Sunday, October 09, 2005

Customer Service? 
Jie's parents flew up and back to Austin on Northwest Airlines for this trip. They got a pretty good price on their flight, and they flew out of La Guardia, so we spent the weekend in NYC. That was fun, in addition to being cold and very wet. We did the NYC tourist thing, a first for Jie and me, including the Statue of Liberty, WTC site, NYSE, J&R Electronics, Central Park, etc. All in all it was a really fun weekend, I just wish the weather had been better, because it was lousy.

Not as lousy, it turns out, as Northwest's customer service. When Jie's parents arrived at the Austin airport to start their trip they were informed that their flight had been cancelled and they were now flying on a Continental flight through Houston. Furthermore, Northwest informed them that they had notified everyone of the flight change several months ago. In fact, Northwest was kind enough to send a itinerary reminder e-mail the night before the flight, showing the original itinerary! Anyway, this is just an example of disorganization, not really bad customer service.

This morning in New York we decided to check the flight status right before they left for the airport. I'm glad we did, because their flight was delayed by 30 minutes for mandatory crew rest, which meant they would miss their connection in Minneapolis. We weren't notified of the delay, which was a little irritating, but whatever. Anyway, so Jie gets on the phone to Northwestern to get their flight changed so they don't have to spend 5 hours in Minneapolis waiting on a connection to Austin. The NWA guy is generally uncooperative and puts her on hold for several minutes at a time so he can check for alternatives. First he says why don't we go to JFK instead for an on-time flight to MSP leaving earlier, but we explain that they can't make it there in time for the 45 minute check-in window. At this he responds that they would have to fly stand-by. Huh? Anyway, Jie argues that we would be on-time to LGA but we can't make JFK, and they didn't notify us, and so on. His response? A terse line informing us that we would have to resolve this at the airport and *click*

I'm not sure how much it has come up, but I used to be a manager in a customer-facing call center. Now, my workers and customers were more savvy than your average call center techs, but it is the same basic environment. I learned a few things about how to get the most out of a call center based on seeing the reactions to different kinds of callers by the staff on the inside. It sums up to this: if they don't like you, you'll get the slow, tortuous path to problem resolution; if they get invested in your problem and don't dislike you, miracles can happen. Anyway, I called NWA back and got Jie's parents on a better flight than their original (left later, arrived earlier, stop in DFW instead of MSP) on American. So, after offering that shread of credibility, here are my recommendations for dealing with call centers:
  1. Assuming you've got a legitimate issue with their service, start by calmly telling the rep that you are extremely hacked off at their firm for reasons x, y, and z. Give this new rep a chance to solve your problem, even if you know they can't. This gets them invested in your problem, even if only by dint of the sunk cost of their time.
  2. If the rep can't solve your problem and gives you a line about how there is nothing they can do, then tell them that's fine, you will suffer the abysmal service of their firm this time, but you will never use their services again (remember, still calm), unless, of course, they can send you to a manager for further assistance. The primary purpose of this is to get your rep to act as your advocate with their manager, rather than just handing off an irate caller. It improves the attitude of the manager immensely.
  3. Once you are working with the manager, you basically repeat step 1. A nice tactic to add in here if you can is to suggest solutions. It's only possible where you have information on alternatives (like you do with flights), as it offers that subtle message that you will know if they aren't looking into something. Hopefully this manager will pull the strings to get things taken care of, if not you have a couple of options. You can either try to escalate again, which is only advisable in a high stakes situation (like business services rather than personal stuff), since you need clout to make a 2nd level manager take any notice at all.
  4. Option 2 is to finally lose your temper, and say all of those nasty things that you've been thinking this whole time. There is a time and place for this, but hopefully the manager you're dealing with is competent enough to resolve the problem before that time. Of course, there will always be times when truly nothing can be done, in which case I hope you didn't get nasty, because you probably ruined someone's day for no reason. Just something to think about...

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