Writing about all of my bad customer service experiences would be a full-time job, so I let most of them roll by with a shrug or a sad shake of the head. Yet every now and then, someone sets the bar so low, it’s remarkable. Take, for example, my experience with American Airlines yesterday. An opportunity dropped into their lap to turn a routine business problem into a positive customer experience, but it just wasn’t in their DNA. Instead, they turned the full force of the people, infrastructure and systems within their customer service group toward making the problem so much worse, I had to write about it.
The airlines handle a lot of baggage, carousel after carousel of it, all different shapes and sizes and constructions. When you carry that many of anything, especially under time pressure, you’re bound to drop a few. According to the most recent SITA statistics, 25 million pieces of luggage are “mishandled” every year. That’s about 3,000 bags per hour every day. It’s just like the lottery; the more often you play, the more likely you are to win. I understand that.
When I landed in SFO at 8:00 PM from Miami, my number was up. Of the five bags check by my party, one was a no-show. I waited until the carousel with the last few orphan bags slowly ground to a halt, then I walked over to the American Airlines baggage service counter and stood in line. When my turn came, I showed them my tags, answered a few questions, and waited while they wrestled an answer from their primitive terminal. Sorry, so answer. Perhaps it was placed on a later flight. Here’s an 800 number you can call after midnight. Nothing more to do here, I went home and hoped for the best. After all, almost 97% of bags are ultimately reunited with their owners. Plus, my flight had been a single leg (52% of all mishandles occur at connections.)
I don’t know what I expected to happen next. I paid American Airlines $30 to have a bag moved from MIA to SFO and they failed. I know if FedEx screwed up, they would contact me. In the afternoon, still not having heard from AA, I called the 800 number and was advised that yes, my bag had been put on a later flight and had arrived in San Francisco at 11:00 AM this morning. I could pick it up at any time.
Pick it up? No, I don’t think so. I live over 30 miles from that airport; city miles. They lost it, they should deliver it. “I’m sorry,” the customer service voice said insincerely, “but you have only four hours from the time of arrival to file a lost baggage tracer. Since you did not do that, we can’t deliver it to you. If you like, I can have it shipped, but you’ll have to pay the fees.”
In a moment I went from “understanding — lost luggage is a fact of air travel” to “relieved — they found my bag (800,000 bags a year are never recovered)” to “furious – you guys screwed up and now you’re trying to make it be my problem.”
“Lost baggage tracer? What is that? What was all of that waiting in line at the AA Baggage Service Center, answering questions and showing them documents?”
“They should have told you that you have four hours to file a tracer,” continued my tormentor. “And, since there is no tracer on this bag, that’s all I can do for you. Your bag is here when you want to pick it up.”
Obviously, this wouldn’t do. I asked to speak to a supervisor.
I tell the story again to a new person, and again am told that I violated the four-hour rule. “This is the first I’ve heard about any of this. I thought they were filing a claim when I reported the bad missing at the airport.” I told him. “Does it make sense to you that I would wait in line at the Baggage Service Counter to report my missing bag, be told that I have only four hours in which to report it, otherwise they are relieved of their responsibilities and then… what? Refused? Changed my mind?”
“I can’t believe we are even having this conversation. This isn’t the old days, when you carried my bag for free. You charged money to carry that bag. It was supposed to be here at 8:00 PM last night and it didn’t get here until 11:00 this morning. You screwed up. You need to just man-up, admit it, and get it to me as quickly as you can.”
In reality, the people at the Baggage Service Center in San Francisco are geniuses. By not filling out a tracer, and not informing me of the process, they have not only saved their company a ton of money on baggage delivery fees, they have also made American’s lost baggage statistics look better. By law, these claims have to be tallied and reported to the Department of Transportation where they become a matter of public record.
How is American doing? They lose 4.3 bags per thousand passenger miles, the most of any national carrier. Their regional service, American Eagle, loses a whopping 9.19, the highest number reported by any airline. (To give credit where credit is due, AirTran loses only 1.97.)
I don’t know if the dim bulb of justice finally flickered on in this guy’s brain, or if I just wore him out, but he finally agreed to waive the “four-hour” rule and deliver my bag.
We call ourselves a “service economy.” I suppose that’s because everyone is so economical about dispensing customer service. But that’s really looking through the wrong end of the telescope. The mission of the customer service organization should be to build customer loyalty, not control costs.
When things are going well, it’s easy to be nice. It’s only when the going gets rough that you find out what a person, or a company, is made of. Customers who experience service problems that are dealt with appropriately by the company score far higher on loyalty measurements than customers who have never had a problem at all.
In the case of American Airlines, they wound up delivering my bag for free anyway, but first they invested a bunch of resources into pissing me off. It’s hard to see how they came out ahead.
Don’t be so sure about FedEx, Rick.
