You’re My #1 Customer

I sat on the phone on hold this morning,  serenaded by Christmas music, interrupted periodically by a recorded message, “Your call is very important to us . . . “  As I waited, I mused on that scene from the Christmas classic, “Jingle All The Way,” where Howard Langdon (Arnold Schwarzenegger) frantically tries to power through the queue of waiting customers.  At the end of each call, he reflexively concludes with the expression “You’re my number 1 customer.”    The scene makes me chuckle because I’ve been on both ends of that queue many times.  I do believe that most of us really want every one of our customers to feel like #1, just as we would like to feel that way when we are on the receiving end.  We want perfect quality and zero hassles; and in the information age, we order today because we want it today.

Alas, while most organizations aspire to create that level of customer experience, their systems and policies make it very difficult.  Like factory inventory, customers must be placed in queues when they cannot be served immediately.   Lines at supermarkets, traffic jams, waiting rooms, and, yes, phone queues.  The invention in 1989 (not so long ago) of the auto-attendant was intended to improve efficiency by automatically directing calls; a job that older folks like me will recall was once done by a person.  Where the desk of receptionist once stood, there is now just a phone with a sign above it:  “If you know your party’s extension, please dial it now.”  

If you are calling from outside there are  further enhancements to improve the waiting experience:

  • A clarifying greeting. (“Please listen carefully to the following options, as our menu has recently changed.”)
  • An explanation. (“All representatives are busy serving other customers.” Or, “ Due to high call volumes. . . .”)
  • An apology. (“We’re sorry.  Someone will be with you shortly.”)
  • Music. (Who chooses that?  Improvement idea: Give the caller the option to choose.)
  • A marketing pitch. (“Rated #1 in service by . . . .” )
  • A message to let you know where you are in the queue.  (“There are 14 callers ahead of you.”)
  • An offer to call you back. (“Dial 1 if you’d like us to call you back . . .” )
  • Or the old standard. (“Please leave a message . . . )

An advanced auto-attendant may, in fact, intermix all of these responses – or you may be encouraged to use an app (“For faster service please contact us at www. . . .”)  Of course, the nano-second capabilities of the Internet do not guarantee an immediate response.  Here’s a screen capture of an online inquiry I made in February 2021 🙂

Shigeo Shingo referred to these enhancements as “superficial improvements” because they automate the waste of waiting rather than eliminating it.   All of the embellishments exist only because the connection is not available.  Ultimately, if the proper party does not pick up, as Eli Goldratt might have noted, we have just moved the bottleneck.    

The original auto-attendant concept was intended to improve the flow of the customer’s inquiry by quickly directing it to the proper party.  If we were to consider only the operational time, that might be true.   But, for a customer faced with a nested process of choices based on 10 phone digits, there are plenty of opportunities for mistakes, rework, and frustration.  For me, there is nothing more surprisingly delightful than to reach a real person like Howard Langdon immediately.  But I will confess, if you try to reach me by phone, you may hear: “That mailbox is full.”  (A little 5S problem.)

In any event, have a Merry Christmas and remember: YOU’RE MY #1 CUSTOMER.  🙂


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7 thoughts on “You’re My #1 Customer

  1. John

    Thank you for this posting. This is something that almost anyone can relate to. We all know what it is like going through the automated phone messages, waiting for a long period of time before actually speaking to someone. Like you said, “The original auto-attendant concept was intended to improve the flow of the customer’s inquiry by quickly directing it to the proper party.” However, maybe this was not necessarily the best solution to the problem.

    1. Bruce Hamilton

      Thanks for your thoughts, John. “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men. Gang aft a-gley,” as Robert Burns said more than 200 years ago. Too often we put systems in place and leave them go on auto-pilot without bothering to check if they are working.

  2. Nic M

    Very interesting posting especially in todays world where it seems customer service and timely responses have all but gone out the window. When you restated the words of Shigeo Shingo on how companies today make superficial improvements to their systems that resonated very strongly with me as I recently have noticed this for myself. The pandemic has set everyone back and some companies refuse to solve the true issues and instead pass down the poor performance and service to customers. Recently I was able to tour and learn much about a local company near me that practices lean thinking in ever facet of their business. Even through tough sourcing challenges and other issues brought about by the virus this company refused to sell out their customers and instead continued to work and eliminate all waste. While other companies have used the pandemic as an excuse for their recent struggles the most successful companies in the long run will be ones that adapt and continually improve their system and always have a professional ready to take your call and solve customer problems. Thank you for the great post!

    1. Bruce Hamilton

      Thanks for your response, Nic. So true – the pandemic has exposed both good and bad corporate behaviors. Organizations that truly value both employees and customers are emerging stronger.

  3. Mahima Ohri

    Thanks for sharing this. We all know the feeling of trying to get in touch with someone and waiting on hold for a longer period than desired. When waiting to get in touch I personally appreciate when it lets you know how many people are in the queue. Waiting to get a hold of someone causes a major time concern when things need to be completed immediately.

  4. Ethan Berg

    This post was so interesting to read. I can definitely relate when you talk about how the pandemic crippled the service time and it became more automated and can’t talk to a person and you are stuck. Keeping someone on hold is a large waste that still to this day needs to be fixed. Thank you so much for sharing this post.

  5. Annie Sember

    Great post! I can relate heavily to the frustration of being kept on hold for a long period of time. I believe this system was created with good intentions, but may not be the most efficient. I agree that it is important to make a customer feel appreciated and not like a number. Thanks for sharing!


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