Customer service

December 7, 2011

Probably the hardest thing for companies to do nowadays; customer service. I can appreciate it’s difficult, and usually I’m not too upset when I don’t get a response or only after a long time – as long as I get a feeling the company is trying.

A few days ago however, I visited a presentation from Lithium. It’s a pretty interesting company that helps brands create communities (forums on steroids, to be disrespectful) and some other social media stuff. They had a panel discussion with three of their clients as panelists; KPN, TomTom and HP. The stated reason for these three companies to create a community? “Call-deflection”.

The idea is that if you create a community, people ask questions there and other people answer them, reducing the need to call customer service. Why do they want to do this? Because customers hate customer service and because it’s expensive.

“Call-deflection”. Think about that for a while. So customer service sucks and instead of fixing it, they ask their customers to fix it. Don’t get me wrong, the result is probably pretty positive, as I have no doubt that the average customer knows more about the product than the average call-center-voice.

But the cynicism was just shocking to me. We’re not talking about a company where sometimes the lines are busy or the person picking up the phone doesn’t know the answer, we’re talking about companies who actively try to avoid talking to you.

Of course this started back in the 20th century, with endless phone trees. That worked for a while but people started to figure out how to get to the end of the tree. So they moved all that stuff to India, ensuring that if you managed to get through, at least it wouldn’t cost them very much. Whole towns in India have adopted Texan and New York accents for this purpose.

But now they have found a new way to not have to talk to their customers – the community. For all the beautiful reasons they could have to start a community (learn their customers’ frustrations, ask for input on new products, reward loyalty), the one they pick is the polar-opposite; contact avoidance.

I just don’t get it. I have been involved in a few companies, all of them far from perfect. Also in customer service, I am sure there are plenty of areas in which they could have been better. But the one thing we always enjoyed was to talk to the customer and learn. From the early days of Cervelo when Phil and I visited every possible race to today’s world of Twitter and blogs, contact with customers is key. How can you ever hope to have a long-term relationship with your customers if you don’t want to talk to them? Bizarre.


49 Responses to “Customer service”

  1. Dónal Says:

    How do you think Cervélo fares on customer service? Have you ever returned a frame for warranty anonymously through the channel?

    • I think you hit the nail on the head, “channel”. When you do not have your own outlets, you are relying on a chain from consumer to shop (to sometimes distributor) to manufacturer and obviously that experience will only be as good as the weakest link. As a result, there are people who get great customer service and unfortunately you would also get reports of unsatisfactory experiences. Following up on the latter and improving whatever step it went wrong at is a constant battle.

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  3. Andrew Says:

    Gerard, You raise some great points. I think that dealing with a customer complaint, query or problem in the right way is an opportunity to bind them to you for ever. Provided you can ensure that it is dealt with correctly. If not then maybe those other companies are right to go down the ‘Call-deflection’ route. I get the feeling that this a road Cervelo will not be taking anytime soon.

  4. Brendan Says:

    As a user of open-source computer software (including the operating system), I can tell you that these companies have the right idea, albeit terrible phrasing and the bad optics that go along with that.
    As anyone who’s ever gone to fix something on a computer knows, google beats a helpdesk any day, as someone in the community of customers has asked the same question, and depending of quality of the community (size, interest in mutual assistance, etc – probably all of the things those companies are looking to Lithium to foster in their user communities) many other have helped sort out an answer.
    Hopefully that helps explain the rationale behind such apparent cynicism.

  5. Larry T. Says:

    I’m old so maybe that’s why avoiding the client makes little sense to me. But aren’t these the same folks who spend zillions on consultants attempting to create some sort of loyalty in their customers? For me (though I’m not in that ever-so-important 18-34 age group who spends all the money) it would be better to simply take care of your customers in the first place, what better way to create happy, loyal customers? But look at airline loyalty/mileage programs with their restrictions, extra fees, etc. I often wonder how these companies treat the folks they DON’T like if they treat their loyal customers with such disdain? Meanwhile, we just sent thank-you/holiday gifts out to all of our guided tour customers of 2011. Old-school? Expensive? I guess it is, but we figure a client spending $3-5K with us deserves more than just a great cycling tour….and we even have a toll-free phone number just so they can talk to us!

