Wedding and a funeral create a customer service mashup

Miss me? Between a wedding, an unexpected funeral (is there any other kind?), the joy of Greyhound-esque air travel, no time to post and no access to the net, the blog’s been bit dark since late last week.

I’ve been in various parts of Missouri since Thursday, but I did bring you something: some fine and not-so-fine examples of customer service and related lessons.

Train your people to think creatively

We start on Thursday afternoon, where I board a SkyWest aka United Express flight from Kalispell to Denver. The flight attendant tells us that the potable water on the plane (a Canadair CRJ 200 regional jet) thus coffee will be unavailable and no water will be available in the restroom.

Meanwhile, a couple of cases of bottled water are on this same partially-full flight. I don’t think the flight attendant was dumb, I just think that SkyWest is probably not training their people to be inventive when the situation calls for it. No coffee was a minor thing on an afternoon flight, but it struck me odd that no water was available as a cart full of water rolled past my seat. The overhead light didn’t work. Details, folks. Pay attention to the details.

United Denver customer service

No one, except perhaps myself, expects good customer service from the major airlines these days. Air travel seems to have been reduced to a odd combination of a crowded suburban mall, a Greyhound bus stations, and a parking garage with a dash of McCarthyism. Or something like that.

Upon arriving in Denver, I find out about the date/time of the funeral, and determine that an extra day in Missouri will be necessary. So I read the electronic sign that says customer service stations for United are available at various gates at DIA (IIRC, the sign was backed up by an audio message). Never fear, I head for the one closest to our next gate.

Naturally, it is unstaffed like the overwhelming majority of the United gates at DIA, so I turn around and walk back 20 or so gates to the next one. While standing in line for an amazing 45 minutes despite having only 6 people in front of me, I witness an interesting contrast of service levels from the customer service desk agents:

One agent lies to the next guy in line, telling him her computer is broken (Reality: she was due to go on break). Thing is, it’s the same computer that she’s been using for the last 30 minutes – and we’ve all been watching the whole time. Just a moment after she leaves, another agent sits down and uses the same computer, and a few minutes later helps the same guy who previously couldn’t be helped because of that computer. It’s really OK if you have to go on a 5 minute break, just be honest, folks.

The agent next to the “broken” computer is next up when I’m at the front of the line. I step up and he tells me that he is due to go on break. I’m fine with that, as I’m sure they need a few minutes to decompress after dealing with frustrated travelers all day. A couple minutes later, the guy next to him frees up, so I step up. He tells me he needs a minute or 2 to complete the previous guy’s transaction so I might watch for other agents becoming available.

He completes the transaction for the previous traveler (who has been sent to his gate). I step up and he – at no cost – changes our 5 flights from Sunday evening to Monday. During this process, my flight to KCI starts boarding so he gets the must-do stuff done and sends me to my gate, telling me he will complete the transaction like he did the previous guy’s.

Upon arrival in Kansas City (2 hours late), I head for the rental car shuttle bus while the rest of the gang fetches luggage. I make a mental note that the KCI passenger area reminds me of a parking garage. Dim fluorescent lights, concrete everywhere, and very spartan. Almost seemed like something out of a sci-fi novel. When I arrive at the shuttle bus stop, another shuttle driver offers me a seat in his warm van. It’s almost 20 degrees colder in Kansas City than it was in Kalispell.

The shuttle bus hauls me to the car rental complex and I’m greeted at midnight by a friendly young agent for Enterprise. He makes small talk asking about my trip to KC and we reflect on our grandfathers while he completes the paperwork. When we walk outside, he decides to upgrade me on the spot because a nicer, large-enough car is at the sidewalk. It’s cold, windy, snowy, we’re over two hours behind and he thinks that the Dodge Magnum will work for 5 people and luggage vs walking across the slick, windy parking lot.

And because he took the time to make conversation while getting my paperwork ready, he knows every minute counts because of the 4 hour drive that awaits us. It was a long 4 hours on freezing rain covered roads, and his prompt, friendly handling of the checkout process was appreciated after 9+ hours of airports and airplanes.

