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Pleasing the Customer Should Be Job One

Agencies: Leslie Byrne, head of the Office of Consumer Affairs, pushes companies to pay more than lip service to clients.

March 06, 1997|CONNIE KOENENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the director of the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs, Leslie Byrne has been listening to people with many agendas: from business and industry, regulatory agencies, trade associations and consumer groups.

But she learns the most about her constituency by working the office Helpline. "It is instant polling," she said. "I can tell what's going on across the nation in terms of complaints--which companies are doing a good job of pleasing customers and which aren't."

And she has some advice: In today's heated global marketplace, good customer service is the way to stand out. And don't think that a toll-free "customer hotline" with a nightmare maze of Muzak-linked computer-generated choices equals customer service.

"Too many people think of customer service voice mail as Dante's Third Ring of Hell," said Byrne, who has earned praise for her take-charge approach since President Clinton appointed her in August to an office that had been under siege. Pleasing the customer should be a deliberate marketing strategy, said Byrne, who built a reputation for consumer advocacy in the Virginia House of Delegates and U.S. Congress before moving into her office across from the White House.

"It's not that the customer is always right, but that the customer has to be treated with respect and dignity." This favorite Byrne motif was the essence of her address that kicked off a recent "Customer First" national conference in Los Angeles.

Customer service, she told the audience of transit leaders, has been a major issue for the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs since the 1970s, when it completed a landmark study of consumer complaint handling in America. "The study found that, far from being a pain in the neck as too many managers regarded customer complaints, they are a marvelous source of crucial management information," she said.

A 1986 update of the study showed that major companies that had upgraded their customer service departments enjoyed such positive results that many businesses began to jump on the bandwagon. And while today's proliferation of toll-free numbers appears to be a golden age for service, the feedback into her office suggests broad problems.

"It's clear that there are companies and agencies aggressively advertising their excellent customer service and guaranteeing their customers' satisfaction, who simply aren't doing it." As a result, she said, the public is increasingly cynical about getting any help when they dial 800 numbers.

She offered a checklist of ways to please hotline customers, including: Telling callers, if they have to hold, how long it will be and suggesting a better time to call; not dumping callers into an incomprehensible menu of choices; and getting back to the customer by a specific time.

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In an interview after her address, Byrne elaborated on her message. "A lot of companies are doing better, but an amazing amount don't do anything in the way of redressing complaints," she said. Noting that American businesses pay millions of dollars for market analysts to come in and tell them what customers think, she suggested this: "Put a CEO on the company hotline. He will find out what customers think and he will find it out fast.'

Since it's been more than 10 years since her office rated companies for service, she's considering an update, which would recognize companies with outstanding service, such as Southwest Airlines, Saturn and Nordstrom. "When you talk to businesspeople, those are the ones they say they admire--they are the gold standard of customer service."

The agency will also single out companies that claim to offer good service but don't, she said. "One of the top nominees right now would be America Online," she said, alluding to the uproar over its jammed lines.

The Consumer Affairs office opened its Helpline ([800] 664-4435) in 1995. Billed as "the only national consumer complaint information and referral service," the line handled 180,000 calls last year. Its hours, which are limited to 7 to 11 a.m. PST, shortchange people on the West coast, Byrne said, and she hopes to change that.

"We only have a staff of 15 and we all work the Helpline," she said. What they try to do is help the consumer sort through the alphabet soup of government agencies and reach the proper office for complaint remedy.

The Helpline is only a small part of her new job, which carries the title of special assistant to the president. Her office, which provides feedback to both the White House and Capitol Hill on consumer laws, was "almost zeroed out" by a Republican Congress, she said, but its $1.5-million budget ("lunch money on Capitol Hill") was saved by the administration.

In addition to the Helpline, the office plays a large educational role, working with consumer groups at the state and local levels. Pastor Herrera Jr., director of L.A. County's Department of Consumer Affairs, says it's a good resource. "They help us to expand our view of many issues, such as identity fraud," he said.

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