  6. Anonymous Says:

    I have received excellent customer service from Cervelo,
    particulary David Buyer

  7. daryl Says:

    above comment is from me

  8. Jane Says:

    I agree 100%. I love the Apple/iTunes model. My nine yr old downloaded free apps to my phone that had nasty in app purchases. My email, 24 hours after my email asking for a reversal of the $114 charge, I got a resolution, an explanation that was from apparently a real person (ie it didn’t feel canned) and then a day later a follow up email about my satisfaction. Perfect. Direct. Customer service.

    Now about cervelo. If only your official dealers knew as much about your products as you do. I am glad we can go to the source but I would encourage you to institute a dealer education/continuous improvement product knowledge system. We service our bikes ourselves or take them to out of network shops bc frankly your dealers don’t know enough about your product (or bikes in general if they are tri stores).

    Thanks gerard!

  9. ed Says:

    The irony about your comment is that, althought I’m a proud owner of a Cervelo, your company is one of the most difficult companies to get a real person the phone. Matter of fact, its nearly impossible to find a published number for your company. Still love the product but utilize the cervelo forum as I know your team does actively monitor and respond to questions posed there.

  10. Tim H Says:

    Gerard, I’m behind you on this one, nice post! This forum itself is a part of excellent customer service. I think you do a pretty darn good job with Cervello and those companies thinking “to avoid customer contact” rather than to improve customer service (which the forums can often do, especially if the company is active on the forum to aid and correct misinformation).

    Nice job on this one.

  11. Mike Trowbridge Says:

    I think that IF you (Cervelo) had better customer (as in bike shops) service we would still be carrying/selling them. Until you can improve we won’t be. Sorry.

  12. Chris Says:

    I did my time in the retail jewelery trenches about 6-7 years ago. The company was a small (12 store) family owned chain that valued customer service. My manager especially was a bit out of the norm because if you could back your decision to help a customer, then he backed you to the powers that be. The end result was great service and customer loyalty. One particular situation was where we had a free watch battery coupon in a flier. A guy came in mentioned the coupon, but didn’t have it. I gave it to him for free (they cost pennies). He came in later that month and bought a $5,000 diamond. What I learned is that when dealing with customer service issues, you have to start at the bottom, be nice, firm and polite, document everything and if not resolved ask for the next person in line. Twice when dealing with Best Buy once I got to the store manager my situation got resolved with ease, which in itself was nice but also frustrating. Going back to what my old manager did, it would be nice if the big chains allowed leads/ dept managers to make decisions.

    As for Cervelo, my two experiences with their customer service were opposite ends of the spectrum. The first was the ever changing delivery date of my base S5, which eventually did resolve itself after the LBS manager got involved. The second situation was with the notorious Enduro adapters for SRAM Red cranks. Dave from customer service sent them to me, within a few hours of getting back to him and when I spoke with him on the phone he was knowledgeable and gave some good advice.

    I think customer service really comes down to who you are dealing with and what the company culture is regarding it. You can either get someone who doesn’t care or someone that goes out of their way to make things work. Hopefully you get the latter, because having to go up the chain of command is a waste of your time and the managers and supervisors who you end up talking with.

  13. daryl Says:

    maybe ‘Cervelo concept stores’ is the way to go ??

    • Larry T. Says:

      I wonder if concept store is a good idea? To me they simply restrict the customer’s choice while providing lots of benefits to the concept/franchiser as in Trek, Specialized or Giant. Does the customer find better, more knowledgeable and helpful service at one of these stores – or just a place where the employees sing the company song? As a retail bike shop veteran I got tired enough of having the product of one of the above-mentioned bike maker/importers shoved down my throat with the threat of “we can always open a retailer for our brand a couple of miles down the street if you won’t take what we suggest.” I’d hate to think what the “concept” deal would force an “independent” bike retailer to do! For good customer service I think the answer is empowered employees who have a mandate to take care of the customer and deal with the how and why later with management. We solved the problem by not having any employees – so one of the owners (me or my wife) is always at hand to instantly deal with any problems that may come up.

    • trounder Says:

      The HBR has a recent and topical blog blurb from Ron Johnson (the guy who created the Apple Store) on his new challenge to reinvent retail at a large department store chain in the U.S. He focuses on the customer service / customer experience aspect of brick and mortar retailing. His Apple Store ‘Genius Bar’ is the antithesis of the crowd sourced anonymous online user community. Real customers, real employees, local relationships. Do we need a Cervelo genius bar? Probably not, but we might need something like it when “neuron shifting technology” goes mass market…

  14. tom Says:

    Go to your own website and try to find a telephone number for customer service.

