Friday, July 31, 2009

Developing a Customer Service Strategy

I hate Continental Airlines. Hate is strong word (often reserved for HR), but I'm using it - I hate them.

I have had horrible experiences at check-in gate, at the boarding gate, on the phone reservation line. 'Did I pay for these tickets, or were they free?' I search to find a possible reason for these bad experiences. 'Have I done something wrong?'

I imagine good people work at Continental - skilled and perhaps even passionate people. I just haven't met any of them yet.

I don't really want to relive it, but I feel I can't hate without a little explanation. In short, my family (including a 2-year old and an 11-month old) was left standing at the check-in counter because, despite having boarding passes in hand, they couldn't find actual seats for us on the plane. Instead of changing diapers, getting food, and prepping for the flight, we stood, jumped and sang trying to keep the lil ones pleased - and we stressed. They finally released us to "take our chances" and off we went through security and to the gate. The gate reps told us we could board the plane but that we would all have to sit apart. I would have LOVED that, but I'm guessing the baby, the 2-year old, and those sitting next them wouldn't like it so much.

In another incident, my wife called Continental to change dates for tickets we purchased to Mexico, during what turned out to be the height of the swine flu. With two little ones we had to change our travel plans. Luckily, Continental announced a policy of permitting travel date changes at no cost during 'swine flu season.' Calling to make these changes wasn't so nice. It started calmly - we gave our names, flight info, passengers, favorite colors, bankcard passwords, everything. Then we learned of hefty change charges, different date windows than announced, and we have to deal with a mean representative. My wife was defeated, I was mad, there was yelling, and eventually I hung up on them. When I called back we started from square one. It was all a battle.

We hear a lot about customer service - the customer is always right.

This has been hitting me harder and harder recently - it's one of the most basic and important keys to business success.

Most everyone knows of Zappos customer service. Customer service reps are empowered to do what's right to make the situation better. Customers love this. Customer word of mouth is exactly how Zappos grew. Selling shoes online (at the time they started) was not a comfortable or familiar process, and customer word of mouth was the successful growth strategy.

I called Wells Fargo recently, and was given the chance to talk to a real person who patiently helped me resolve all my problems. I tweeted about my positive experience, and then someone tweeted back with a "thanks!" Wow. There is intelligent life out there, I thought. Someone is listening. The grocery delivery service FreshDirect very promptly responded to an email about a deliver that spilled. They told me to tell them what items could be credited towards my next order. These were great experiences. I tell people about them. I want to continue doing business with these people. It isn't that hard.

At our small start-up, I know I can think even more about providing the highest quality customer service with every customer interaction (internal and external). Making it a strategic issue makes a difference. Externally, I could follow up with customers about the location of an anticipated order. For internal customers, maybe it's having dinner delivered when an employee leaves work early to pick up a sick kid. I'm sure making customer service a primary strategy gets repeat customers, making customers feel like VIPs - in turn getting customers that are happy. I wonder if Continental focused just a tad on helping me use their services I paid for if I would be taking a Jet Blue flight tomorrow?


  1. I worked at Macy's over Christmas a few years ago (after being laid off from my corp job). A customer asked for a discount because a blouse was missing a button. I called my boss to ask and he told me not to bother him with questions like that -- just give 20% and that we would reap the benefits later when the customer returned again and again.

    Contrast this to Northwest airlines. I wanted to leave early from Minneapolis on a return flight. Eight hours early. I asked the gate agent. Nope. Can't change the ticket unless I paid $50. No thanks. If my husband had been with me, they would have changed the ticket at no charge because of his status. But me alone? No. My husband was ticked because he flies 100,000 miles a year on NW, we had paid cash for my ticket (not FF miles) and the plane had the seats anyhow. It would have been no skin off NW's back.

    I even offered one agent expensive chocolate, but he turned it down:

  2. Hey class-factotum! I missed seeing your comment altogether - I'm so sorry I'm so late. It's much funner hating the airlines together :-)

    I just can't understand why companies don't go more out of their way to please customers, especially when its easy for them to do. I think it has do with a short sighted perspective, a lack of business acumen, and a sign of an unmotivated, process heavy, and restrictive environment. Top brass should spend as much time on this type of stuff as they do caring about cutting leg-room and snacks - it will equal just as much or more $.

    Love your blog! And thanks for the comment.