Dan Heffernan

Dan's Blog: The Gift of Criticism

Recently, my wife needed to go back to a doctor's office where she'd had some minor surgery done some months earlier.  She was in pain and was concerned about infection.  She called the office to find out when they could see her but was met with the proverbial "please leave a message" announcement, rather than being answered by a human.  Instead of leaving a message and sitting by the phone for the rest of the morning, she decided to drive to the office and see them face-to-face and ask in person for a last-minute appointment.  I decided to join her so we could chat on the way.

When we walked into the office, I knew we were going to have a less-than-pleasant customer service experience.  It was written all over the face of the receptionist.  She was cool, aloof, and lacking in compassion.  At least, that was the how I judged the cover of this particular book.  When my wife explained her situation, the woman met my expectations beautifully.  She did not express any concern for my wife's condition, no "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that" nor even a "let me see what I can do to help you."  Nothing.  Just a cold recitation of the one remaining appointment that day which my wife could not make due to a conflicting appointment elsewhere.  The receptionist became impatient when my ailing wife hesitated to grab the appointment, even though it would require a major rescheduling. 

Then the receptionist caught herself and said "Actually, that's tomorrow, not today.  The doctor is not in today.  I was looking at the wrong day.  Do you want the appointment tomorrow?"  Again, my wife hesitated and wondered aloud if she should just go to urgent care rather than wait.  The pain was acute.  And again, the receptionist became impatient and asked "Do you want the appointment or not?"

Now, if it hadn't been for us trying to get an appointment, I would have given this woman some constructive criticism.  It would have been a gift to her, from me.  Something told me that she would not have appreciated this gift, and, since we were at her mercy, we decided to let it go.

I strongly believe that the U.S.'s famous "excellent customer service" is slipping.  I am having poor customer service experiences more and more frequently.  It's happening in stores, hospitals, and restaurants.  Restaurants!  That bastion of annoying too-friendly wait staff who interrupt your meal asking "is everything all right?" Why do we put up with this?  Why don't we give the gift of criticism?  I say it's a gift because it lets us know when we aren't serving our customers well.  If we want delighted customers, we should want to improve our customer service in any way it is found lacking.  One of the best mechanisms for finding out where it is lacking is to be told by our customers themselves.  It's fantastic!  Because they usually tell you exactly what you need to do to improve. 

In a meeting with about a dozen of our clients some months ago, one of our clients started really criticizing the way we were doing something.  I was leading the meeting, and let him have his say.  He is a good client, though he can get a bit emotional.  I could see that some of my colleagues were getting upset that I was letting this client criticize us in front of other clients.  But I let him criticize away until he was done.  I then thanked him for his helpful input.  One of my colleagues came up to me in private after the meeting and said he was amazed first at how I thanked this client for his input, and second at how quickly the client calmed down after he saw that we weren't going to defend ourselves.  My thank you to him was sincere.  He was giving us a gift.  He was telling us what to do to improve.  Why on earth would we NOT want to hear him out?

If you want to improve customer service, LISTEN to your customers.  They are telling you exactly what you need to know.  They are, in fact, handing you a gift, and you need to not only listen but thank them for it!  Yes, it can be unpleasant.  It's a bit like when I was a teenager and my older sister would tell me I had bad breath.  I didn't want to hear it, I might have wanted to deny it, but I sure was glad it was her and not my date that evening telling me!  

If we want to be the best, we have to know what to improve.  Our customers are usually more than happy to tell us what to do to improve.  Have the guts to ask!  And then be prepared to change those things that need changing.


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