    • Well, this is my own website but it’s a blog. Not too many phone numbers on a blog. If you mean the Cervelo website, then it’s probably important to note that since May 2011 I have not been involved in Cervelo’s operations (granted the phone number may have been tough to find back then too).

  15. Hugo Walker Says:

    Bizarre indeed. While I could no doubt get the info I need via email, a forum or my local Cervelo dealer, it is odd that you don’t have an 800 number…maybe I’m just old fashioned.

  16. Ross Says:

    So you are saying that some companies deliberately attempt to not comunicate with customers? Are you sure it’s not just beauracracy and red tape and they genuinely think they are doing the right thing but it just gets bogged down in “the process”?

    National phone company here in Australia has a Twitter acct manned 24/7 especially for problems/complaints, seems a really good way of doing it.

  17. The post raises a good point – in essence it is good to make processes efficient and if there is a repeat question to alert the customer that the answer may be there. There are certainly cost savings in this however ‘managers’ go overboard and when cost savings are a measure of performance they induce short-term cost savings at the cost of long-term customer dissatisfaction.

    If a business needs more people on the phone, then it should do this because retaining an existing customer is much cheaper than acquiring more (so a bit of the marketing budget over to CR). Outsourcing to ‘script reading’ cheap staff has problems – often cultural and should be more carefully considered.

    For example, why did I have a locally based telephones salesperson on the phone to sign me up in half an hour however when the first problem came it too weeks to solve with number emails (and canned responses) and phone calls. (this was my recent experience with a telephone provider). In the end it is inefficient and as a customer I am unsatisfied – even if there is finally a solution.

    However, investing in a knowledge database is worthwhile. There are different types of customers and some are satisfied if an answer is available online. Forums can be good – it keeps customer complaints in view of the company and they can directly respond – apple take it a bit to far as they often remove unfavourable criticism or complaints so loose credibility. In a support area, if the customer can easily call or get live online support or find an answer in the Faqs and knowledgebase, there are a variety of complimentary tools.

  18. Stephen Says:

    TomTom has one of the worst customer service depts upon the planet, doesnt suprise me at all that they try to deflect the thousands of support calls they get each day. Even if you do get through you get a monkey who has never seen a GPS and can only send standard canned answers

    Cervelo has impressed me when I’ve emailed in questions, Not only was it answered quickly but by an engineer who knew the answer and was willing to explain and have a conversation with me. Qudos for that

    But like many other bike brands that sell through a distibuter people dont see Cervelo but rather judge them by their representatives, unfortunately in the UK its Madisson

    • tom Says:

      This is an interesting point, the face of the company is in reality the bike store selling the brand. I had a great experience this summer while on a trip to the US at Davis Wheel Works, very knowledgable about the brand, willing to spend the time to answer any question and I told them from the start I as just looking. On the other hand, a few years ago I was so replused by a shop on the East Coast, that I refused to purchase a bike from them. I went in, cash in hand and walked out. The company must be very selective with it choice of retailer and conduct follow up reviews to make sure that paticular store and the company are on the same sheet of music. Maybe that is one of the reasons some brands have gone to direct sales or have brand only stores.

    • Anonymous Says:

      Interestingly I have just had a warranty claim on a 2 month old Cervelo RS pushed back by Madison because the dealer I purchased it from had apparently sourced the bike through Spain… its still a Cervelo and has only done 250 miles I’ve contacted Cervelo CS direct but Madison are not doing them any favours…..

  19. Simon E Says:

    Can you really compare the customer service response of a small company like Cervelo with one the size of HP or TomTom?

    The latter should try to serve their customers better but do they really need to? If their analysts don’t see any financial return from such investment then no, they won’t.

    For a large company, especially an IT product supplier, with millions of people asking the same range of questions then an easily accessed forum type environment (but with an alternative support avenue manned by real people) may work well for them. When I have a query about something on one of the Macs at work 8 times out of 10 the apple community forums are where the answer comes from (the other 2 times it’s non-Apple help/advice websites). Is that not satisfactory?

    I used to work for UK clothing and furniture company Laura Ashley and their telephone ordering and customer service dept was staffed by real people in mid-Wales who knew the products well, had access to a huge range of product advice notes, washing instructions etc etc and took the time to help the customer. The management were acutely aware that this would result in better customer satisfaction and retention. The customers were very loyal, the brand had personal value. Maybe Cervelo is more like this than the firms Gerard is discussing. I doubt HP’s customers are ‘loyal’ in remotely the same way or for the same reasons. We buy HP printers at work because they (usually) do the job, not because I like the colour or get a warm, fuzzy feeling about the brand.

