Ehstoday 1891 Poor

Sandy Says: Communication Breakdown

Dec. 5, 2014
Where I live, there are two "customer service" departments that strike fear and loathing into anyone forced to call them: AT&T and the Cleveland Division of Water. This is the tragic story of customer service, unfulfilled promises and the breach of trust caused when communication breaks down.

I have interactions with my customers all the time. Readers email me, call me, post comments on articles, walk up to me at conferences and send me letters to let me know when we've hit the mark, missed the mark or messed up their subscriptions. I try to respond to every one of these emails and calls and messages, because there is nothing more frustrating to me personally than when my concerns fall on deaf ears. 

By the same token, safety "gurus" often counsel EHS managers that the fastest way to jeopardize their safety programs is to ask employees for feedback via suggestion boxes, safety committees, safety meetings or near-miss reporting and then ignore those suggestions and concerns or fail to follow up when issues have been resolved. 

Nothing makes employees "check out" faster than the thought that their supervisors and managers aren't listening and their employer doesn't care. Remember, employee exit surveys generally aren't filled out by people who share how great their employer was or how empowered they felt while working there.

This message about the importance of empowerment and communication was reaffirmed to me during my ongoing battle with my cellphone provider, a company we'll call AT&T. I ordered one of the new iPhone 6+ phones in September, and was told the delivery date was Nov. 9-Nov. 27. That seemed like an outrageous delivery window, but I understood the phones are in demand. 

I checked on Nov. 7 to see if a more definitive date was listed on my order and discovered that the order had been cancelled with no notice. I immediately called the 1-877 number associated with the order and, after talking to a customer service representative and her supervisor, was escalated to a member of their response team, who assured me that the order was cancelled by mistake (along with the orders of what I'm assuming were thousands of other customers) and that it would be reinstated and would go to the front of the line. 

Long story short, the delivery date on the order now is late December and I've spent hours on hold, spoken with AT&T customer service reps and their supervisors, order-fulfillment customer service reps and their supervisors, representatives from the AT&T "executive response team" and people in the office of the president of AT&T, and although several people have said the phone will be delivered sometime during the original November delivery period, I have nothing in writing. In fact, the last person with whom I spoke – the person who everyone assured me would resolve my issue – went so far as to say that even if the original shipping dates are kept, the phone might not ship during those dates.

The response from everyone has been, "We messed up. We're sorry." The first apology meant something. The fifteenth apology? Not so much.

After I spoke with nine customer service reps, AT&T made the mistake of texting me a short, open-ended survey asking me to rate my recent customer service experience. I told them, in part, that my experience with their customer service department is "the most frustrating, worthless, time-consuming 'customer service' experience of my entire life." I ended by suggesting they change their customer service number to 1-800-GUD-LUCK.

The point of my sob story is this: While my actual phone service and billing experience with AT&T has been outstanding, the opposite is true of my recent experience, and it has been so frustrating that it has soured me on the company as a whole. The same could be true of your employees.

Your company might have invested millions in new equipment and training for employees. You might offer competitive salaries, have world-class safety processes and experience an impeccable safety record. 

So when you send out an employee engagement survey regarding the safety process and you receive negative responses, the issue might not be the process. The issue might be the communication breakdown between employees who are trying to be engaged in the process and supervisors or managers who aren't listening.

As Verizon, a company now in the running to be my cellphone provider, once asked: Can you hear me now?

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