The recent passing of my father in-law and the resulting last-minute travel and funeral arrangements have led to many experiences in customer service. Some bad, some good, some exceptional, some remarkable, and even some that were elitist to the point of presenting ethical conflicts. But all of them held a lesson that will stick with me.
[The Good and Bad] I travel considerably and due to my location it is almost all on United. This has earned me a high frequent flyer status, with which comes a variety of perks. One of those is a special phone number, which almost always connects to a very helpful human within a few seconds. While trying to find the cheapest next-day availability and fare for a 2,000 mile trip, I also tried a couple alternate carriers such as American and America West using their regular published phone numbers. After about a half hour of phone hell wading through automated voice prompts, I gave up. I later found via an online search that they had slightly cheaper fares, but I stuck with United.
Further differences between standard and elite level customer service became apparent later in the trip, when I was helping my mother in-law transfer the frequent flyer miles from her late husband’s account to hers. Calling the regular United customer service number resulted in another voice prompt hell, finally ending with a gruff “customer service” agent with so little sympathy that I finally just hung up. So I called the special elite level customer service number, was immediately connected to a pleasant customer service agent who resolved the issue within thirty seconds.
- Lesson: Rewarding your best loyal customers is appropriate, but keep in mind that you also want to convert every customer into a loyal customer. Don’t sabotage this by offering substandard standard service to new or lower volume customers.
[The Good] One of my flights was delayed several hours due to weather, which meant I had missed a connection. When I landed I expected to have to fight the crowds in Chicago to find an alternate connection, but instead I immediately received an automated voicemail from United saying that they had already rebooked me, letting me know the new flight and gate number. A major convenience that I won’t soon forget.
- Lesson: When a problem occurs, even if it isn’t your fault, take pre-emptive action to resolve it and reduce the pain felt by the customer.
[The Bad] The saga continues with the rental car. We somehow landed in central Michigan in the middle of a ferocious ice storm, and I went straight to the Hertz counter. Again, I consolidate most of my car rental business to Hertz, which gives me gold level service. I got a car, went out to the lot, and found my car had a quarter inch of ice on it. It took me over thirty minutes to chop the ice off and get it warmed up… not a pleasant experience for a long-time resident of California. Meanwhile right across the row from me were cars from Avis and Enterprise, already cleaned off and ready to go. That visual is something I’ll take with me on future trips, and will probably change my preference in rental car companies.
- Lesson: Remember that your customers are always comparing you to your competitors. While your customers are dealing with your bureaucratic obsurdities, they are looking across the street and seeing that the ice is off of the competition.
[The Good] After a ten mile drive on incredibly icy roads, which took two hours, I arrived at my in-law’s house to find the power out. The power would remain out for almost three days, which created incredible complexity when trying to coordinate a memorial service. However the power company had a customer service phone number where after entering your home phone number it would automatically give an estimate of when service would be re-established… which proved quite accurate. This allowed us to make plans to stay in a hotel for a couple days.
- Lesson: Open, honest, and timely communication can create a positive response even in the face of problems. If the power is off, make it easy for your customers to know your true best estimate for when it will be back on.
[The Remarkable] Although they were swamped with requests for rooms and were battling their own power problems, the hotels were communicating between themselves and were aware of which hotels actually had rooms. This is actually relatively common in the hotel business, but I found this communication and cooperation between competitors rather remarkable. Can you imagine Dell, Gateway, HP, and Sony working together to tell customers which computer was best for a specific application?
- Lesson: Can you work with your competitors to provide superior customer service that benefits the entire industry?
[The Exceptional] With power out throughout the town and temperatures in the single digits, all of the florists in town had lost their inventory and could not be contacted for alternate arrangements. This presented a major problem for the flowers we hoped to have at the memorial service. However the owner of one major florist in town, Smiths, had given a friend of ours his home phone number. We called him at home, got him out of a shower, and explained our situation (after giving him a chance to towel off). He asked a couple questions to clarify expectations, then simply said not to worry and that he’d take care of everything. A beautiful arrangement was in place at the memorial service a few days later, and we later found out that he had gone to considerable effort to coordinate and create the arrangement, including making a trip out of town to obtain new flowers.
- Lesson: Being easy to do business with and creating peace of mind is worth a significant premium. Can your customers contact you when you’re in the shower, and be 100% confident that you’ll deliver as expected?
[The Bad] But there were other florists that didn’t take customer service to that level. One in particular stands out: the attempted delivery while power was out and we were staying in a hotel. They left a pre-printed note on the doorknob indicating that delivery was attempted, and asking us to go to the florist to pick up the bouquet. Unfortunately the pre-printed note did not include the name, address, phone number, or any other identifying information for the florist so we could not follow up. At least they didn’t simply leave the bouquet on the doorstep in five degree weather.
- Lesson: Do you actively try to contact customers when a problem occurs, or do you leave a note with no contact information in an attempt to avoid them?
[The Good] My father in-law’s last weeks were spent at a private nursing home run by Alterra. This was an exceptional place, with clean upscale rooms and a very attentive and professional staff. A major improvement over the previous drab insurance-paid facility, and a stark contrast to the experience we had with a local hospital. I’ll grit my teeth and refrain from any commentary on the benefits of private care vs the desire of many to create a single-payer system. The Alterra staff, combined with support from Hospice, did an exceptional job of communicating with our family and preparing us for what would eventually occur.
- Lesson: Help guide your customers through a new or complex process. Being well-informed helps make even very difficult situations more manageable.
[The Bad] For the past year United has been using automated check-in machines at the ticket counter for all check-ins at the Midland, Michigan airport. After using the machines to get boarding passes, those who are checking bags need to flag down a counter agent for further assistance. The obvious intent is to reduce the number of counter agents, however the machines are not sufficiently intuitive. Invariably over the past ten or more times I’ve passed through this airport, there was a counter agent standing next to each machine to help frustrated customers. These machines work well for specific circumstances and experienced flyers, but after a year you would think United would see, or resolve, the problems with having them as the sole check-in method. Once again a company is focusing on reducing labor cost instead of reducing the internal cost of complexity, and creating a poor customer service experience to boot.
- Lesson: Always keep the customer in mind when working on continuous improvement activities. A project that tries to reduce operating cost but reduces customer satisfaction probably does not save money in the end.
[The Ethically Questionable] Flying at an elite level with United has some perks in addition to the special customer service phone number, such as automatic free upgrades to first class at no cost when a seat is available. But I recently became aware of one unusual perk: at the highest frequent flyer status United will guarantee you a seat on any flight, right up until flight time. What that really means is that they will bump someone else off just to make room for a last minute request by someone who spends most of their time in the air. I don’t know about you, but that rubs me a little wrong.
- Lesson: Treat all customers fairly. If a program would upset a new customer and gives even a loyal customer a queasy feeling, it is probably not a good idea.
Take the time to observe your operation from your customer’s perspective. What can you learn and improve? What can you learn from your experiences as a customer in everyday life?