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What is keeping you from getting better customer service?

May 7, 2017, 6:34 PM · Yesterday we talked about U.S. airlines' twisted plan to dominate social media by beating, threatening, and harassing their customers until we stop posting about anything else. But today I promised you a more positive report, with advice on how you can avoid becoming the subject of a viral video depicting the latest airline customer service fail.

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 Get the late checkout, the child swap pass, or the unpublished, allergen-friendly menu in the restaurant.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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Replies (5)

May 8, 2017 at 5:31 AM · The "attitude test" is everything. Treat people well and they'll be more likely to go out of their way. Act like an ass and they'll either do what it takes to get rid of you, or harden their position - whichever is worse for you.
May 8, 2017 at 9:45 AM · You are absolutely right. Once, my husband and I were bumped from a flight to Hawaii on Christmas day. We were very polite and treated the employees the way we want to be treated: with understanding and kindness. We got money, a hotel and meal voucher for the night and the next morning when we got to the airport, after greeting the manager that had helped us the day before, he upgraded us to first class for the 11 hour flight.
May 8, 2017 at 5:09 PM · I'm still not clear on what really happened on that United flight, it seems so unimaginable that they thought their actions were justified but there has to be more to it. I always try to be kind and respectful no matter which side of the coin I'm on, but it's tough sometimes. A lot of companies don't invest in customer service because they have so much business customer retention doesn't matter, and a lot of people feel entitled to riches beyond belief because of a small issue they experienced.
May 9, 2017 at 1:53 AM · I still say 'Road Trip!', but on the infrequent occasions I do fly, I try to make sure to build in extra time so I will not be in a hurry so getting bumped (and compensated) is welcomed. Airline personnel are generally poorly paid and worked very hard so being friendly towards them is most certainly going to win you a new friend and ally to help you get where you need to be.
May 9, 2017 at 2:57 AM · The bit about trying to converse in a foreign language is completely true. One of the reasons various nationalities get a bad rap for being bad travellers or rude people abroad is that they don't make an effort to respect local culture or customs.

As a foreigner, if on the very first contact you're nice, friendly and making an effort at their language, you can break that barrier and any preconceived notion they have about you based on where you're from. It goes a long way, not just in making you're experience pleasant, but in creating a good image of what your own country is like.

As a whole, if you're nice to the staff, they will reciprocate, even on their bad day and you'll have a better experience. If you're rude and abnoxious, you're less likely to get good customer service from anyone.

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