April 14, 2017

How Can I Help?

Transforming customer service into human service.

Today I want to compare the customer service responses I received to problems I had with a couple of products.

First, all of my children own Thermos brand Funtainers. Because they are avid water drinkers, it’s important they have a quality water bottle at the ready whenever the thirst strikes. We are long-time customers of Thermos products, ever since my kids grew out of sippy cups. Recently, my daughter’s container developed some discoloration inside of it that resembled rust. It certainly didn’t come off in the normal course of washing. So, I reached out to Thermos and asked about obtaining a replacement as the bottle is less than a year old.

Their response? Well, read for yourself:

“Thank you for your inquiry regarding cleaning and maintenance for your Thermos Brand product. Please visit our website at for a full list of Care and Use information pertaining to your Thermos Brand product. The discoloration you are seeing is almost always a coffee/tea build-up in your container…”

What? Unless my nine year old is making Starbucks runs without my knowledge, the problem was certainly not caused by coffee or tea. As my email to them began “My daughter’s FUNtainer water bottle has what appears to be rust on the inside of the bottle…” I was a bit surprised that the Thermos customer service representative accused her of an espresso habit.

Clearly this is a large company with a number of form responses that their customer service reps can select from. Unfortunately, this particular customer service rep either failed to select the correct one or simply neglected to fully understand my correspondence before formulating her response.

On the other hand, my wife recently ordered a purse on Amazon’s Marketplace. Now, she has plenty of purses, but wanted this particular one as she is planning to attend Dapper Days at Disneyland in a couple of weeks and this purse matches her “Disneybounding” outfit well. She received the purse in plenty of time for her trip, but it arrived with a tear in the fabric. So she reached out to the company, a small business in China, and asked them to send her a replacement. She expected they would ask her to send the defective product back and was worried that if they waited to receive it before shipping her replacement, it wouldn’t arrive in time for her trip.

Instead, the company apologized and told her they would immediately send another her way. They did not ask her to return the defective purse and, in fact, to my wife’s surprise when she opened the second package, they’d sent her two replacements instead of one.

Now, I don’t know if sending multiple replacements is company policy or a mistake on their part. But rather than laying the responsibility for rectifying the problem at the feet of my wife, the customer, they took ownership of the problem and immediate action to resolve it.

The first moral of my tale is obvious: guess which of these two companies we’re more likely to spend our hard-earned dollars with in the future? Exactly.

The second moral is less obvious but, in the wake of recent events surrounding United Airlines and their decision to have a passenger forcibly removed from a flight for no reason other than they needed a seat, is far more important. Too often our decisions are driven less by our desire to be helpful to another human being and more by our need to adhere to some sort of blanket policy or process for handling the given problem. As I’ve recently noted, creative problem solving is a hugely important skill in today’s business world while empathy is a value that seems in short supply. Both could be more readily apparent in our day-to-day lives, however, if we remembered that whenever we’re, say, “re-accommodating these customers,” they’re not just customers. They’re fellow human beings with wants, needs and priorities that can’t always be fulfilled by adhering to policy.

“How can I help?” just might be the four most powerful words in the English language. Asking it, of ourselves, and meaning it, just might transform “customer service” into “human service.” And that would be powerful transformation indeed.


  1. Simple, good examples of the value and meaning embedded in being of service to others. Or not. Values are best demonstrated when something goes wrong. That’s when company culture is exposed.

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