  20. ps810 Says:

    While ‘call deflection’ may be an un-PC term, it’s naive to think that you wouldn’t want to service your customers’ needs at a lower cost, right? I don’t take offense at that unless it’s done badly. Not having a phone number posted, however buried, for example. I think a post above mentions the same, and that’s where I find that Gerard is no longer involved in day-to-day operations…

  21. Paul Says:

    Tell us more about your leaving Cervelo in May this year.
    Is all well? Are there any Canadian offices? Who owns them and where are they based?

  22. Sam P Says:

    One thing to note is that TomTom and HP (well, the consumer focused parts) operate on really really slim margins. A single call can eat up all of the profit on the product, so trying to reduce the number of calls is very important to them, hence extensive online self-service and community forums. That doesn’t excuse having poor customer service though.

    • Larry T. Says:

      I don’t buy reasoning that some corporation can not provide adequate customer service because of a razor thin profit margin. Who determines their profit margin? Certainly NOT the poor schmuck who bought the product. I still believe the old adage which went something like “the sting of poor quality remains long after the joy of low price has been forgotten.” I’d lump service into the quality category.

  23. Anonymous Says:

    I second Paul’s request. What are you up to now Gerard?

  24. ip Says:

    Cervelo For Sale?
    Care to Comment….?

  25. Vince from Minnesota Says:

    Funny that you write about the importance of the long term relationship with your customers given my recent experience with Cervelo customer service. In October, I bought a 2012 P2 in anticipation of the 2012 season. I live in Minnesota, so after receiving the bike in November, I’ve kept it in my attic unused. When I saw the recent share the ride promotion I wrote to Cervelo to try to take advantage of the promotion given that I had just purchased the P2 at retail, and the new promotion would make my unused bike worth $1000 less. Instead of offering me some kind of accommodation, the Cervelo sales rep (“Tim”) dismissively responded “you are lucky enough to now have a P2 where many will not.” Nice way to alienate a loyal customer on the day before Christmas.

  26. Larry T. Says:

    Vince – since this topic was customer service and without taking a side in your situation I’m curious as to whether you think EVERY company selling things is obligated to refund the difference if they put something “on sale” after you bought yours? Is there a time limit?

    • Vince from Minnesota Says:

      Larry- Companies should be free to set their own pricing. I never thought Cervelo was obligated to offer the sale pricing to me or anyone else. I’m a little ticked off that I bought a 2012 P2 for $2800, when the same bike is now worth $1800 due to the new promotion. Everyone, including me, that paid full price for the 2012 P2 is a chump. Companies that want to build long-standing relationships with their customers don’t take actions that make their customers feel like chumps. The Cervelo P2 is a great bike, but so is the Cannondale Slice.

      • andy Says:

        vince, every day I find a new venue in which you whine. Are you still sore about getting DQ’ed for that yellow line violation? Or losing a $35 entry fee for a time trial because of a severe storm? get over it…

  27. MechEng Says:

    I work for one of the companies mentioned in your article and agree that customers are seemingly viewed as a “cost center” and a near nuisance when service is needed.

    For large companies, they’ve created their own hell by selling far more product than they could ever support so they just don’t support it. Accountants and quarterly results (bad optics as mentioned above) are partly to blame for that.

    The pot of gold for companies today is a return to useful service and getting increasing sales due to that service.

  28. Larry T. Says:

    Interesting comments about Cervelo here
    scroll down about halfway. Looks like things have changed quite a bit! It would be interesting to read Gerard’s comments but maybe they have a gag order on him?

    • A gag order? From whom and for what?

      Brendan starts his comments by saying he is imagining stuff he then proceeds to write, and indeed he is.

      Normally Brendan is better than this, I’m not sure why he chose to write about something he has no knowledge of. I mean, to read something into a transaction because it happens just before Christmas, come on. You can see that PON has done two transactions in the bike industry at a torrid pace. Why stop for Christmas?

      As for the model introductions he has been missing, there is the P5 this month, the S5 mid-2011, the R5 late-2010, the R3 mid-2010 and the R5ca early-2010. And while Brendan may not have liked the P4 launch, I don’t think that’s really the world-approved standard of whether something was a proper new model or not.

