Thanksgiving 2009: Airlines-1, Hotels-0

I had three distinctly unique customer service experiences that involved the telephone this holiday weekend. It wasn’t until I got home and digested the three experiences that I found the common thread.

Experience #1:
I waited in line for no less than eight minutes (in my business you tend to time things like this) to check-in to a hotel, while a guest in front of me insisted to the lone staff member working on paying cash.  He did not have a credit card and did not want to have a photocopy of his passport taken.  During my eight minute wait, the phone behind the desk rang continuously.

Experience #2:
I called the front desk at a different hotel later that weekend, to schedule a wake-up call. The phone rang continuously but was never picked up. I looked in the guest services directory and dialed the extension to program a 5:45 AM wake-up call myself. I did as directed.  As you guessed, no call came the next morning.

Experience #3:
I called my airline at 6 AM EST in order to try and move my flight up.  After navigating the prompts (which now seem to admonish callers for not doing their business online), I reached an agent after two rings, who was able to move my flight up to the desired time. End-to-end the transaction lasted three minutes.

Just about every customer service guru out there says, “Don’t Cut Corners,” during down business times.  I feel this advice somehow implies that businesses became fat and inefficient during the good times and that corner-cutting can be protected by reallocating resources or by making a list of corners that simply cannot be cut.  This doesn’t wash.

In the examples above, some of the businesses cut corners, while another apparently did not. What a difference!

The phone and internet have moved from critical customer service interaction points to profit centers. Yes, businesses make their customers more profitable by moving them to their websites, ATM, and IVR phone lines. I think most customers are cool with that; it saves them their most precious commodity, time.

What I think gets lost is that when a customer does call you, they NEED you.  This is a critical moment of truth, a Service Recovery that will likely make or break the overall experience.  When the phone actually rings, it really is ‘game on’.

In examples #1 and #2 above, I am absolutely positive that the hotels in question are aware that this happens often; the staff member in Experience #1 was certainly aware of the problem.

I also sensed that the airline in Experience #3 was aware of a few things as well.  The airline knows that when a customer calls their line very first thing in the morning on a holiday, the customer usually wants two things: immediate access to a live voice, and immediate access to someone who would solve the task at hand.  That isn’t a ‘corner’, that is a ‘foundation’ of a positive guest experience.

I am sad to say that two different hotel companies were bested by…you guessed it, an airline.

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