American Marketing Association of Las Vegas

Growing Beyond the Phone Tree

We all know that customer service is the backbone of any business, but honestly, how many of us have experienced our own company’s customer service recently?

Many companies still force customers with problems to navigate an extensive phone tree. Once they reach a live human being, they then need to recite their problem, only to be transferred to another representative who works in the area that handles their concerns. Then they’re told that they’re going to be on hold for 10 minutes—or worse, they’re lost in phone transfer purgatory.

We have all experienced it, and it’s safe to assume that we all hate it, so why would we put our most valuable resource—our customers—through the same torturous process? As change agents, it’s our job to challenge and question everything—and to drive the business to be better and do better.

Of course, improving customer service these days means focusing your efforts largely on social media. Your customers are online and talking about you on social media, whether you’re there or not. Isn’t it better to be there and join the conversation, whether it’s good, bad or ugly?

Customers hate phone trees. It’s much easier to send a quick tweet or to post a question on Facebook than to call an 800 number. And often, at savvy, socially oriented companies, the people responding through social are quicker and more personable than the customer service reps manning the clogged phone tree system.

If you haven’t reevaluated your customer service in some time, go right to the source. Ask your customers what’s best, easiest and most convenient for them. You can turn it into a contest online to drive engagement and social traction, or offer coupons and discounts for participants in a quick poll online. There’s no substitute for asking questions and actually listening to your customers. It makes them feel invested in the company, improving customer loyalty and retention. It also gives you an opportunity to gain insight into things that you and your teams may not have considered.

For example, we had just launched a product at a major company and sales were not taking off. In testing, everything had gone great and our focus groups responded extremely favorably, but when the product hit the market, it was like no one was there. I went online and asked what the problem was. Was it the packaging? The colors? The marketing? We came to find out that the name of the product turned customers away, so I held a naming contest online. Not only did national media pick up the story, but also organic conversations were going on like crazy online and we couldn’t keep the product on the shelves. Instead of scrapping the product, it became one of our best sellers—all because I asked our consumers a question.

Beyond surveying customers, actually step into the role of your customer and experience your own customer service. While I was at Kodak, I challenged my teams to be their own customers. It wasn’t unusual for me to ask someone to purchase a specific item online and order it a variety of different ways with different shipping methods. I would ask them to try ordering it through chat or social media, and to try to cancel orders as soon as they hit “submit.” I would take it one step further and have them call customer service with a repair issue, warranty claim or return.

Don’t just navigate your company’s website and purchase a product online. Actually dive in and come at it like a customer with a problem would. Not only is it a great way to experience the process, but also it’s an even better way to see if there are any updates that could be made to improve the process.

Leaders, beyond the strategic and technical processes, this is a perfect opportunity to experience how your employees handle customer service. Pay attention to how team members answer questions, how often you are transferred to managers, what questions you’re being asked and how quickly the employees are able to resolve your problem. It may be a reminder to set up refresher training courses in customer service, or to award employees and their peers for their exceptional responses and service.

When customers are the driving force behind a business, it’s critical that we take care of them every step of the way.

This article first appeared on The author, Jeffrey Hayzlett, is a global business consultant and author of The Mirror Test: Is Your Business Really Breathing? and Running the Gauntlet: Essential Business Lessons to Lead, Drive Change, and Grow Profits. Previously, Hayzlett was CMO of Kodak. For more insights from Hayzlett, check out his regular contributions to AMA TV at, or follow him on or at

Categories: Strategies.