It’s Always Personal

Today it seems we constantly are bombarded with claims about “personalized” or “individualized” customer service or patient care.  Take a look at a hospital billboard on your local highway and it appears they will create a care regimen just for you.  Or head to a university’s website, even one with over 25,000 students, and it would appear that they will spend hours with you concocting the most personalized degree you could imagine.  Heck, the commercial of a huge wireless provider shows a whole team of people who will show up on your doorstep to “back you up!”

Everywhere you turn, everyone is promoting their willingness to meet the customer’s every need – to make the customer’s life easier, simpler, and more carefree.

Here’s a simple question: Why,then, does customer service stink?  And not just occassionally.  I’m really trying not to paint with an overly large brush here.  But how is it that customer care is so regularly bad?

The other morning I arrived at an airport early for my flight.  I walked to the ticket counter and had the following exchange:

Me:  “Hi, how are you?  I’m heading to Chicago on the later flight and wanted to see if I could get on the earlier flight.”

Counter person:  Takes my driver’s license and doesn’t utter a word.  She looks down and starts typing.  After a few minutes, she reaches down and pulls up TWO tickets and says, “ok, you are all set.”

Me:  Looking at the tickets and realizing she has rebooked not only my flight today but my next day’s flight as well.  “Oh, did you change my flight tomorrow too?  No, no, I just need my flight today changed to Chicago. Tomorrow’s is fine.”

Counter person:  Again, says nothing and takes the tickets back, looks down, and starts typing.

A few minutes go by.  “What flight were you on tomorrow? ”

Me:  “The 6pm flight tomorrow evening.”

Counter person:  “6am?”

Me:  Thinking to myself, is she even listening to anything I’m saying?  Starting to get frustrated by the lack of “personalized customer care.”  “No, the 6pm, tomorrow night from Ohare to Knoxville.”

Counter person:  Says nothing, looks down again and continues typing.  After a few more minutes she pulls out a travel itinerary which shows my next day’s flight has been restored to its original placement.

Counter person:  “Here you go.”  And she hands it to me with a blank look on her face.

I took the itinerary, paused, somewhat waiting for an, “I’m sorry Mr. McNeal for the mixup, you’re all set now” line.  But, nothing. Not a word.  She just stared at me.

Me:  Now a bit miffed.  “Is that it?  I mean, I almost walked away from here with my travel schedule all messed up because of a mistake you made.  And you’re not going to say anything else?”

Counter person:  “Yeah.” and stared at me blankly.

“Yeah???”  I was stunned and upset.  Not because of the mistake but because of the lack of appropriate response.

A simple acknowledgement of a minor mistake would have smoothed the whole situation over.  If this counter person had simply said, “I’m glad you caught that,” or “Thanks for your understanding.”  Smiled at me.  Anything. Any acknowledgement would have worked.  I would have smiled back at her and said something like, “We all have those days, don’t we?  It’ll get better.”  And been on my way a happy camper.

But, instead, this counter person made the cardinal sin of customer service — she personalized the service.  But instead of personalizing to my needs as the customer, she, herself, took the service she was providing personal.

She made the encounter about her.  If I were a psychologist, I might opine that she didn’t want to admit to a small error and so the problem grew larger.  That it became more about her not wanting to say she was sorry than it was sending me away happy.  But the cause of the behavior doesn’t really matter much, does it?  What matters is that she didn’t personalize the service to my benefit, she personalized it to her benefit.

When customer service is done right, we subjugate our personal claims of authority over the interaction and lift up the customer’s claims of authority over the interaction.  The customer is always right.  And, in that way we personalize our service to the customer’s liking.  Yes, service should always be personal – it should always be personal for the customer.

How would your organization be transformed if everyone from top to bottom consistently put the the patient, the student, the donor, or other constituents in such a privileged position?


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