The Value of Customer Service

In the wake of yesterday’s discussion about ING Direct and customer service, a fair number of readers wondered whether I am overvaluing customer service. I personally believe that good customer service is worth a premium on most items, from a bank account to an electronic device, and here’s why.

In 2002, I purchased an iPod. Less than a week after owning it, it had some problems – the hard drive inside began to make some very ominous noises. Since it was under warranty, I called Apple’s customer support line, spoke to a clear-speaking person within five minutes, and was given very specific instructions on how to mail it to Apple. Less than two weeks later, I held a brand new replacement iPod in my hands.

In 2006, I bought a Dell laptop. About two months after owning it, the battery ceased to work. Since it was under warranty, I called Dell’s customer support line. I stayed in the hold queue for more than an hour before giving up. I tried again later and, after forty five minutes, was handled by an individual in India who spoke very hard-to-understand English. He basically refused to exchange my battery and would not allow me to speak to a supervisor. On a third call, I finally got ahold of a supervisor, who told me that my battery had been subjected to “abnormal usage” and that it wouldn’t be replaced.

Guess what? The next time I buy a laptop, I’m going to spend the premium and buy the Apple.

I’ve had similar experiences in various arenas, including online banking (one bank basically fought me over allowing me to withdraw my deposit, for starters). Considering the time and frustration invested in dealing with companies with poor customer service, I consider it well worth my time and money to spend a small premium to ensure good customer service from a product that I will rely on.

Whenever I consider buying a new item, I ask myself what would be the implications in my life if it ceases to function and there’s no customer service available? My primary bank, for instance, better have good customer service, as they hold the money I use every day. On the other hand, if I’m just using a bank to stockpile some savings, I can tolerate a little less in the customer service department in exchange for a bit better rate. Similar logic applies to my computer, many of my electronic devices, my automobile, and so on.

On the other hand, when I buy a package of light bulbs, I realize the customer service has very little value. Only rarely will I invest the time to call them up if a light bulb were to burn out early – the value of my time is higher than that. Plus, there’s almost no implication if that item ceases to function – I just go change the bulb.

In the end, good customer service is like an insurance policy. Some feel better having that insurance in case something goes wrong and are willing to pay a premium for it. Others are willing to eschew it and go straight for the cheapest item. For me personally, the more I rely on an item in my daily life – and the more disastrous it would be if that item simply ceased to exist – the higher the premium I’m willing to pay for stellar customer service.

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