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Worldly Wise


Customer Service: We’re All in This Together

By Janelle Barlow, Ph.D.

Two disparate, recent events can be linked in an instructive way for those dealing with customer complaints. This month has been a challenging one for anyone flying in and out of San Francisco. An abundance of fog has put the airport into limited operational status on numerous occasions. When this happens, the airport may have only one runway that it can use. In addition, all the major airlines schedule as many flights as possible during the most popular takeoff time slots. So, traffic in and out of San Francisco has not been a pretty picture. No doubt this happens in other parts of the world as well. 

The second event is the ransom-ware and denial-of-service hacking that threatens to shut down many global websites and computers. At a minimum, the website hacks probably mean many websites will run painfully slow or not operate at all. 

What's the link? Both of these events (and ones like them) will generate enormous numbers of customer complaints. Global service providers need to be on the alert as to how to respond, or everyone could face some very unhappy customers in the coming months. What can you do if you face similar events?

These are not fixable problems in any meaningful way, or at least in any immediate way. Therefore, customer education, as rapid as possible, is essential. Let your customers know that we are all in this together. The airlines, of course, have some degree of culpability for this overcrowding of airports such as in San Francisco or in other parts of the world. The alternative, however, is unacceptable. If airlines don't schedule flights during peak demand periods, their competitors will. It would be an act of sacrifice and too much to ask of any particular airline. 

At the same time, airline service providers need to protect themselves from customer sniper attack. Here's what a sniper attack looks like in a mild form. A passenger comes up to the ticket agent and is informed that her flight is late yet again (the seventh out of eight flights where this has happened in a month). In a loud voice, the passenger threatens to never fly this particular airline again. 

The ticket agent can say, “Thanks for saying something. You are right. It's a mess, and I personally apologize that you are going to be delayed. Something needs to be done about this over scheduling of flights during ... the morning ... afternoon ... evening. But they're not listening to me. I got caught in the same situation myself last week.”
The immediate subtext of the communication is, “We're in this thing together. We are buddies together being negatively impacted by the system.“ It works. It's exactly what was said to me while I was attempting to fly into San Francisco on a flight delayed more than an hour and a half. And when the gate attendant said (more or less) those words, my stance toward him changed 180 degrees. How could I be upset with someone who was enduring the same situation as I? We were in the mess together.

I walked away from that encounter appreciating the skill of that ticket agent. 
What are the situations you face, where a “We're in this together,” message might help? 

Let me suggest that you may need to use this mantra this month if any of your internal systems go down, become impossibly slow, or don’t deliver the way they normally do because of hacking problems. If you are on the telephone with someone who wants to tell you that your website isn't worth a hill of beans, swing into your “we're in this together,” mode. You will likely find you have a partner on the other end. Then promise to do anything you can to help them. If your company is hacked and it takes you some time to get up and running again, it may be an opportunity for you to get closer to your customers. 

I called a company this week to order a connector for one of my computers. Their telephone system was nonfunctioning. I called several times and by some miracle actually got someone to pick up a line. The first thing I said was, “You have to know that your telephone system doesn't work.” He sighed, “Yes, I know. Isn't it terrible? We've been living with it for a month. We aren't getting much help in fixing it either. I'm just so glad you got through.” 

And then we handled my question. I hung up the telephone feeling sympathy for this company, with not a hint of anger or residual disappointment. 

These are real-world problems, and many of us are sharing similar situations with our customers. We're all in this together! Shared experiences make it easier for people to endure inconvenient situations.

JanelleBarlowJanelle Barlow, Ph.D., is a businesswoman, author, media spokesperson, keynote speaker, and seminar leader with more than 30 years of experience in the global marketplace. She is President and Owner of TMI US and TACK-USA, both partners with a multi-national global training and consulting firm.