Powerlessness: Why Organizations Fail at Customer Service

Any service provider needs the power to fix problems. If you don’t have that power – or your company won’t give it to you – you’re useless.

When people call customer service, they are powerless.

There is only one thing that gets rid of powerlessness: power.

In other words, the person you are calling must have the power to help. Help nullifies the feeling of powerlessness and substitutes relief.

Powerlessness is one of the worst— if not the worst — feelings a human being can experience. Most people who have experienced powerlessness will tell you that. Some will argue feeling powerless is worse than physical pain.

The core reason an organization fails at customer service is because they do not give their employees the power to resolve the problem. When you do not have the power to solve a problem, you actually increase the feelings of powerlessness. In addition, time intensifies the feeling. The more time that passes without solving the problem, the worse the feeling of powerlessness.

I actually blogged about powerless in a post called “What I Overheard at the Airport,” where I heard powerless in the voice of a person on the phone. I think you might like it, especially after you read this latest tale.

A Tale of Service

One of my employees retired at the end of August. I notified my SIMPLE plan administrator via e-mail, a Brokerage Firm with 9,100+ employees and annual revenue of $5.4B, to stop the automatic deposits into this account. My financial consultant responded, assuring me (replying to my e-mail) this will happen.

The day before Thanksgiving, my now-retired employee called me and asked, “Why are you still sending deposits into my SIMPLE account?” He had closed his account with the Brokerage Firm and moved it to a Bank – a bank with 189,300+ employees and annual revenues of $2T.

I called my financial consultant. He made a few calls and called me back, saying, “This is entirely our fault. Let me take care of it immediately. We’ll put back the money ($1,500).”

One Week Later

By the end of the first week of December the money had still not been put back into my account.

My financial consultant called me and was extremely nervous. His voice shook. He said he was on the phone for hours talking to multiple people in different departments within his 9,100+ employee organization trying to get this solved. He got nowhere, so was calling me.

“I’m a fixer,” he said. “But I’m powerless. I can’t do anything else.”

I said, “Well, what do you suggest I do?”

He told me to call the 800 phone number.

The 800 Phone Number

When people tell you to call the 800 number, that’s usually a sign of desperation.

The first person I talked with, after getting through the prompts, was Steve. He started blaming me for the mistake.

He said things like, “I have no evidence you closed this account…you really shouldn’t be dealing with your financial consultant to do this…you can do this yourself in your account…whose account is this?”

I explained this account is part of my SIMPLE plan, controlled by government regulations, and that his  company was my partner in this relationship.

“You send letters to my employees about it,” I told him. “Besides, you stole my money and I want you to put it back immediately.”

The “stole” word stunned him because he put me on hold to “check with some people.” Then I made a serious error: I hit the wrong button on my phone and disconnected the call.

The feeling of powerlessness continued to grow.

I called back and got Sandra on the phone. She was able to pull up the “case” and familiarize herself with it quickly. She said the case was already in motion, and that it was started today.

I said, “But I called my financial consultant last week before Thanksgiving.”

She apologized saying there is no record of that call, and said there are now two people on the case and that it should be solved by next week. I thought, there are a lot of recordings when you have a 9100+ people organization.

“I appreciate that,” I replied and added, “but how did such a thing happen when I notified your company to stop the transactions in August?”

She asked permission to put me on hold for a few minutes.

When she came back on the line, she said: “I can neither confirm nor deny that this was the reason, but in looking this over there were two deposits going into your employee’s account each month, is that right?”

I said yes.

“I can neither confirm nor deny, but it looks like when you ordered the deposits to stop, we only stopped one of them. But I’m not confirming or denying this happened.”

“So, you can see that I did order the deposits to stop?”

“Yes,” she said. “I think this is human error, but I can neither confirm nor deny that to you.”

I thought to myself, “That’s an interesting way to put it. Ah, lawyers.” Then, I asked, what exactly has to happen to fix this problem?

She said, “We have to re-open your ex-employee’s account here, go to his Bank and pull the money back from them to this newly opened account, and then put it back to your account, and then close his account again.”

I was silent for a several seconds. “Do you know how absurd that sounds,” I asked, “when you made the mistake of moving it in the first place?”

“That’s the process,” she admitted with slight touch of regret in her voice.

I thanked her for her time and said, “Can you send me an e-mail when this is concluded and the money is back in my account?”

“We can’t e-mail,” she said. “I’m sorry. But, I can put a note in your file to do that.”

I was going to ask, “But how will anyone know to review my file,” but I didn’t. Instead, I offered a piece of advice to her.

