05 January, 2008

Customer service lives!

I used to think that customer service was dead, but I've had some excellent experiences with customer service lately.

A chain restaurant: Today for example, my family and I visited Longhorn restaurant around 2pm and waited about 15 minutes before telling the hostess that we were still waiting to meet our waiter. We were indeed annoyed, but their reaction definitely made it clear that they do not consider this an acceptable error. The manager apologized, then the waiter appeared. He also apologized, took our orders, and from then on provided us with fine service. At the end of the meal, he informed us that the meal was on the house for that day.

Wow! Free dessert or 10% off would have been enough. I asked how much the bill would have been, and left what I hope was a hefty tip.

A patisserie:There's also a French patisserie nearby, C'est La Vie. The first time I visited I didn't realize that they take only cash or check. It was only when I prepared to pay that I noticed the sign. Oops! and it was nearly closing time!

I apologized to the woman and told her I'd have to go home and come back; would they mind holding my order and waiting a little past closing time, on account of the traffic? She waved her hand dismissively and told me to take the bags & come back whenever was convenient for me.

My jaw dropped. No has told me that in a long, long time. A colleague told me that the same happened to him once; he frequents the place and has never had complaints about their service.

Both of these places are rather pricey (for my budget & my background; people with more lucrative jobs or substantial wealth may be accustomed to spending $20 a plate at a restaurant, or buying $5 pastries). We go out very rarely.

Airtran: Even an airline treated me wonderfully the other day. I had a problem booking tickets online, so I called Airtran's customer service to get some help. (Technically, the frequent-flier customer service.) The woman who spoke with me was extremely nice. It turns out that she was a Redskins fan living far from Washington, DC. You may wonder how I learned that; suffice to say that it demonstrates how friendly she was. I kept misstating things and she laughed that I was confusing her. She adapted and even did me a favor by making ordinary reservations without charging a fee. (By "ordinary" I mean non frequent-flier reservations. Ordinarily Airtran charges a fee for phone reservations, because they want you to make your reservations online.) I've actually been very pleased with Airtran, although I read in Consumer Reports that their customers seem not to like them much. I can honestly say that I don't recall a single major problems with them.

Home improvement stores: I was in Home Depot the other day, looking at various items. I had my older daughter with me. I typically prefer Lowe's to Home Depot (better lighting & color choices makes Lowe's look less dismal) but several of the workers paid quite a bit of attention to my daughter, and the gentleman at the paint counter pulled out two Disney Paint stickers and gave them to her to play with. She spent the next half-hour putting that thing on herself or on the cart, then taking it off. (She's only one and a half years old, after all.)

Likewise, I can't think of a single time that I've been to Lowe's where they have failed to provide excellent service.

Groceries and pharmacies: For that matter, a number of local stores which we also frequent provide excellent attention to their customer's needs. A few that come to mind are Save-Rite (although I hate the name), Winn-Dixie, and Walgreen's. I don't know how to describe it well enough, but I can go there consistently and talk to the management and not feel as if I'm a bad guy for a mistake they made, or even for a mistake I made. The cashiers are always pleasant and friendly. It reminds me, for some strange reason, of my wife's comment about the unpleasant shock of re-discovering the Russian version of customer service last summer.*

What's the cause? Is it because we live in Mississippi, the so-called "hospitality state"? I doubt it. Truth be told, the Wal-Mart here isn't any better than the Wal-Mart elsewhere, and a lot of people I've dealt with have been most impolite. Don't get me start on a local doctor's office, who basically move people in & out as quickly as possible. (Not all the local doctors are like that, by the way, and both the dentists I've had here are fantastic.)

I wonder if it isn't psychological. When we're accustomed to something, we accept it as "normal". If it's good, we don't usually compliment it, and if it's bad, we don't usually complain about it. It's just the way things are. It's when something unusual happens (like a free meal at a restaurant, or a particularly nasty receptionist for customer service) that we remark on it and make a mental note.

Perhaps we naturally remember unpleasant interruptions of this sort more readily than pleasant interruptions. I remember that someone once told me about a belief in business: a pleased customer generally brings 3 or 4 new customers, but an angry customer warns 10 would-be customers away.

Do I remember this correctly or am I hallucinating again? This reminds me of a theory, or perhaps even genuine scientific studies (my memory is so bad!), arguing that people of means feel less secure than people without financial resources, and people with fewer genuine worries get far more worked up about them than people under a lot of stress.

Of course if there was no such study, and there is no such theory, then I'm loopier than a Cheerio and you should ignore me.

An example: Here's a good example of what I mean. The hospital provided us with an information packet after the birth of our second daughter. The packet gives advice on child safety (sadly, Mississippi has a higher rate of infant fatalities than most anywhere else in the nation.) People will see a news story about a kidnapped child and take extreme precautions to avoid this happening with their children—then they'll hold their child in their lap while riding in a car down the highway, rather than put up with a crying baby in a baby seat (or whatever it's called). Never mind that far more children die in vehicle crashes, because they aren't secured in a safety seat! (Mine usually fall asleep after a few minutes of crying, but the older one once punished us for a full thirty minutes.)

Or another example: millions of people play the lottery & are happy to lose money in the long run, even though you're more likely to be struck by lightning than to make money on the lottery!

Since we're in political season and cynicism is the order of the day (with a few rare exceptions) I'll take a swipe here too (and miss, most likely). If everyone is so pessimistic about things in our nation, it may be a sign that things are are in fact quite good, and we're getting overly worked up about few bad things that happen to us. They're genuinely bad, yes, but we're forgetting the overall picture, which may in fact be very good.

But that's all nonsense most likely. What isn't nonsense is the decent customer service I've had lately. I certainly can't say this about everywhere I've been lately, but 2008 is off to a great start. Thanks to everyone who's made it that way.

*On the other hand, Russia also provided us with a wonderfully civil civil servant. Maybe that's because we were leaving, so the civil service doesn't mind being civil to us. "Goodbye! Thanks for coming! Don't come back!" (Just kidding.)

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