MODERN TRAVELS/TRAVAILS

My nephew is getting married today in Chicago. He’s the first grandchild in our family, and the first one to get married, too. I wanted to be there.

(This is a long shaggy dog story about poor customer service, so if you’re not in the mood, just scroll down to the last few paragraphs.)

So I spent hours researching flight schedules and ticket prices. Found a great deal on Spirit, non-stop (bonus!) and acceptable times. (We live two hours from various airports, so 6 a.m. flights are not an option….)

I made my sisters & sisters-in-law (old and new) jewelry two days before. I went over my wardrobe the night before. I packed my bags, got a good night’s sleep, and printed out my boarding pass.

In hindsight, maybe I should have foreseen where this was all heading when I realized I had to pay an extra $70 to carry on ONE bag ($35 each way.) And to ensure an aisle seat (knee surgery last month, remember?), I had to pay an extra $20. So the “bargain fare” was beginning to look less and less like a bargain.

Oh, well. It was worth it, right?

We left for the airport with my husband in good time to catch my flight.

My husband dropped me off at the terminal for Spirit, and that’s where the real fun began.

I had a mental hiccup–do you have to check in if you already have your boarding pass? I asked one of the “line helpers” at a neighboring airline.

“You with United? No? You have to go over there for Spirit.” I told him it was a pretty generic question, but he wouldn’t answer. I wasn’t “his” customer, so he just insisted I go somewhere else. Of course, I realized after one quick look at the ticket kiosk that I was all set. As I walked away, he followed me, saying repeatedly, “Miss! Did you get the answer to your question? Can I help you?” Well, thank you for the help–NOT.

I went through one of the longest security lines I’ve ever seen, with a nervous gentleman behind who kept trying to nudge me forward or snake around me. He finally succeeded in doing so, only to be pulled from the line to be searched. HA!

I found my gate and sat down to wait. And wait. And wait.

Finally, one of the other passengers went up to ask what was going on. Guess what? Our flight was cancelled. When were they going to announce it? In a little while. Why? There was bad weather in Chicago (which I found out later was not so bad and didn’t last long.) Our flight was not delayed, or rescheduled. Just cancelled. There would be no rebookings til the next day, in the afternoon. AFTER the wedding.

A bunch of us tried to find a new flight, but it was difficult. I realized I’d be arriving very late, if at all, and exhausted (still recovering from surgery, not much stamina.) I decided to just get a refund and go home. I’m glad I did, because I saw the other passenger two hours later, still trying to rebook her flight with another airline, with no success.

I called the hotel to cancel my reservation–I only had a couple hours before a penalty fee would kick in. I was put on hold several times. The agent asked for my confirmation code eight times. (No exaggeration.) She kept asking when I would be arriving. I kept reminding her I was cancelling. She kept putting me on hold to “check with a supervisor.” After being kept on hold for 10 minutes, I hung up and used my smartphone to cancel the reservation on their website. It took me one minute.

I decided to have lunch while waiting for Jon to come pick me up. I went to the only restaurant outside the secured area. I asked the man at the cash register if it was self-serve or table service. (It looked like both, and I wanted to be served.) “We have table service,” he said. “Sit anywhere!” I sat down and waited. And waited. And waited. After fifteen minutes, (and after several larger groups were seated after me, and waited on before me), I decided to just get a salad to go and eat it in the hallway. I picked a packaged salad and waited at the cash register. And waited. And waited. Near me were a group of waiters chatting. I waited about five minutes, then turned and walked out. As I walked out, one of them ran after me, saying, “Miss, can I help you? Miss! Did you want something??”

I got a quick sandwich at Dunkin’ Donuts. (I was desperate.) Jon soon arrived, and we started home.

We decided to stop in Jaffrey and eat at a very nice inn. It was lovely. We sat on the screened-in porch and watched the world go by.

After a few minutes, I left to go use the restroom. Jon said it was kind of hidden, and to just ask one of the staff. After wandering through a few rooms, I saw a waiters station with three staff members talking. I waited til I caught the eye of one of the waiters and said, “Can you tell me where the restroom is?”

And he said, “Yes.”

I waited. He waited. I waited. He waited.