      • Larry T. Says:

        Well GV, it’s YOUR blog here and I think more than a few would LOVE to hear the real story of what’s been going on. While I don’t always agree with what you write I find it interesting, well-considered and worth reading. I put the link there because it was pretty much the only recent news on the sale of Cervelo and since you haven’t posted much of anything in the last few months thought others might find it interesting. Sorry if I offended you, that was not my intention in any way.

  29. You didn’t offend me, don’t worry. My silence is simply due to the fact that most successful negotiations are done in private, not via blogs, and I really haven’t had time to write about much else. I hope to be back blogging soon. Cheers.

  30. Larry T. Says:

    I look forward to reading. The stuff that I found interesting on the page the link was for was not the comments of the disgruntled ex-Cervelo retailer Brendan, but the ones from the guy claiming to be an ex-Cervelo “insider” in the comments section.

    • Ken Says:

      Larry, thanks for the pointer to CompetitiveCyclist blog. The ex-Cervelo insider’s post was an interesting read.

      Also, I was about to tweet Gerard why he’s been awfully quiet these days, but that’s apparently been taken care of.

      Gerard, good luck to your next endeavor. I’m looking forward to seeing fruits of your ingenuity.

  31. George Says:

    I think Cervelo has excellent customer service, whether direct or through the channel. I had to have a frame replaced recently, which I initiated through a retailer.

    Worked smooth as silk, no issues whatsoever. Of course, it helps that I had another Cervelo to ride, while this process went on. In addition, the Cervelo community is great, so I don’t have to go to Cervelo itself. This keeps the company lean and prices low

  32. chris Says:

    (accidently pressed enter)
    The video is actually called ‘cervelo s5 frame is terrible’

    The guy owns cervelo bikes and seems like a happy owner until he inspected the quality of ‘workmanship’ of the S5 frame. The pictures at the end of the video are quite convincing on his part so i’m not sure if you have anything to say about them?

    I believe his issue isn’t centered on his percieved quality of the S5 but the lack of willingness to replace/refund or even look at the frameset by Cervelo. Which brings me to the point of your post, the customer service is sufficiently lacking, given the evidence he provides at the end of the video.

    If you guys have resolved the issue then i suggest someone posts a reply video of some sort as quite a few people i know (who are looking to buy the s5) have now seen this video, and are put off buying it in fact.

    On my end, i’m sponsored by your distributer in hong kong (Bull Bike) and I have ridden and raced the P3/R3SL/S3(written off) and have been and still am exceptionally impressed by the performance of the framset when stacked up against bikes i’ve raced bianchi, bmc, trek. However, now I am in Canada for four years at University and recently (ended up purchasing/) purchased the S2 from a shop in Toronto called “Endurosport”. They say they are a cervelo dealer and I ended up purchasing an S3 framset from them. Upon delivery, I inspected the whole framset and found a massive gash on the downtube. I took it to several bike shops to take a look at and they said it was quite a severe cut. Taking it back to them they insisted it was nothing, then proceeding to contact cervelo directly they suggested me to resolve it with the retailer I purchased from. It took about a month before anything was resolved. In the end, they were only willing to give me a store credit along with terrible build quality and customer service.

    Maybe I have not been exposed to real customer service when purchasing my bike but as a first time buyer, I was seriously dissapointed.

    If you end up reading this far may I suggest that you suggest to Cervelo to have a niche number of retailers in all regions/states (similar to hong kong, who gets the inventory from taiwan. He is the only certified retailer in hong kong and everyone purchases from him as he stands behind your product) who stock and sell your framesets and bikes because I feel for the most part, the reputation given to customers comes from the person selling it to you. I was more than willing and ended up driving 3 hours to buy a cervelo bike as i’m sure most would. In the end, I ended up driving 15 hours back and forth to this one shop “Endurosport”, to be dissapointed with the “Customer Service”.

    To this day, I do thank Cervelo (along with most companies) who are willing to generously sponsor athletes (along with pro-teams), it provides huge assistance and we (I certainly) naturally become an ambassador of your framesets and back it up every chance i get. Now however, not so much. I hope it will change back to the way it was.

    I follow you and know you like to use twitter so y twitter name is: doishpelota if you could send me a message, it would be great to get some feedback on this.

    • Hi Chris, any company only exists by the grace of its customers so whatever is necessary to make them happy should be done (but of course within reason). I’m not sure what went wrong here, I simply don’t know the case as I’m not at Cervelo operationally anymore. But for sure when something has gotten out of hand like this, it’s a great opportunity to use it as a lesson internally. A good example of Real-time PR (see David Meerman Scott).

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