Customer Service Math: It doesn’t always add up

servicePolicies, customer service and common sense.  How well do those three terms add up in your business?  It’s an interesting equation and when done well, it creates utopia in your customer experience.  Sadly, poor examples often give us better picture of the do’s and don’ts in this arena.  And today’s example is inspired by the airline industry.

A few weeks ago, I was on a flight traveling from South Dakota to Tennessee.  If you’ve traveled much you know most flights are over-booked and if bad weather is involved, the potential domino effect spirals quickly.  Both were the case in our case study today.

Customer Service Fail #1:  I was scheduled on a 7:30am flight out of Sioux Falls.  So, at 7am you expect the boarding to begin.  The plane was at the gate along with the crew.  Gate agents began to travel back and forth to the plane for 20 minutes.  The service failure?  No updates to passengers from the gate crew.   We finally boarded and departed (40 minutes late); yet the only message from the pilot as we left was an apology for the delay.

Customer Service Fail #2:   Because we departed late, we arrived at DFW late.  And unfortunately, our gate was not available.  So what did we do?  We sat on the tarmac – just shy of our gate – for 25 minutes.  The good news is the pilot told us about our gate status.  The bad news is we could see an empty gate beside our occupied spot.  You could see fellow passengers squirming anticipating a sprint through the airport to make a connection (included me) as well as those who knew making their next flight was an impossibility because of this delay.

Customer Service Fail #3:  Can this story get any better?  Unfortunately, it can.  I bolted though the airport (terminal B to D) and made my connection.  As passengers were getting settled, the woman at the row in front of me realiFullSizeRenderzed her seat was wet.  She notified the flight attendant to ask for a blanket or plastic to cover the seat.  When he arrived, she shared the problem to which he replied, “I’ll be right back.”.  When he returned, he said he had notified the captain, and according to policy, the cushion had to be replaced.  She noticed a nearby empty seat (in the middle no less) and offered to just move seats.  The flight attendant refused and again, stated policy required a seat cushion replacement.  Moans and groans began to cascade the plane much like “the wave”.  The passenger apologized to everyone.  The flight attendant said nothing.  Twenty five minutes later a maintenance worker arrived and replaced the cushion and we departed.  Again, a delay in already long travel day.  If you could have only heard the passenger chatter on that flight to Nashville.

So what does all of this mean?  There is no need to share the airline’s name. That’s not the point.  However, the failures happened in three waves with three different people – each missing such small efforts that could have completely changed the customer experience from the negative to raving reviews.

Policy alone is a 4-letter word to customers. When customers hear the word policy, they hear “no”. Policies aren’t bad; they provide order from chaos, protect fairness, and ensure safety.  Unfortunately, those reasons often do not typically accompany an employee’s response.  Without a clear reason for the policy, customers believe you don’t want to help them.

Always consider the “audience factor”.  Whether in person or via word-of mouth, service – whether poor or great – is shared with others.  On the plane, at least 10 passengers overheard the flight attendant quote policy without explanation nor emotion.  And it resulted in several minutes of negative commentary.  Who knows how many people they told about their flight experience.  To every employee serving customers:  you are always on stage.

Second impressions are tough to create.  In each customer service failure described above, an impression was created from the experience and encounter with an employee.  In the absence of perceived explanation, understanding, and even effort, the first impression was so strong, it became lasting.  Service recover – that attempt to create a better second impression – is all but lost.

Now for the good news. For every customer service failure there is a service success.  How does it happen?  Those experiences are just one person away and are created one person at a time. So tell us, what is you favorite customer experience story?  Share it.  That’s how we get better.  And your stories need to be told!

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