I know he thought he was being funny. I know he didn’t know I’d already had a 10 hour day full of waiting, disappointment, rude and pompous air terminal employees, and a long, hot drive still ahead of us. I know it was a joke.

Unfortunately, I was in no mood.

I turned around and walked out.

Of course, he came chasing after me. “It was a joke, I’m so sorry, the restroom is right there!”

We finished our meal, paid and left.

On the way home, I thought about the day’s events.

I wanted to be at that wedding. I tried hard to be at that wedding.

It’s nobody’s fault that I can’t be there, but it’s certainly not mine. All day long, I dealt with people who were paid to serve me, paid to assist me, paid to give me excellent customer service.

Very, very few of them did.

At one of the fanciest restaurants in the region, I was humiliated. I just wanted to know where I could pee. I politely asked a paid employee for assistance. All he had to do was point and say, “Right there” and I would have been content. Instead, at the end of a very long, exhausting day, I was made the butt of his little joke.

In fact, the best customer service I received that day was from the two cheerful, accommodating women at Dunkin’ Donuts. They were making minimum wage, and they barely spoke English. But that didn’t stop them from making sure my coffee was exactly the way I wanted it. (And yes, I gave them a big tip.)

So here’s the customer service point:

Whenever I write or talk about giving great customer service at a show, in your booth, when I write about how to answer customers’ questions about your work or your product, there’s always someone who insists that a funny, snappy answer is a good thing. When you ask, “How long did it take you to make this?” they respond, “It took me 30 years to make that!” I am here to tell you, it’s not funny to the person who asked you a question.

As a person who was exhausted, in need, and paying a lot of money to have a nice dinner, I just did not appreciate the “joke”.

In fact, I contend it’s not “a joke” nor “funny” to the person who’s at your mercy. It’s condescending at best, and passive-aggressive at worst.

Please. Don’t do this to your customers.

The best service I received that day was from a woman at Dunkin’ Donuts who barely spoke English. She simply kept asking if my order was “okay?” until I said yes. She put more cream in my coffee, gave me more napkins for my sandwich, till I was “okay!” Taking care of me wasn’t “beneath her”. She didn’t even need to smile or crack jokes. She simply took her job seriously, and I am grateful.

All the customer service advice in the world comes down to this, and it’s really very simple.

Treat your customers as treasured guests (until they prove beyond a shadow of a doubt they don’t deserve it, and even them, simply move them on.) Okay, maybe they are stupid. But more likely, they are confused, overwhelmed or exhausted.

If you want your customers to become owners, treat them with courtesy. With kindness. With respect.

That shouldn’t be so difficult, should it?

CUSTOMER CARE: It’s Not Just WHAT You Do, It’s HOW.

Expecting customers to already know how to do business with you, is not good customer care.

I had an interesting–no, make that incredibly frustrating–exchange with the post office awhile ago. It got me thinking about customer care.

We may have different ideas of what giving good customer care is, but we all recognize when we’re not getting it.

If you want to read the conversation, I put it at the end of the article. If you’re in a hurry, here’s my point:

Nobody knows your business like you do. Nobody knows better than you how you prefer people to order, pay or ask for more information. Nobody knows better than you what your return policy is.

Yep, nobody knows better than you–not even your customers.

Nor should you expect them to.

Expecting people to know the ins, outs and idiosyncracies of your biz, and treating them like they’re stupid when they don’t, is not good customer care.

We all have unique ways of running our business. We have our policies and procedures for handling orders, mistakes, returns, questions and repairs. We know our hours of operation, our location, our inventory. After all, we deal with our business every day.

But our customers don’t.

We should keep in mind that our customers deal with many, many other businesses, every day–not just ours.

They deal with schools, banks, insurance companies, hospitals, shoe stores, hair salons, pharmacies, baby sitters, auto dealers, telephone companies, banks and post offices. They order online from Amazon, Blockbuster, Borders, eBay and Medco.

Each of these businesses does things a little bit differently. Each asks its customers to interact with them slightly differently. Each one has their own hours of operation, procedures, policies, forms, payment methods.

As wonderful and distinctive as I’d like to think my biz is, to my customers–even my loyal, loving, regular customers–it’s just one more operation with its own hours, procedures, policies, etc., etc.

