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Customer Service Train Wrecks: Eight Lessons in Four Hours


customerserviceWhen I teach my Simply the Best Customer Experience Workshop I tell attendees that they’re all experts in customer service. This is because for their entire lives they have purchased goods and services and know what they like and don’t like, what brings them back for more and what ensures a company will never see him or her again.

As a very-frequent traveler, I’m reminded of this daily as I check into hotels, eat more meals out than at home, and fly numerous airlines; five of which I’ve acquired elite status for miles logged. In just a four hour period leaving from my home in Los Angeles to the time I boarded a plane at LAX to a speaking engagement in Oklahoma City, I experienced eight customer service letdowns; some of which many readers would consider disastrous if committed by their own team members. As you read them, honestly evaluate the customer experiences created by your own team members in relation to these specific service defects and determine if you’re better or worse than the “professionals” providing the services rendered in my four hour customer service comedy of errors:

Phase I

  1. Within the first ten minutes of my ride to the airport, the driver employed by the car service I use to travel the 37 miles from my home to LAX airport dropped three F-bombs as he related what he thought was a humorous story from a comedy roast he’d seen on TV.
  2. This same fellow lamented that the comedian Dennis Miller, who he thought at one time was hilarious, had gone over to the “dark side” by supporting “Republican and conservative causes.”
  3. He then explained how at 60 years old, he had confidence he never had as a shy high-schooler and would now walk right up to the most gorgeous lady at a party and ask her out, taking her home the same night “75% of the time”.
  4. This clueless chap then discussed a recent relationship that hadn’t worked out and was particularly peeved that for his last date he had sprung for two $125 tickets for a jazz concert at the Hollywood Bowl; she dumped him the next week.

Knowing I was a captive audience with this customer service nightmare, and not wishing to distract him with debate in the dangerous morning Los Angeles traffic, I endured his nonsense knowing he’d never drive me again after I requested as much from his front office. A quick analysis of these points isolates four common errors employees make when trying to build rapport with prospects or customers. As you consider these takeaway lessons, determine if your people do the following:

Lesson One: Use off-color or unprofessional language, believing it makes them both authentic and entertaining.

Lesson Two: Think they’re establishing common ground by talking politics and wrongly assuming that others agree with them.

Lesson Three: Talk too much about themselves in an effort to impress the customer, rather than putting the focus on their customer and engaging them with questions about themselves.

Lesson Four: Foolishly discuss personal problems that have nothing to do with the sales process, serve as a distraction, and diminish their alleged status as a “professional.”

Phase II

After arriving at the American Airlines terminal at LAX, I attempted to ascend the “Priority/First Class” escalator to pass through security when a stern-faced American Airlines employee barked at me, “Hold on. Let me take a look at that bag. Turn it sideways. Now turn it around to the other side” as she eye-balled it, glanced at the regulation luggage-size bin and waved me through with, “You’re all right.”

Lesson Five: Why would you punish, delay or embarrass your best customers (those using the Priority/First Class lane) with a “gotcha” cop-type attitude? If the size of the bag was so close that after analyzing it she passed me through, it’s a good indication she shouldn’t have said anything in the first place. In fact, if she felt the need to speak, a winning strategy in her position for creating a positive customer experience for her best customers would be to smile and say, “Good morning”, “Welcome back”, or “We appreciate you!” As an aside: do you have protocols in place that permit you to quickly identify and acknowledge your best customers?

While preparing to walk through the TSA body scanner a fellow in the line next to me loudly announced he was late and cut in front of three other passengers—what looked to be a mom and her two kids—all the while wearing a company shirt, logo emblazoned boldly for all to see on the sleeves and front, along with his name, “Frank”.

Lesson Six: Do you have expected rules of conduct for employees away from the job, especially if they drive your vehicles or wear company attire? Every person in your business has the power to elevate or devastate your brand based on their behavior at, and away, from the job.

Phase III

After two hours of delays waiting to board to Oklahoma City, and with scant communication as to why, rumors in the gate area swirled from: “They’re going to cancel the flight” to “The smoke from the wildfires is causing them to shut down an air traffic control tower”, we boarded the plane. True to prior experience fifty percent of the time on this same flight, the flight attendants did not offer the nine customers in First Class a drink before departure. This is no big deal in the physical sense, but when you sometimes do, and then sometimes don’t execute a customer service you create the problem outlined in point 2.

Lesson Seven: When customers have to wait, keep them informed. When they don’t hear from you they tend to assume the worst. Even if the news is bad, tell them. Disappointment is always easier to handle than anxiety, because if people at least know what is happening they can prepare to deal with it; the angst that comes with not knowing what’s wrong is what’s really stressful.

Lesson Eight: Inconsistency in the customer experience weakens your brand. In fact, a key objective for any company serious about providing great customer service is to remove variation in the customer experience between its various departments and amongst its locations. The only way to pull this off is by establishing experiential standards each unit must train on and follow.

In fact, each of these eight customer service defects could be addressed in any organization by establishing written customer service standards, training people how to deliver them, and holding them accountable for doing so.

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