The three Fs of customer service

The three Fs of customer service

I had another interesting customer service experience at the weekend. We had booked an electrician well in advance to service our air conditioner and change a bunch of light fittings. He was due at 9:30 on Saturday morning. At 9:00 I went round making sure everything was ready for him and sat down with a book while I waited. At 10:15, there was no sign of him so I rang him to see what was happening. He said he had been having weather troubles on the first couple of jobs that morning (it had been sprinkling with rain a little) but he would be there as soon as he could. I accepted this readily enough, although it would have been nice to have received a phone call. The weather was fine from that point on, so I was expecting him to turn up pretty soon after that. Foolishly, I kept expecting that all day.

Now, my family and I had pretty much arranged our whole weekend based on having no power on Saturday morning, postponing various things such as housework and washing to fit in with the time we had been given. When he hadn’t turned up by 11:00, it was time to think about preparing the kids’ lunches before he turned up. He hadn’t turned up by 2:00 when I had to take the kids out somewhere, and he had given up answering his phone, so I just went out. He hadn’t arrived when I returned, and still hasn’t arrived, so I think it’s fairly safe to say he’s never going to turn up.

You might think that this piece of total non-service represents some kind of low point, but it’s actually only the third worst customer service experience I’ve had this year. I have had two much worse experiences than that in 2008; one from an Australian company and one from an American company. I will relate those experiences in later posts.

Anyway, my customer service experiences, along with some other recent happenings, have led me to contemplate such matters, and come up with some (ahem) profound thoughts on the subject. The main point is that getting things right is only the first line of defence against poor customer service. What happens when things go wrong (and they will) is the real test of a company’s service attitude / culture.

What should happen when things go wrong? Three Fs. F— up? Fess up. Fix up. What do these mean?

  • F— up? Find out if a mistake has been made. If a customer is saying that something has been screwed up, assume they are right until proven otherwise. Even if complaining customers are wrong 90% of the time, that’s no excuse for treating the other 10% as if they don’t know what they are talking about, or that they are wrong or unreasonable.
  • Fess up. If a problem is evident, admit it. I can think of no single instance in corporate history where denying the existence of a genuine problem has made a company look better than admitting it. Ignoring a problem, making excuses for it, obfuscating, pretending it’s not there, or even claiming that it’s the customer’s fault, always makes the guilty company look worse. Always. No exceptions. A company representative that acts like that is doing no kind of useful service to the company, no matter how loyal they may think they are being. The same thing applies to politicians, but don’t get me started on that.
  • Fix up. Having established that the problem is real, correct it. Do whatever needs to be done to make the customer satisfied.

I could add a fourth F, “Fast”, because correcting problems that affect customers should be a priority, but let’s keep it to three for now. Easy, right? I expect I will now make a fortune writing a book, selling my ideas to clueless companies that should know better, and/or doing highly paid speaking tours. I think I will call it, “The Johnson Method of Customer Service: It’s F—ing Obvious.”


  1. Steve,
    It’s a good post. Working with customer every day we (Novedge) try to provide the best possible service all the time. We have a few major obstacles in improving our customer service:
    (1) We don’t always have full control on the licensing/shipping/packaging process.
    (2) Customers are not always available to listen to us, they just want to complain and to blame somebody.
    (3) Several times customers are simply trying to blame us for some mistake they made (e.g they provided the wrong shipping address, they order the wrong version, they change their mind, etc).

    We are always nice, prompt, and understanding but it is costing us a significant amount of money (returns, overnight shipping, 2nd copy, long phone calls, etc.). and sometime I wonder if it will every pay off.


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