should never have failed in the first place is considered unreasonable.

Moreover, if my problem had occurred in the US the part would have been replaced automatically as in the US Ford provide a 24 month warranty on parts, whereas in the UK it is only 12 months – why the difference?

Finally, why was replacing the part (the most expensive option) the first suggestion by Ford whereas a small independent garage started by reloading the software (the cheapest option)?

The Fiesta is the first Ford car I have owned and, until this incident, I had been perfectly satisfied with both the car and the service I received from the local dealer. The chances were that I would have bought another Ford car in the future. Now I won’t, and I take every opportunity to tell this story to everyone who either owns a Ford or who I think might consider buying a Ford.

Good customer service is not easy to define. It is not something that can be driven by ‘programmes’, slogans or mission statements. It is an attitude, and that attitude comes from the top.

In the 1990s, shortly after Sir George Cox became MD of Unisys UK, one of our customers began experiencing problems with their mainframe computer. We had engineers on site for several days trying to solve the problem. Eventually the fault was identified as originating from a 3rd party software programme. The Engineering Director sheepishly entered Sir George’s office to explain that we had spent a significant amount of money working on a problem that was not of our making. However, far from being annoyed, Sir George explained how delighted he was that he had joined a company whose automatic reaction to a customer problem was not ‘how do we make money from this situation?’, but ‘how do we help our customer resolve the problem?’

The story of Sir George’s reaction in that meeting spread throughout the company within days. During the following months, despite the lack of slogans or mission statements to that effect, the customer service culture grew within the company culminating in Unisys creating and co-facilitating the annual Customers Service Excellence Awards with Management Today Magazine.

The moral of the story is that customer service is an act, not a slogan. If company leaders genuinely want to be ‘customer focused’ (or whatever phrase they chose to espouse) they will be.

About the Author
Alistair Schofield is Managing Director of Extensor Limited.