When we ask our clients, “What differentiates you from your competition?” they will often say something about their fantastic customer service. When that happens, we push them a bit further by asking, “What would your customers say if we asked them what makes your organization different? Would they say customer service? Could your customers qualify what makes your service better or different? Could they give us examples of positive experiences they have had with your organization?”
We ourselves have quite recently experienced some varied levels of customer service. We've been on the road for the past nine days, for a business trip with a couple of vacation days thrown in to make things more pleasurable.
And, while to the seasoned (and weary) traveler, that mix may sound remedial, we've come away with some distinct impressions and lessons learned along the way:
1. Customer service (both good and bad) seems ingrained in the culture.
We had three flights on three different days with United Airlines. But all three flights were delayed. At the higher end of the experience scale, one flight was only 40 minutes late. At the low end, another flight was almost four hours late, costing us the pleasure of one of our carefully planned vacation evenings. Instead of dinner in Napa at a stylish, foodie restaurant, we ate in Vallejo at Applebee’s. No offense to the folks at the Applebee’s. The meal satisfied our hunger, and the service was good. It's just that Applebee’s wasn’t what we had planned.
With the exception of our gate agent in Richmond, most of the United personnel we met seemed to be going through the motions as they herded yet another group of customers onto their planes. There was no enthusiasm in their voices or actions. Contrast this with Enterprise Car Rental, where all of the people we dealt with were smiling, energetic and eager to make our experience with their organization as easy, fast and pleasant as possible.
They did this through both large and small courtesies. For example, agents came out from behind the counter to shake our hands and greet us. In San Francisco, the agent offered to help us use the automated kiosk. When its technology failed, the agent went to his counter and reentered all the information. He apologized for our delay and asked what he could do to make our stay more enjoyable. Douglas jokingly suggested he give us a complimentary upgrade. He did.
2. It doesn’t cost anything to be sincere.
The United personnel sounded almost robotic as they, once again, apologized for “any inconvenience the delay had caused.” At Enterprise, all the agents, whether helping you check in, look over the vehicle or check your contract at the gate, smiled, answered all our questions and seemed completely genuine in their interactions. Warm caring service costs nothing, except effort.
3. Excuses don’t make up for bad service.
Our final example happened on our flight from San Francisco to San Diego. After boarding the plane on time, we listened as the pilot explained that we were going to be delayed. We had to wait for the co-pilot who was coming in on another flight that had been delayed due to weather. We had been waiting on the hot plane, filled to capacity, for about 30 minutes when the pilot came back on the speakers again to explain that the co-pilot wasn’t really late, because he was following his boss' orders.
Huh? He wasn’t late, after all? We understood that the pilot was trying to make excuses for his co-pilot and shift the blame to management. However, he should have rephrased what he said or not made the excuse in the first place.
We want to be fair. United got us to our destinations safely, if a little late. Also, we realize that our experiences are but a small sample of what travelers encounter. However, the differences in employee attitudes and service levels in these two large organizations was glaring. We have decided to join the Enterprise loyalty program and will use this company in the future for all our rental car needs.
As to United, we will be flying home on Delta.