Very few people want to expend a lot of brain cells memorizing all the nuances of each business, especially if their interaction is infrequent. After all, how many insurance claims have you filed in your life? Should you be expected to know the name of the form, the supporting documents you need, and the deadline for filing it? Especially if the procedure was updated since you filed your last claim eight years ago?

Even “standard procedures”–say, writing a check for cash at the bank–is tricky if we only do it once every few years. Do you make it out to yourself, or to the bank or for “cash”? Which method do you have to endorse? Which method does the bank prefer??

If we work at a bank, it’s obvious. However, if we rarely even visit the inside of a bank anymore, it’s not so obvious.

Remember–We are just one more business our customers deal with. There’s nothing “more special” about us that would lead us to expect they should memorize how we want things done.

We may think our website is easy to navigate. We may think our return policy is hard to miss. We may think it’s obvious how to use our product. But maybe it’s not. Or maybe it just gets lost in the shuffle.

It’s even worse when policies are non-standard or downright odd. I bet we all know businesses that are closed Sundays and Mondays. Or Mondays and Tuesdays. Some are only open 4-7 on Tuesday, 12-3 on Mondays and Wednesdays, closed Thursdays, and open Friday 10-3. Saturdays and Sundays by appointment only (but no phone number is given and they never answer the store phone.)

Am I really expected to remember that? Maybe for one biz. But for two? Six? Twenty???

Even something as supposedly stable as location can get dicey. Some businesses around here have moved three, four, even five times in the 20 years we’ve been here. Once I sent my husband on an errand I usually take care of. He called me fifteen minutes later–no store. Where the heck were they?, he wanted to know. He’d gone to their address from five years ago. It was already two addresses old.

It’s bad enough to assume people will remember all our quirky hours, or that we tend to move every three years. It’s bad enough to assume they know all the proper terminology, or are familiar with all the forms they need to do business with us

But it’s even worse to treat your customers like they’re stupid when they don’t know. (Hence my post office story.)

We can tell them, we can show them. Signage in your booth helps. (“We accept all major credit cards.”) But you’re still going to get asked, “Do you take credit cards?” After the fiftieth time you’re asked that, saying, “Read the sign!” is not good customer care. (Unless, of course, it’s the same customer asking fifty times. If that’s the case, I give you permission to say, “Hey, no, I don’t, but that artist (insert the name of your least favorite artist) over there takes credit cards.”) Saying cheerfully, “Yes, we do!” is smart.

Clear, accessible policies on your website helps. (“Custom orders are not returnable.”) Telling them helps. (“If this doesn’t work out for you, you can return this pin for exchange or credit towards another piece within 10 days.”) Putting it in writing helps. (“Items can be returned for exchange or credit ONLY with 10 days of purchase.” on your invoices.) Usually, terms such as your return policy must be posted visibly in your store/booth or printed on the receipt.

Clarity helps. Ensure your website is ridiculously easy to navigate. Redundancy helps. Make vital information incredibly easy to find, posting it in several places if necessary.

But most people (me included) simply let all your information leak into “overflow parking.” It’s human nature: Too. Much. Information. Making them feel stupid when they realize the bracelet is too hard to put on by themselves will put the kabosh on future sales. Offering them a different clasp when they complain, or offering the option of an exchange, will help.

Patience will go a long way when hiccups occur. Yes, some customers ramble and have to be gently reined in. But good listening skills, asking good questions, and simply being professional, courteous–and kind–will help you target what your customer needs from you.

And your customers will appreciate it.

THE CONVERSATION

In this case, I was out of the country for over a week, and it took me a couple of days to get through my mail. So almost 10 days had gone by before I found the a form notice that my mail carrier had attempted delivery of a registered item that needed my signature. It said the item was being held for me at the post office.

I know that some kinds of mail get returned if not claimed within a certain time, but I wasn’t sure if this would happen with my item.

Form in hand, I called the phone number for the post office on the form and spoke to an employee there.

The ensuing conversation read like Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” routine.

PO: “Post Office.”

Me: “Hi, I’ve been on vacation for a week, and I got a notice that my carrier had tried to deliver registered package, but no one had been home to sign for it. It’s dated over a week ago, almost 10 days. Is it still at the Post Office, or had it been sent back to the sender?”