Little things make a difference and make people talk about your business

Fast forward to Friday night’s rehearsal dinner. We’re in the private dining room at the Metropolitan Grille in Springfield MO, an upscale restaurant on the city’s East side. I walk into the nicely appointed men’s room and there is a flat screen TV attached to the wall next to the urinals. It’s showing Gladiator. When I return to the dining room, I hear a couple of ladies talking about the ladies room and it’s heated toilet seats. All the guys are talking about the flat screen TV in the men’s room. Yeah, the food was good, but the other little touches are what make people talk about you.

The limo driver

Good service is to be expected from a limo driver, but sometimes they take an extra little step. This one stood at the back of the chapel during the wedding, and was sharp enough to comment to the bride’s mother that he felt it was a very special, touching ceremony (it was) and that he was pleased to have the privilege of seeing it. The bride’s mother was talking about him the next day and made sure the wedding coordinator knew about his comments. I wonder who she and her friends will use the next time they need a limo?

Customers like small town treatment
As we rolled into grandpa’s hometown on Sunday evening for visitation, we stopped at the Piggly Wiggly (that’s a grocery store) for a card. The grocery had been kind enough to put funeral announcements up at the cash register. A nice touch that I hadn’t seen before. I also had a nice conversation with a very savvy funeral director who paid very close attention to details. Sharp guy, 3rd generation director in his family’s business. I’ve seen cold ones and I’ve seen warm ones. This guy was good, but not slick, a fine line in his business.

After visitation, a stop at the Crazy Cone in Higginsville MO proved that teenagers can deliver small town service, even without the McDonald’s playbook. Even though it’s just a little ice cream and sandwich shop that could typically get away with non-descript service, they’ve taken steps to make sure the food and service keep people coming back. Bonus: historical photos of community members and sports teams dating back to the early 1900’s. Oddity of the day: the Crazy Cone shares a building with a tire and auto repair shop, the space between them is open.

The other United Airlines
While checking in at KCI, I found the other United Airlines. Not only did Debbie prove very helpful at check-in (more flight changes), but a young man in a United shirt (unfortunately without a name tag) stepped up to help a crowd at the self check-in kiosks and showed impressive customer service savvy with his patient, caring manner. He wasn’t a skycap, just a young dude in a United polo shirt with a security badge that I couldn’t see. Someone needs to promote that guy, or hire him away. He and Debbie could teach the rest of airline industry a thing or two. Is there something that your “mail room” employees could teach the rest of your staff? Look around.

KCI – parking garage suspicions confirmed

Don’t ever schedule long layovers in Kansas City International. It really is like spending time in a chair sitting in a dimly lit parking garage. Gate areas are small, there are no airport lounges or vendors of any substance in the tiny gate-specific secure area. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be stranded there in bad weather or due to delays. They do have free wireless internet in the terminal, but email ports are blocked, and there’s a grand total of 2 electrical sockets for the 50+ seats at our end of the secure area. Not impressed. I’d be less than inclined to have a national-scale business convention or trade show in Kansas City solely because I wouldn’t want my attendees to be subjected to a substandard airport experience and possibly associate it with my show/convention.

Finally, back to Denver

Before our final Denver to Kalispell leg, we’re sitting in a crowded DIA B terminal stuffed full of travelers dealing with weather delays. Once again the internet appears to be free. Alas, it doesn’t work, but it is free. Whether a service is free or not, people expect it to work.

You can’t teach nice

We arrive after midnight in Kalispell and as we leave the secure area, a smiling airport security officer stands at the security area exit welcoming each traveler to Montana and wishes them a safe ride home. You can’t really teach someone to be nice. You have to hire and then train nice people to do a specific job. For people who have been traveling all day, sitting in a cramped plane or a noisy terminal, he made the end of the day a little bit more pleasant. How does your business do that?

4 thoughts on “Wedding and a funeral create a customer service mashup”

  1. I wish more companies would place an emphasis on hiring nice people. They seem to have no understanding about the impact of having a friendly face and a kind greeting. I always try to do more business with companies who have great customer service and avoid those that can’t. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Interesting post. You can’t teach nice is very true, just like you can’t lead nice. A leader has to get things done and doing it in a nice way is best, and if you can get away with it – great. You can’t teach people to be nice as leaders any more than you can teach nice in anything else.

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    Keep up the good work.

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