(warning, long post)
Earlier this month, I wrote two customer service posts. In the first post, "if customer service is the new marketing," I wondered, if this is indeed the case — if front line interactions with customers are as or more important than any marketing campaigns we might devise, why is so much customer service still so awful. The second post featured comments from two bloggers who recently wrote about their own less than stellar customer experiences, Mir Kamin and TDavid.
Originally, I was going to wrap up the series with an "objective" analysis of the customer service problem, to see if we might be able to understand the macro factors causing it to be so bad as well as the unique micro factors in customer service excellence that perhaps we could model in our own attempts to improve.
Well, all that got thrown out the window last Saturday. Instead, I am going to share an "epiphany" I had on the whole topic after a most disastrous customer experience.
First the story. Saturday morning, December 21, my son and I were driving from our home in Mass. to our vacation home in Vermont. My husband had a few things to do at home so he was following later. We had a carful of stuff, including three of the family dogs. Just after we got on Route 89 — the one the runs the whole "width" of NH to Vermont, we got a flat and pulled off the highway. Not the breakdown lane, I got off the highway all together hoping to find a gas station. This was around noontime. I called my husband, who was still at home and then called AAA once I determined from my GPS that the nearest service station was more than three miles away.
And the comedy of errors began.
Call Number 1: Service Rep says that Southern NE AAA cannot help me so transfers me to Northern NE AAA. Except he doesn’t. He disconnects me.
Call Number 2 (immediately after): I connect with another rep, who really does try to help. I explain the problem and where I am — on the Hopkinton/Route 103 exit off 89 West in NH. Remember this part, it is important. She gives me a case number and promises to rush a crew out. I assume (yeah I know) that she knew how to do something that the first rep did not.
10-15 minutes after we hang up, inbound call: AAA trying to understand where we are. So I tell them, again. We hang up.
Then it dawns on me. They think we are in Hopkinton Massachusetts. Even though I was pretty clear.
So I call back. This is my Call Number 3 to AAA. It’s probably around 12:45, 1 pm by this time. New service rep. Finds the file. Confirms my suspicion that they are sending the crew to the wrong place. Connects me to AAA Northern NE, who cannot figure out where I am. Umm. Aren’t they supposed to know the roads? Anyway, a very long call later, we *think* someone is on the way.
Around quarter to two, though, I get a little nervous so I call back. Call Number 4 if you are still counting. Unfortunately, I still have to call Southern NE AAA because that’s the number on my card, and I neglected to ask for the Northern NE number when I was on the phone with them. Rep manages to transfer me, and I get the information that a wrecker is on the way from Manchester. For those of you who don’t know the area, that’s not far from where I broke down. Maybe 20 minutes. She also gives me the direct number to call, which comes in handy a little while later.
So we wait. And finally around 2:15… my husband and a local cop show up at the same time. Yes, you read that right. My husband made it from Hudson Mass. BEFORE AAA from Manchester NH. The police officer calls AAA to see what the scoop is, and while he is on his phone with them, AAA calls my phone. The wrecker is lost. This is probably about 2:30 or so.
WIth directions from the officer, the wrecker finally finds us, and the mechanic quickly fixes the flat. We’re on our way shortly after 3pm, with another 90 minutes to drive to reach the house. It was a brutal day, but that’s not why I share the story.
Here’s the epiphany. The people weren’t the customer service problem. Or at least not the worst of it. The process was the problem.
Each person was trying to help, but the system is set up so poorly that they just couldn’t provide a good customer experience. For whatever reason, Southern NE AAA can’t enter a problem in NH and have Northern NE AAA then pick up the call. And of course the whole mess was compounded by the fact that either the rep or the system made the initial faulty assumption that our Hopkinton was in Mass. I was also thrown by the fact that the reps — even the Northern NE AAA reps — we spoke to couldn’t figure out where we were. Don’t they publish maps??
The people sincerely wanted to help. But they couldn’t because the system got in the way. As a result, AAA failed miserably to efficiently deliver the roadside assistance service that is the reason I (and most people) joined AAA in the first place. And my son and I were stuck by the side of the road for three hours on a cold but clear December day.
So when we experience truly excellent customer service, either the system is set up to allow such great service — think Nordstrom or Zappos. Or an individual rises above the inadequacies of the process.
Shouldn’t we be aiming for the former? Systems and processes that allow customer facing employees –whether service, sales or marketing — to deliver the positive experiences we all want. I don’t tend to do big end-of-the-year posts, but if I were to wish for one thing for us as customers and marketers, it would be that: systems and processes that let us satisfy, not frustrate, the customer.
As for AAA, I do intend to contact the organization and share my concerns. I still think it is a great organization that delivers a valuable service.
I just wish it had done so a little better last Saturday.
A final postscript: The local police officer only found us because a fellow cop coming off duty called it in. It never occured to me (or apparently any of the many other cars that passed us) to call the police. He told me that you should always call the local police in an emergency, even something as simple as a flat tire. They often can get AAA or a wrecker out faster, and certainly we felt safer on the side of the road once we had the cruiser there.