How to be the best customer


We've no shortage of "How to do good customer service" articles designed to be applied from the company's side. But what about customers? We need each other to thrive, and whether you're in front of the sales desk or behind, we're all humans. An obvious point worth remembering because just about anyone who's worked in customer relations has tales of customers who weren't just dissatisfied, they were abusive jerks. And there's never, ever a good reason to heap hurt on someone else — such wasteful emotions clog reasonable complaints.

As someone who's both answered thousands of issues in varying roles (and created documentation to support it) and has bought products from a variety of companies ranging from the monolithic to 1-person operations, here's what I've learned. It's biased towards smaller companies since it's easier to enact change with them, but can apply wherever you'll be listened to.

Document everything

If a frontline agent isn't doing a service to their company by being rude to you, get their name. Consider recording your calls (be aware of obtaining consent; companies will often say on the line they're recording you for training purposes!). Tagging the emails they send you. And so on. Create a history if you're routinely being wronged.

If you need to bring bad behavior to a supervisor's attention, don't present your case as "I hate ALL OF YOU IN THIS COMPANY". Rather, if it's a specific problem with an individual, you're willing to go beyond and point out you generally like doing business with people who work here, with an exception. It'll be their word against this troublesome employee's, but if you have evidence, they can't cover it up. (And if it's numerous people or the general mindset of a company that has you irked, yeah, you should take your business elsewhere.)

In an age of electronic surveillance, taped support calls gone wrong have become a way to escalate problems when a company doesn't listen and a consumer feels helpless, so they amplify it through The Consumerist or one of many comedy sites.

Related, Wise Bread has a Consumer Affairs category you'll want to check out, including Paul Michael's sucky experience with a Dyson vacuum cleaner.

I don't recommend going out of your way to destroy a company, but use documented proof to substantiate the poor treatment you've gotten, which will hopefully help management solve the problem, and possibly thank you for getting their attention, as a result.

Learn to file effective bug reports

A surprising second point? Not so much when you realize it's a finer level of documentation. Observe the connections: while "bug report" is most commonly associated with computer software and electronics, the key importance is being able to show someone else how you arrived at a problem via a series of steps they can follow. If it sounds similar to giving driving directions, that's exactly true. And it's important in any sort of conflict resolution.

If you buy an app and discover bugs, sending bug reports (via the developer's preferred channel) will help them make it more stable, and hence, better. Bug reports don't have to be boring text instructions. Especially when you need to show visual elements, consider using a video recording tool like TechSmith's Jing (free basic version, I love it) to make video bug reports and narrate what's happening — show stuff as-it-is!

Don't assume a company's quality assurance will find all bugs. It's true they should do rigorous testing to deliver a robust end result, but the fact is there are far more variations of possible computer systems than they'll ever be able to try inhouse. Customers who whine about problems they're aware of instead of spending the same time to step up and communicate aren't useful.

Many companies give discounts and free products for being an exceptional bug reporter, including beta tests. Don't expect entitlement and be familiar with the company's culture beforehand — some, like Picnik who I'm helping test their Show feature, are much more amendable to personal contact with customers than others. After all, continue to communicate. Loyalty never gets old, and if a product is going to serve you for months and years, having a close bond means you'll be taken seriously. Not all customers are the same and you do want to be the best, yes?

Plus, after you've gained an understanding, you can teach other customers how to file bug reports, too, empowering their experiences.

Don't bitch about what's out of an employee or company's control

Focus on actionables. What can be done.

For instance, if your Internet Service Provider goes offline because someone drove their car into a tree, knocking down power lines and cutting off your connection, it's uncalled for to ring the ISP up on a cellphone and scream "FIX IT NOW YOU @#$%ING IDIOTS!" They can't — that's likely the electric company's responsibility. All your insults serve is demonstrate is what a jerk you are. Better approach: call and ask for a status update: "What's going on and when can you expect it to be fixed?" Learn instead of accuse. Simple.

Yes, professionals should have backups and contingency plans. But notice how there's no such guarantee as 100% uptime in the industry. Be forgiving of occasional mistakes, and they will be forgiving of yours. Continue to make suggestions where a company can improve their service: you may not get a personal response depending on volume, but if I really enjoyed my stay at a hotel, I send in the comment card.

