Sunday, June 23, 2013

Service Recovery: It Shouldn't Be This Hard

Over the years, I have had many opportunities to design, deliver, and measure the impact of customer service training. Whether the audience was frontline service associates, client relationship managers, call center employees, or any other group, there were two universal messages I always tried to get across through training:

1.  It is important to deliver a client experience that reflects appropriately on your brand.

2.  Despite your best efforts, when dealing with people, there will inevitably be times when your service delivery fails to meet expectations, making it necessary to have a planned approach for service recovery.

The key to the first point is consistency. When clients do business with you, they should know what to expect and their experiences should not vary by large degrees.

The key to the second point is to recognize that when service delivery fails, both the relationship and the service being provided need to be repaired.

I had the opportunity to reflect on this through my experiences with an airline while traveling to mLearnCon this week. (The airline shall remain nameless, but let’s just say the letter A is prominent in their name…twice!). I was flying from Hartford to San Jose with a scheduled connection through Chicago. Due to weather my first flight was delayed, jeopardizing my chances of making my connection. I scrambled to get on an earlier flight to Chicago that would give me a bigger window of opportunity to make my connection. Fortunately, I was able to do so, but as with many cross-country flights, I arrived late at night at my destination. Unfortunately, my bags did not arrive with me. This leads me to the description of the treatment I received from the airline as they were trying to handle my service recovery issue. In short, through five separate interactions with airline employees, here is how each one impacted me:

I was disappointed – after being promised by the gate agent in Hartford that he would hand carry my checked bag over to my changed flight, it ended up that my bag never left the airport that day.

I was misinformed – when I landed in San Jose I was told that my bag would be placed on the next available flight and that it would be rushed to my hotel so I would have it by lunch time tomorrow. Since I was only wearing a pair of cargo shorts and a black tee-shirt, I decided to skip the first morning of the conference to wait until I had suitable clothes to wear.

I was lied to – after my bag failed to arrive as promised, I was informed by a call center agent that it would now arrive at 10.55 PM and that once it arrived, it would be scanned in at the airport. She went on to say that the scan would automatically generate a robocall letting me know it arrived. I was told that I would have my bag by midnight. By the time I got this information I had already missed most of the first day of the conference so I decided to write it off and join the conference on day two.

I was hung up on – no robocall ever came and I fell asleep without my bag having been delivered to me. I woke up at 4 AM and called the airline again to get an update. Another call center agent informed me that my bag would not arrive in San Jose until 7:30 AM and that after it arrived, it would be delivered to me within six hours. I told him this was not acceptable. He offered me several alternatives, none of which would meet my need of not missing any more of the conference. This had been my fifth business trip within the last seven weeks (no others with this airline). It was late, I was tired, and of course naked, and so at this point I lost my temper. I was upset that I might have to miss even more of the conference. I raised my voice and probably even dropped and f-bomb which caused the agent to hang up on me.

I was shocked by their lack of their concern – I tried to calm down and go back to sleep, but I really couldn’t. I called back about an hour later and calmly asked for an update. I got the same information from yet another agent, and the same set of unacceptable alternatives from which I was asked to choose one. I told the agent this was more than an inconvenience. It was costing time and money to attend this conference and I was missing a large part of it, thereby missing the value I expected to get. I asked him, “Does that matter to anyone at your airline?” To my surprise he responded by saying, “we can’t be sympathetic because this happens all the time.”

My bag arrived at 9 AM the next day, nearly 36 hours after I landed in San Jose, and I was finally able to join the conference. Later, I examined my experience against the customer service training that I have provided throughout my career. Here is how I would score the airline against the key customer service elements:

On client experience – they certainly were consistent in the way they represented their brand. Each employee that I encountered reacted coolly. It was as if they had been inoculated against being impacted by their customers’ emotions. Nothing I said or did garnered anything more than a “sorry for the inconvenience.” They never once indicated genuine concern for my situation or recognized the need to escalate my problem to a higher level.

On service recovery – to succeed here they would have needed to deal with my feelings and solve my problem. No one ever acknowledged my right to be upset with this situation. They never treated this as anything more than a minor inconvenience. They did offer me alternatives, but these came too late and none of them were acceptable to me because all would have caused me to lose more time at the conference. Rationally, I know that the alternatives they offered were really all they could do, but they presented them to me with a “pick your poison” attitude. If any one of them had displayed any empathy for me, it would have made it easier for me to choose one of their options.

I recognize the challenges the airlines are up against, many of us travel from city to city these days as if we were commuting from the suburbs to the city for work. My admiration for the flight crews’ ability to get me from point A to point B safely is second to none (that includes my experience on this trip). As a frequent traveler, I’ve experienced every possible delay imaginable. And yes, my bags have been lost once or twice before. But in my previous experiences with other airlines I always felt like we were all in this together. This time I felt like I was being written off, and worse, that what I experienced happens routinely.

The ultimate irony in this is that no one even offered to waive my $25 baggage fee.