Opposite Ends of the Customer Service Spectrum

I had two diametrically opposed customer experiences in the span of 48 hours this week. On Sunday, I was lucky enough to be in Augusta, Ga., for the final round of the Masters. Simply walking the golf course was enough of a religious experience in itself, but I gotta say, those Hootie types who run Augusta National Golf Club sure know how to cater to their patrons. From the security guards at the front entrance to the bathroom attendants who deodorized every stall after each individual use, every employee was polite, upbeat, smiling. They ran their concessions, merchandise shop and security checks with assembly-line precision, and they managed the flow of the massive crowds around the course with a sense of humor and a gentle hand. Employees clearly have been trained to act appropriately but also to be human, to engage with the patrons and make them feel welcome. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Contrast the Masters experience with our flight home the next day. Start with the unsmiling US Airways agent at the check-in counter in Columbia, SC. Grumpy. Move to the gate, where an agent announced a couple of minutes before our scheduled boarding time that the flight was delayed by some mysterious system crash that prohibited the airline from “releasing” the crew. His colleague handled questions from anxious passengers in the textbook airline manner: by never looking up from her terminal. The hour-plus delay caused my brother and I to miss our connection in Philadelphia.

Here’s what should have happened once we arrived: The airline knew we were going to miss the flight (they do, after all, have the data). They should have had a customer-service agent waiting for us at our arrival gate in Philly, who could have apologized to us (by name) for the inconvenience. They could have said they took the liberty of booking us on the next available flight and handed us a couple of vouchers for a hotel (if we had to stay overnight) and a hot meal. This would have diffused any angst we were feeling and turned a negative experience into a relatively positive (or at least neutral) one.  

But as anyone who’s stepped inside an airline terminal knows, that’s not the way it works. Here’s what really happened: We landed in Philly with minutes to spare, huffed and puffed past 10 or so gates to catch a shuttle bus to the terminal where our next flight was leaving from, and ran from the bus to the departure gate. Six minutes late – no plane, no agents. So we lug our bags past another dozen gates to US Air customer service, where five or so agents sat slumped behind the counter, talking among themselves or staring aimlessly at their computer screens.

“I can book you to Boston tonight or to Manchester [our original destination] tomorrow morning,” the disinterested agent said, propping up his chin with his left hand and talking through his fingers. “What about a hotel voucher?” we asked. “The delay was due to field conditions – we don’t reimburse for weather delays,” he answered. Uh no, that’s not what happened. And on it went. We ended up flying to Boston, paying an extra $70 for a van up to Manchester, and complaining about US Scair the entire way. The next day, I sent an email asking for a reimbursement, and a US Air “customer relations” rep politely told me to go pound sand.

OK, it’s probably unfair to compare a private golf club rolling in dough with a struggling airline just trying to survive. But why can’t we expect companies, regardless of their financial situation, to require employees to use rudimentary social skills and basic common sense when dealing with customers? It’s really not that difficult.

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