Another example of fruitless bitching: you're calling a human in billing about technical issues you have with a website. They cheerfully mention they'll escalate your details to the engineers (who aren't on the phones since they're heads-down programming) and suggest you take the initiative by posting on the company's forums. But you continue to gripe to the billing agent about it. They can be sympathetic, but your words are being wasted and you're tying up time that could be spent on another customer's actionable problems. Make it a priority to learn about what goes where so urges you have to connect will be effective.

When in doubt, ask questions — for emphasis, learn instead of accuse. You have every right to remind a company if they haven't been responsive (like I did for Acronis True Image 2009). But don't point fingers. The blame game is played by losing attitudes which are too much talk, not enough walk. If someone is just, they'll admit fault. And for all you CS reps reading this: unfortunately, while a rare minority, there are customers who have mental illness and need to see a professional. Don't be their doctor. And never, ever tolerate abuse. It works both ways.

When you're treated right, be vocally appreciative

Perhaps this should've been #1. But I wanted to see if you noticed.

Customer service reps endure more abuse than they should have to. Like I said, no one deserves abuse. On the flipside, I've hardly ever felt productive, friendly workers get sufficient customer praise to inspire them each day and keep going!

This is why I'm doing my part: every time I believe I've been treated exceptionally, I directly send a testimonial. I also often use Twitter and my personal blog to get the word out about awesome products that are made by awesome people. Word-of-mouth is especially important to small companies that can use all the earnest marketing they can get to thrive. Like what I wrote about bug reporting earlier, some savvy companies keep track of "key influencers" and may offer you goodies. These are mutually beneficial: the company's product adds value to your life, you help support them in ways beyond paying money.

In the service industry, this also applies to eating out. You're a restaurant's customer. Received lovely, attentive service? Then generously tip waitstaff who've given you consistently excellent treatment. Actions have consequences and you're frugal, not chintzy.

Customer service is an ecosystem: an honest, friendly worker who gets berated and hears no good words is going to be very confused, and even frustrated about why they even bother to go above and beyond. So pay attention to what makes you smile.

What is a supercustomer?

A supercustomer is not necessarily someone who throws a lot of cash at a company, although that can be part of their makeup. I use "supercustomer" to describe those — the best! — who go beyond the call of customer duty (intriguing way of looking at it, hmm?) and don't just routinely consume, they actively participate in improving the people & products of the businesses they enjoy.

The Internet has opened up many opportunities, from the trusted reviews of Amazon Vine to the "People-Powered Customer Service" (as redundant as that may seem, we need to be reminded in an era of voice mail and faceless megacorps) of Get Satisfaction.

Old ways of putting a wall between the people who use the products and those who make them are stupid and dying, because in the end, we're all humans who want to be happy.

So be the best customer you can be!

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Guest's picture

My mom was being billed incorrectly for her meds and I tried talking to everyone. The insurance company, "It's the billing company" Customer service at the billing company, "I'm sorry it's some sort of computer error". The customer service manager, "I'm new here." The tech guy "Oh you're in a billing loop. It's a program error." After more than eight phone calls and five letters, I talked to a younger fellow actually in billing, he was not only sympathetic, he sent several memos to the computer guys, to get the glitch fixed. It took six months but he pulled it off. I could have kissed him.

Guest's picture
Alpha Raye

Thanks SOOOO much for such an article!
I have worked in customer service for almost a decade now at a large grocery chain and I can't tell you how many bad experiences I have had, but there are good ones too!

Just a couple of things I would add to your being a best customer:
1. Approaching all face to face interactions like a human being, I as the cashier, can tell you are angry but yelling at me will get you nowhere. An even tone and reasonable statements makes me want to help you all the more.
2. HANG UP YOUR CEL PHONE! Or end personal converstations before you expect me to wait on you! I don't want to try to guess what you want when you point and tell Suzy about the hot guy you saw in aisle 3.

Sorry, little pet peeves of mine!
But thanks for educating the masses on the fact that GOOD customer service is a two way street!

Guest's picture

I'm all that you have above except I've a short limit of how far I'd got to be the 'super customer'. I try once & if I really like them twice...after that I simply move on to the best available.

Another related article:

BTW, you book page is very aesthetic. Whoever did it, really liked doin' his/her job. Loved it.

I only wonder why 'Savin' money' books are so expensive.