Brandt on Leadership -- Customer Service From Hell

Where 'Sorry' means never having to solve a customer's problem.

Things I learned about business last month when a major carrier (we'll just call it Hell Air) lost my luggage:

The fact that you spend a lot of money on security, information technology and call centers doesn't mean that you are actually helping customers. My bags -- checked in, bar-coded, X-rayed and inspected -- somehow magically vanished during a two-hour layover. I know they evaporated into thin air because despite Hell's airtight security and crackerjack tracking system, there was no trace of them:

  • On the automated 800 line, after punching in 487 digits: "...No information is available at this time..."
  • Online after typing in 487 digits: "....No information at this time..."
  • At the India-based call center after a 4.87 minute wait, where a representative seemed truly shocked as he said, "I am sorry to tell you this, sir, but it appears that we have no information on your bags at this time!"

In a post-9/11 era, shouldn't an airline know where bags are, even if they can't deliver them? Or do they only lose the non-nuclear, non-anthrax-laced luggage?

Sorry means never having to actually solve a customer's problem. The customer service reps (CSRs) may not have been able to find my luggage by staring into a computer screen in a cubicle in India (some 8,000 miles from Atlanta, where the bags were presumably stranded), but boy, could they apologize. It was clear that Hell had spent an enormous amount of time and money -- not on baggage recovery, but on training CSRs in how to deal with angry people without clean underwear; I have never in my life received so much useless (but polite!) empathy and understanding for my trouble, my frustration, my inconvenience. Each CSR also assured me that my bags would no doubt be on the next flight from Atlanta. They were so sympathetic and so earnest that I almost felt bad pointing out that neither they nor I had any evidence that the bags would be on the next or any flight, or that they still existed.

Almost.

Sorry doesn't extend into the supervisory level. After tiring of well-mannered employees who pretended to be concerned, I asked to speak to a supervisor. After a 10-minute wait on hold, I met Hell's manager of customer satisfaction prevention, an American we'll call Beelzabubina. Beelzabubina had: A) clearly missed out on the empathy training, B) lots of experience running a maximum security prison outside the Geneva Convention and C) no time for the likes of me or anyone else with a damn baggage problem. She was efficient, though, telling me in 4.87 seconds flat that there wasn't anything she could do about this mess. The trouble started when I asked if there was something I could do -- like, say, calling the baggage room in Atlanta.

"There are no numbers for customers to call in Atlanta."

"Do you have a number?"

"I have a number. But they don't answer."

"Well, let me call."

"There are no numbers for customers to call in Atlanta."

Some 487 seconds later, Beelzabubina and I parted ways, alas, as somewhat less than friends. I took exception to her nasty tone and mindless repetition of an unhelpful script; she took exception to my subsequent characterization of Hell's inability to give back thousands of dollars' worth of my stuff as theft. But I'll always have... well, nothing, really, except the memory of getting under Beelzabubina's bark-like skin.

Even if you solve a customer's original problem, there are still millions of ways to screw up. Two days, a new pair of golf shoes and an underwear trip to Wal-Mart later, my bags magically reappeared and Hell flew them to my destination airport -- where they promptly sat for another 12 hours before being delivered to my hotel, after another dinner out with colleagues. The good news, though, is that since the bags were missing for more than 24 hours, Hell will be happy to reimburse me for my inconvenience as long as I fill out 487 pages' worth of forms -- up to $25 per day!

Hell, I don't care what anybody says: You're my No. 1 for 2008 in customer service. I can't wait to give you the hand signal that will confirm it!

John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is CEO of the Manufacturing Performance Institute, a research and consulting firm based in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

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