“Next time, when it’s your fault, put my money back as soon as you realize it and then figure out how to get it back from the Bank. You see, it’s my money you stole. I know stealing is a strong word. It’s really a small mistake for a company your size. But, you did take the money after I told you not to. What should we call that? Even if you call it a mistake, human error, mistakes happen. I get it. Besides, it’s going to be two weeks before I get the money back – if I get it back. I lost interest on that money, didn’t I?”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

I called my financial consultant back and explained what happened. His powerlessness feeling was apparent. While we were talking, a text[1] came in from Steve. I emailed it to my financial consultant.

Only Power Solves Powerlessness

In my story, many people were powerless, not just me. The frustration of being powerless was felt by the people I spoke with, even Steve.

The only way you erase powerlessness is if you have power. Out of the 9,100+ employees at the Brokerage Firm, someone in some back office in that organization had it. Yet, even that person had to “automate” the process and wait. The problem remained the problem, and the powerlessness remained.

In our company, that mistake would have been fixed in ten minutes. I would have put the money back into the account and then figured out with my people how to get it from the new Bank, and how to avoid that mistake in the future.

As a customer, I don’t care about how you fix a problem. As a service provider, I need to empower everyone to solve problems. As a customer with a problem, when you feel powerlessness, it’s hard to care about anything except getting rid of the problem. As a service provider, powerlessness nullifies your existence and puts you in the same boat as the person you are trying to help. You both drown.

How does your company handle problems? Let me hear from you.


[1] “Hello. This is Steve. we were just speaking and I think we got cut off. I was having you on hold to get to the bottom of the case and we were disconnected or you hung up, so I just wanted to reach back to you and let you know that we did research into the account. We looked at the calls and unfortunately there is no note for the email that you sent to your consultant to stop that particular thing. But there are lots of correspondence between you, and you know, as far as the little tables that you sent of people with names and how much they’re supposed to get transferred and for how much the amount and all that stuff, so you know the latest one was that we got from you was back in January 2019 that stated that and he was supposed to get $1K per month but we don’t have a letter of instruction like you sent before stating OK to go ahead and cease that particular reoccurring transaction. So what happen is when you gave it to your consultant, apparently only one transaction um stopped which was the August one um and in the system it’s a little more tricky. Now if you had sent the letter of instruction like you did before all of the other correspondence the back office you know with more of the expertise in here to get all future payments stopped but apparently what happened is because we don’t have a way to track that and what exactly took place. But only one payment and the future postdated payments for the following month did not get canceled um and there was a letter of instruction on file we can’t really read or trace back to see, you know, who did what. I apologize but um you know for future reference um just send a letter of instruction basically stating like you have in the past that I am so and so and I would like to have this particular person not have any future payment sent to them as an internal transfer and upload better. You send it to us usually or you can drop it off at the branch and will get that in the back office. Thank you for calling today and I hope everything will work out. bye-bye…”

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4 thoughts on “Powerlessness: Why Organizations Fail at Customer Service

  1. Powerlessness isn’t just a flaw in large organizations.

    There’s a thing called “Sizzle Dining” going on in one town, which allows you to experience different restaurants at reduced pricing. Quite the concept.

    So one of the restaurants we selected was a small, Italian restaurant for lunch. When we walked in, there was one couple sitting at one of the eight tables in the very, very small eating area. One wall was full of wine bottles. The other wall full of things, including some pastas. It wasn’t really a deli.

    There was one person working who came running up to us telling us, “Sit wherever you’d like,” and handing us two Sizzle menus. There were three courses for $29. My wife ordered the Arancino Of The Day, which was a Rice Ball Stuffed With Ham And Cheese, Or Beef, Or Eggplant And Cheese. She requested the beef. For the second course, she asked for the Lasagna Of The Day, which the server said was also beef. I ordered other things to we can try different dishes. In a few minutes, the server came back and said she was sorry, but only Eggplant And Cheese for the Arancino was available. My wife said ok. This was a sign of things to come, and usually, I pay attention to signs. I don’t know why I ignored it this time.

    In five minutes, the server brought out the first course, and we started to eat. It was pretty good. But the Arancino was served in a thin, brown paper basket. As we ate, the dog walked in.

    Two ladies, one with the dog, casually strolled into the very small room and walked up to the register. Dogs are ok — outside, but it’s actually against the law to bring them in unless they are a service dog. This was not a service dog. You might wonder how I knew that. You would know it too: this dog was too happy. Service dogs are steady, calm. Always under control.

    “I take my dog everywhere,” the lady announced to the couple who had been sitting there when we walked in.