PO: “What’s the address?” (Spoiler: She probably should have asked if I had the form.)

I give it to her, she disappears, comes back on line.

PO: “There’s nothing there for that address. What’s your name?”

I tell her my name. (Spoiler: She probably should have said, “What’s the name of the addressee on your form?”) I start to ask if providing a tracking number would help, as there are a couple of numbers on the form, but she puts me on hold again before I can say anything more.

PO: “There’s nothing here under that name.” (silence)

Me: “Oh. Was it sent back already? Is there any way to track it? I have some…” (I was going to say “…numbers on this form” again but she says, “Hang on” and dashes off again.)

PO: “I’ve looked at all the packages and boxes, I looked in x, y, z places and it isn’t here.”

Me: “Oh, sorry, it says here that it’s a ‘large envelope, catalog or…”

PO (very exasperated): “Why didn’t you say so?? Hang on.” (Puts me on hold again, returns.) “Nope, nothing.”

Me: “Is there any way to track it? If I give you the number on the form…”

PO (interrupts): “You have a form?? Why didn’t you tell me that?!”

Me: “Well, I thought I did. Let me read you….”

PO (interrupting again): “Give me the number.”

Me: “Okay, there are several numbers on here, which one…”

PO (interrupting again, speaking louder and faster): “The (indistinct) number.”

Me: “The ‘what’ number?”

PO (angrily): “The (indistinct) number! On the back!”

Me: “Look, I can here you say ‘something number’ but I can’t hear what the ‘something’ is.” (silence)

Me (trying again): “I can’t tell which side of the form is the back or front, there are two numbers, one starts with…”

PO (interrupts again): “The (indistinct) number! On the BACK of the form!”

pause…. (I’m trying to stay patient.)

Me: “I can hear you say it’s a number and that it’s on the back. My confusion is it’s not very clear which is the front and which is the back of the form, and there are several strings of numbers. Is it the number starting with RF…”

PO (interrupts again): “No, no the number on the BACK!”

Me (cautiously): “Is it the bar code number?”

PO: “That’s not it! The BACK of the form!”

My tongue is now bloody from biting it so hard. I read her one of the other numbers, which thankfully is the right one. She puts me on hold again, and comes back.

PO: “Are you by any chance also known as ‘Durable Goods’?”

Me: “Yes, I….”

PO (interrupting): “Why didn’t you say so?? It’s right here. You can pick it up anytime.” (I refrain from telling her I answered every question she asked me, but she hasn’t answered any of mine yet.)

Me: “Well, actually, I’d like to have it….”

PO: “YOU CAN PICK IT UP ANYTIME!”

Me: “I’d rather….”

PO: “What else do you need??”

Me: “I’d like to have it delivered.”

PO: “You have to sign the form to have it delivered.”

Me: “Yes, I understand, I can sign the form, I just didn’t know if it were still at the post office…”

PO (interrupting, angrily): “Yes, I SAID it’s RIGHT HERE, you can pick it up anytime. If you sign it, you won’t get it til Friday.”

Me: “Friday is fine…Look, I…”

PO: “We’re busy, is that all?”

At this point I asked to speak to her supervisor.

PO: “Why? She’s not going to get that package to you any faster.”

Me: “Look, this is getting out of hand, I…” and she puts me on hold again.

Supervisor: “Your package is right here, you can pick it up anytime.”

Me: “I know that, I want to let you know how rude….”

Supervisor: “Hold on, the other phone’s ringing.” (puts me on hold) “Look, we’re pretty busy, you’re package is here and you can pick it up anytime.”

Me: “I know that, I’ve been treated very rudely by your employee. Don’t you care about that?”

Supervisor: “Well, I can’t help you with that. Goodbye.”(hangs up)

Now, I usually don’t engage in Post Office bashing. I think they move an incredible amount of mail at reasonable rates. And usually I am treated with courtesy in my interactions with them. Although I noticed the last time I was there that all the nice people have retired….

But if there were another option for mail service, I would have seriously considered it after this little incident.

All this, just because this person assumed I should know their procedures for registered mail. Which I get about once a year. And let me know how dumb she thought I was because I didn’t know.

If all queries are handled like mine was, I have my suspicions about why they’re so busy.