How to avoid this big company’s customer service fiasco

“I bought an HP all-in-one printer through Amazon the other day and encountered a problem when I set it up. During setup, the small touchscreen on the front of the printer – which is called the control center – stopped working.

“It froze at one point. I uplugged and replugged in the printer and the problem persisted. There was nothing on the screen.

“After checking all the troubleshooting suggestions in the manual and online, I called HP support the next morning. The tech support person led me through some steps to reset it and finally concluded that the printer required replacement.

“That’s where the real trouble began.

“After being on the phone for some 15 minutes, she said we needed to talk to a supervisor who would be in the office in two hours. She promised to call me back and finish the replacement process.

“The call never came.

“I called back two days later and – to make a long story short – after 40 minutes and talking to two individuals on the phone, the replacement was queued up to be on its way.

“How is it that I can have such a terrible customer service experience with a company as big and technologically advanced as HP?

“(And, before I sign off, I want to share one more observation. During my second phone call, I spent most of the time on hold where HP was promoting all of its customer service and replacement services. While they probably think that all these repeated “ads” demonstrate their commitment to customer service, the message I got was that they must have a lot of customers with problems.)”

I received this note from a friend the other day. I sympathize with his problem. I had a disappointing customer service experience with Comcast recently. There’s another big, hi-tech company that should be able to perform better.

The problems with HP demonstrate three (at least) common problems in customer service:

  • Lack of front line authority to take all the steps required to solve a problem,
  • A system that doesn’t “close loops,” and
  • Inadequate staffing.


Division of labor works well on assembly lines, but not so much in customer service. Management at HP probably feels it is smart to funnel the shipment of replacement hardware through one department. However, from the user’s perspective, this severely degrades the customer service experience. It creates another entire episode of being on hold and having to explain the situation.

A critical thing to remember in customer service is that (unlike the Rolling Stones song) time is not on your side. Time is your enemy. My friend had fussed with his printer for quite some time even before calling customer service. Then the initial call took time and the follow-up call took even more time.

If your customer service reps can’t handle all of their cases to their completion, what are the stumbling blocks? If you think you’re saving money by putting in some safeguards to prevent your customer service reps from being too generous with customers, you’re making a mistake.

My friend told me that this is the first and last HP printer he’ll buy. You only get one chance to make a first impression and if that first impression kills repeat business, how much more should you invest to make that first impression superb?

Closed loop

I find it very difficult to understand how HP dropped the ball on the initial call back, however I know that this happens a lot in business. Problems like these underscore the importance of designing closed loops into your systems.

The fact that there are steps awaiting completion in any given process must be repeatedly presented to the individuals who have the responsibility to complete those steps. The systems to assure closed loops vary greatly; they can be computer based or paper based – just don’t rely on human memory to close a loop! Whether the reminder system is digital or analog, supervisors need to be checking these systems often to be sure that all loops are closed in the most timely manner.

Inadequate staffing

In the case of this phone call to HP customer support, it seems that the people in the department responsible for hardware shipments weren’t available at the same hours the customer support telephone line was staffed.

I know that today it is popular to have 24/7 chat lines. However, during off hours these are sometimes staffed by individuals who do little more than gather contact information and promise to be in touch. Is this better than have defined hours when you can provide full service to your customers? In some cases it may not be an improvement.

The small business advantage

HP may have had difficulty handling this case because of the size of its operation. As a legacy company, it has probably gone through hundreds – if not thousands – of iterations in its customer service systems. It sheer size makes it difficult to cleanly pull off process improvements.

However, smaller businesses should be able to establish streamlined customer service systems that truly impress customers. You should be nimble enough and close enough to your customers that you make the right moves…quickly.