I ordered a new phone, and wanted to have the time to set it up. I was informed by FedEx through their tracking web site that it would be delivered on a Monday, a legal holiday. Because I really wanted the phone and had the time to play with it that day, I drove 40 miles from home to my office to receive it. When I got to the office, I waited. No delivery. I made sure that the building was open. I then checked the web site and it said that the phone would not be delivered because my office was “closed”. I had been here since 8:30 a.m., so I knew that wasn’t true.
I called customer service, and after a bit of runaround, was told that they simply assumed the office was closed. When I assured them that it was not and insisted on delivery, they told me they would deliver it between 11 and 1. Okay, I’ll do a late lunch, ’cause I want that phone today.
1:40 rolls around and I call again. More phone tree nonsense until I get a really nice CS rep from Atlanta on this. She is appalled, and calls the local terminal to find out why I still don’t have the phone. She calls back to sheepishly report that they had not put it on a truck for delivery despite the promise to do so. She says that the local manager promises that it will go out on the 3:00 p.m. truck for delivery before 5:00. Okay, there goes the day but I can still play with the phone that night, right? So I wait.
I know they pick up in my building at 5:15. At 10 after 5 I look out my window and see the FedEx truck parked down the street. Goodie! I leave a buddy in the office and go down to the lobby to get the package, saving them a trip up to the 8th floor. I wait, no FedEx. I go out to the street, and no truck. The concierge says they never showed.
I call Atlanta again, they call the local depot, and guess what? Of course, it never made it on the 3:00 truck either, for reasons no one could explain.
One whole vacation day blown waiting for the lying SOB’s despite multiple promises. All they could do in Atlanta was apologize profusely, but that didn’t get me my phone until it was delivered the next day.
OK, I stand corrected. I guess there is NOWHERE to turn for decent service anymore.
Great article. If only this were an isolated incident! As you well know, as an executive I’ve always preached to my organizations that if they want a sustainable, unfair competitive advantage all they need to do is provide excellent customer service. Excellent customer service stands out in today’s landscape like a lone island on a vast sea. And, because it is so rare, when people experience excellent customer service they usually talk about it… a lot!
Back a decade or two ago, I used to accuse Nordstrom’s of deliberately screwing up their customers’ orders (often the customers’ first or second order – basically new Nordstrom customers) just so they could demonstrate what they were capable of and willing to do to make the situation right. I have a great Nordstrom story and whenever I would share it I’d usually hear a similar one right back. I came to the conclusion that Nordstrom’s either employs a bunch of habitual screw ups or else they have discovered the truth in what you said in wrapping up your post… “Customers who experience service problems that are dealt with appropriately by the company score far higher on loyalty measurements than customers who have never had a problem at all.” I genuinely believe that Nordstrom used this to their advantage. I know it worked on me!
Great perspective. Thanks for your comment!
Thanks for the article, it was very interesting and I had the same feeling when I was back in the states over Xmas.
I wouldn’t say customer service here in Japan is always better than in the U.S., because at times they can be incredibly inflexible. For example, if you ask for a service or a product modification outside of the rule book or SOP, you can basically forget it. That includes everything from “hold the pickles” to “Can I buy the jacket but not the slacks?”
Also, I’ve had a few experiences where the service was just bad, due to whatever circumstances.
Having said that, in cases like yours or those mentioned in the other posts (lost luggage, service providers, department stores) the Japanese make customer service in the US look exactly as bad as it is. As you said, if you lose your luggage in the US, or have a problem with your phone provider, it’s sort of implicit in the whole thing that you somehow screwed up, or that your complaint is unwelcome, or that instead of responding to your complaint, the company puts you on trial to find out just how much “extra” service you deserve, etc. etc.
It is the wrong end of the telescope, and that is where attitude comes in, I think.
I remember you used to make an analogy about Star Trek, and how everyone knows what to do if they find an alien, because they know the mission. When you walk up to the customer service counter with a problem, do they roll their eyes? Or, do you know without even having to think twice that they not only will try to help you, (in spite of your flimsy command of the language) but sort of see it as their mission. Maybe DNA is the right metaphor, in terms of what to do when you encounter a customer, and how to actually enjoy customer service and find value in being good at it. (versus looking at it as a hassle or imposition.)
Again, it’s not all black and white, and there are some real flaws in Japanese customer service. Also, I know there is sometimes great customer service in the U.S., so I don’t want to make blanket statements.
Especially after this earthquake, I have been really amazed, but not surprised, at how hard large and small companies and people are working to stay open and provide service, even though everyone is quite nervous and upset. (I think many Americans would do the same, but I don’t know.) And of course I would be totally OK if Tokyo Electric would save some of their apologies until later…
Thanks again for a good article and take care!
Thanks for your thoughtful perspective.
Our thoughts are with all of you in Japan.
American airlines services sucks, they canceled a flight of 400 people from Barcelona to Miami, and made us stay in their associate hotels with only the half of the cost of the meal. Some people on the flight lost cruises, hotel reservations, connecting flights, etc. and they do not care. We ask too many people about this situation and all the people we talked to, employees of the airport, customers, etc., tell us this situation is normal. It happens all the time for 1 or 2 flights.
American airlines sucks… never again