The joy of customer service

I was parked next to the information desk at Washington Union Station during afternoon rush hour, watching thousands of fellow Maryland commuters come and go. Someone I’d never met or seen before was supposed to find me there.

A few minutes past the appointed hour, a short woman with a handful of parcels walked through the doors and scanned the crowd briefly. She looked at me, smiled, and asked, “Are you waiting for lost and found?” And with that, I was reunited with the tote bag I’d absentmindedly left under my train seat barely 24 hours earlier. A tote bag that contained my dirty lunch dishes and a laptop computer I was holding for a friend.

My bag had made it all the way to the end of the line in Frederick, back to DC, up to Baltimore and into the hands of a real live person, who then boarded a train to bring it to me in DC once more. It was an improbable journey of nearly 175 miles.

“I checked to make sure everything was in there, and I put it all in a plastic bag for you,” she said. “You have a great day, hon.” I had the very opposite of the sinking feeling from the day before when I’d gotten off the train without my bag. Relief, sure. But I was also grateful to be in the presence of someone who clearly loved doing her job well.

The kicker: I sent the world’s most helpful transportation employee a follow-up email the next day to thank her. Her response was actually to thank me for allowing her the opportunity to serve, along with her colleagues from the conductors to the dispatchers on down the line.

A toilet tale

A few months back, I replaced the fill valve on our toilet at home. It’s a job that doesn’t require a plumbing license or even any tools. I’d done the downstairs toilet, same model, same fill valve, a couple years earlier. But this time, the new valve wouldn’t stop when it was done filling.

Deep sigh. I picked up the phone and called the number on the instructions with the barest of expectations. I reached a cheerful agent who seemed eager to help. She asked me a few follow-up questions, made a couple of suggestions, waited patiently while I put the phone down and tried them, and suddenly everything was working as it should. Total time elapsed: maybe four minutes. I thanked her and hung up.

I then realized how extraordinary this encounter actually was. I’d called and spoken to someone whose job it was to talk to customers, during dinnertime, whose heads are bent incompetently over open toilet tanks — likely with a lot of confusion or frustration. Without benefit of visuals. To see through the customer’s eyes to what the problem is, and troubleshoot a solution. And to my surprise and delight, it actually worked.  

There are occasionally angels among us, who take responsibility for guiding us through moments of trouble or need.

A trip to customer service means things are already going wrong. You don’t contact customer service at an airline to report that you’re having a nice day. And based on past experience or present mood, it’s easy to think of customer service employees as one more roadblock between yourself and satisfaction — just like cashiers are literally the people standing between picking up next week’s dinner and bringing it home. But in fact, these are the folks who are supposed to help you with solutions. When they work in government as I do, I’ve argued it’s time to stop beating them up.

Frustration is an easy thing. A natural thing. We’ve all had one of those phone calls.

The travel phone call

“Your call is important to us. Please hold as we connect you to YOUR TRAVEL PROVIDER.” Hold music, clicks, time elapsed, and you make a faint connection with some underpaid soul in a faraway land who clearly has scripts for a dozen unrelated companies depending on the nature of your problem.

You’ve been placed on hold more than once. Explained your situation more thoroughly than you felt necessary, because the problem should have been easy to resolve on a website. Perhaps even wondered if the solution would stick, or disappear once the phone call ended. All for the sake of something fairly trivial, like changing the number of beds in a hotel reservation. Do you go low when this happens, or do you go high?

Sometimes it’s a retail rant caught on video. Or a 20-year crusade to bring complaints against a single airline.

But stories of good customer service have become part of business lore. It’s a pleasure to read about executives from across the country visiting Zappos and trying to duplicate the customer-first culture, or Nordstrom associates being empowered to fix things. These examples are notable because they’re unusual.

I wonder what would it take to make a wow-inducing customer service experience the rule, not the exception. Is it corporations not squeezing every last dollar out of their sales margins? Or perhaps we need to adjust our expectations and treat those who are supposed to help us as human beings?

When it works, it’s memorable

I remember spending hours on the phone with one especially helpful Verizon rep when trying to set up a new account for a small business. It was almost 20 years ago, but it left an impression. Same for the DC government angel who worked us through the process of Lindy’s first teacher certification.

I hope you actually listen to the conductor when he says you should take a moment, look around and make sure you have all of your personal belongings before leaving the train. And I wish you 1.6 uninterrupted gallons of water for every flush. But life happens. If you ever find yourself in the presence of a customer service angel, be sure to extend a thorough word of thanks.

Also published on Medium.

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