In that piece yesterday, I wrote that the solution to providing great customer service lies in the ability of businesses to train and support their employees to look at the big picture of creating a positive customer experience instead of getting hung up on enforcing a litany of rules and regulations.
The key to getting good customer service is to do the same, but in reverse. Whenever you have an encounter with businesses' employees, you are engaging in a moment of relationship with them that you have as much of an opportunity to manage as they do. The more experience you bring to that relationship and the more goodwill you demonstrate to them, the better the chances become that they will respond positively to your needs.
Just like they should be trying to do with you.
But here's the real benefit: Even if you encounter crappy employees — who either always are bad at what they do or just are having a bad moment on a bad day — your forward-thinking, positive attitude gives you the best opportunity to steer that relationship toward the result you want.
The first step? Take the nit-picky rule enforcement off the table by actually following the business' rules. Don't try to fly on someone else's airline ticket. Don't bring oversized luggage into the cabin. Don't smoke in your non-smoking room. Don't talk in the quiet car. Don't cut the queue or try to bully your undersized child onto a roller coaster. Take the time you need to find out the rules, in advance, then follow them.
Now, if you discover that the business has a rule that's going to create a problem for you — don't break the rule then ask forgiveness later. Ask for help up front. I guarantee you that the employees know more loopholes and workarounds to their company's rules than you do. Manage your relationship with the employees by giving them the opportunity to see you as a cooperative person with a problem that needs help... rather than a combative foe to punish. Get the late checkout, the child swap pass, or the unpublished, allergen-friendly menu in the restaurant. Worse comes to worst and they can't help you, you will know to look to another company or other destination rather than going ahead with them and entering a bad situation that's going to end in conflict.
That said, you might find yourself in a situation where the business's employees are not following their own — or the government's — rules. This puts you in the situation that customer service representative face when confronted with a disruptive customer. Just like those reps should do in those situations, you need to look at the big picture and find the path of least resistance to your ultimate goal. What gets you home, as close to on time as possible? What gets you a safe and acceptable room for the night? What helps you see and ride as much as you can today?
Do you take the involuntary bump and the $1,300 payday along the flight home the next morning... or do you let the airport police beat the heck out of you in the hope that it will lead to a multi-million dollar settlement later? Hey, it's your call. Just make sure someone is getting video of the beating and will post it online. (Please accept my apologies for the sarcasm now dripping from your computer or mobile device.)
No one wants to be that tough spot where you're not getting what you were promised. But take a moment to recognize that no one wants to be in a relationship with a pushy, demanding, selfish person, either. Just as customer service representatives never should threaten you, don't threaten them, either. For the moment of that relationship with an employee, be the type of person that you'd want to deal with: calm, friendly, and working to find a solution — not blame or shame.
Explain why you believe that you've not gotten what you thought you were supposed to get then ask for help in getting it. Recognize the possibility that you did not understand correctly what you were buying, sort of like the parent who thought that airline seats could be transferred like baseball tickets. Even if you did get it right — and the employees still won't cooperate — get what you can in the moment then seek relief from a higher-up at a later date. [Bookmark that link!] And if you can't get that relief, take the loss and resolve not to do business with them again. Consider the loss a write-off investment in not getting into a nasty fight... or worse.
Always remember the best piece of advice I ever was given about travel abroad, "people before business." Every encounter with a business's employees should begin with you smiling, making eye contact and offering an appropriate greeting, such as a simple "Hello." [Making eye contact with other people is social hell for me. So if I can endure it, anyone can. It just has to be for that first moment.] If you are traveling to a country where the native language is not English, offer that greeting in the native language, even if you don't speak it. Yes, that means doing some research in advance. But my experience is that you buy yourself an enormous amount of goodwill by showing that you're trying to work with people instead of demanding that they work for you.
(And don't worry that offering a greeting in a language other than English commits you to conversing in that language. Trust me, almost all customer service representatives who work with international visitors know that you're an English speaker who's hacking a greeting. But if you want to memorize how to say "Can we speak English?" in the native language, cover yourself and do that, too.)
I've gotten countless upgrades over the years simply by being nice to other people: earlier boarding, better seats, and even comps. It's an especially effective strategy when you come in after the special snowflake who tries to bully employees to waive the rules and make exceptions for him or her. Abusive relationships are hell on Earth, and no one wants to be dragged into that. Customer service — heck, life in general — is not a zero-sum game, where the only way to get ahead and is to push someone else down. We all get further when we look out for others and work together, instead.
The irony? The key to being treated like a special snowflake is not to act like one.
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