The bedbug letter

Years ago, the story goes, when people travelled in Pullman railway sleeping cars, a passenger found a bed bug in his berth. He wrote a letter to George M. Pullman, president of Pullman’s Palace Car Company, informing him of this unhappy fact. By return, he received the following:

“The company has never heard of such a thing and as a result of your experience, all the sleeping cars are being pulled off the line and fumigated. The Pullman’s Palace Car Company is committed to providing its customers with the highest level of service, and it will spare no expense in meeting that goal. Thank you for writing and if you ever have a similar problem, or any problem, do not hesitate to write to me again.”

However, enclosed with this letter, by accident, was the passenger’s original letter to Pullman, across the bottom of which the president had written a note to his secretary,

“Send this S.O.B. the standard bedbug letter!”

Customer service must be genuine otherwise people will spot its inauthenticity. It has to be said; many of our organisations are treating customer complaints like this. They are fantastically internally focussed with many customer-facing employees acting as though customers are an unwarranted intrusion into their daily affairs and are clearly not aware of how serious an offence this really is.

Even today, we see this process in action. Letter after letter being sent out from Customer Service Departments of large organisations in response to a steady stream of complaints from customers, mostly about how the organisation has treated them badly; and all of them written to a formula i.e. acknowledge the complaint, show concern, validate the customer’s anger, express sorrow, indicate a positive course of action within the company to prevent a future recurrence, leave the door open for future complaint – end of story! The letters are obviously template files on word processors, and that speaks volumes about the industrial nature of the process and the systemic insincerity behind the operation. This is not customer service and it will do nothing to generate the customer loyalty that is at the heart of good customer service delivery.

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