    The two ladies took a table in the middle of the room, and the server brought out their coffees in big cups. Apparently, they were regulars. The dog jumped up to see what was on the table, but the lady pulled her back down. A man came in and put two of the remaining tables together, and sat down. These tables were adjacent to where the ladies were sitting. In a few minutes, another man joined him. And in another five minutes, two women joined them.

    The man who put the tables together noticed the dog. He said, “I don’t like dogs.”

    The lady, somewhat startled, said, “You don’t? But she loves people.” He put his hand out and the dog sniffed at it. “No,” he said. “I like them alright.” I thought he wanted to say something else, but changed his mind. The server came to our table and said that the there was no beef Lasagna, just egg plant. “I’m sorry,” she said two times. “It’s ok,” we said. “It’s not your fault.” You could tell she was stressed…very stressed. And the stress was growing as four more people walked in.

    As we waited for the second course, the server brought the two ladies a half sandwich each. We waited. And waited. I noted that the lady without the dog was feeding the dog bits of her sandwich.

    That was about all I could take. I usually lose it in situations like this and make a scene. This time, I practiced self control. I had been learning to meditate. I told my wife, “We’re leaving. Let’s just ask for the order to go and get out of here. I don’t want to be eating and watching a dog eat.” She agreed, though she had her back to the dog.

    We talked over the register and you could clearly see the signs of distress in the server. I said, “We’d like our order to go. Did you know there’s a dog in here?”

    “Yes,” she said. “The owner allows it.” This confirmed my observation they were regulars.

    “Is the owner here?” I asked. She said, “No.”

    “You know it’s illegal to have a dog in a restaurant unless it’s a service dog. Is that a service dog,” my wife asked?

    “The owner said it was ok,” the server said, turned and walked quickly into the kitchen. Through the little opening where dishes pass through, I could see one man working the kitchen. He was a big man, with glasses, and he looked a little stressed too. You could hear them talking in another language that sounded heated. The server said when she came back out, “I can’t do this anymore. I just can’t.” Then she turned and walked back to the kitchen.

    We stood there for sometime. When the server came out again, I asked how long is this going to take? The dog barked once. I said, “Maybe you should just give us our money back.”

    This put the server into severe panic mode. You could see she simply didn’t know what to do. She froze. Then she took out her electronic hand-held device, started fumbling with it. I recognized what I talked about in this blog about powerlessness immediately and said, “Don’t worry, we’ll wait.” She immediately took a sigh of relief and went back into the kitchen talking quietly, but sternly, with the cook.

    A lady walked up to the register. The server came out and the lady said she wanted to order a sandwich, “But I’ll tell you want to put on it.” She then made the server’s life miserable by adding four or five things from different parts of the sandwich lineup. It took the server away from the automated entry to paper entry to accommodate this request. Frustration mounted.

    Finally, our dishes came out, were placed in a bag with a big logo of the restaurant printed on the bag, and she rang us up on her hand-held device. I gave her a 25% tip. “I hope your day gets better,” I said, and she smiled for the first time since we walked in, but then immediately felt the pressure of the tables weigh in on her. I wanted to say something to the lady with the dog on the way out, but thought better of it.

    Powerlessness is a horrible feeling. I think the worst part of the experience is that I realized years ago, you only have so many meals in your life. If you waste one, you can’t get it back. But even in the wasted ones, I always learn something.

    I had called that morning to see if I needed reservations, and a man answered the phone. He said in a heavy accent, “No, not at that time if you want to come in at 12:30. Come earlier if you want too.” I asked his name, and he mumbled something. I should have sensed this was a sign of things to come. Especially when I looked at the Sizzle website and clicking his “go to the restaurant’s website” took me to an entirely different restaurant than this one from the owner who moved here from Sicily.

    And the reason we picked it in the first place? Torta Della Nonna. It’s one of my wife’s favorite deserts. So much for cause and effect.

  2. I just met an excellent young man who, when the topic of customer service came up and I mentioned this blog’s title, he said: “Yea, they send me into battle with butter knife.” He works at a very large institution. Management needs warriors like him, but you also need to provide the tools to the warriors!

  3. My head is spinning after reading about your experience. I shutter to think that any customer of ours might have a similar experience. Our motto is “Think like the customer, act like the boss”. I hope that if a customer of ours feels helplessness that feeling is eliminated and followed through on the first call. I am sharing this with our team, thanks!

    1. Carl, thanks for the comment! After speaking with you today, I’m quite positive that your customers are empowered through superior customer service. Appreciate the discussion.

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