What Happened to Customer Service?
The State of the Union - Spring 2002

by Rick Sidorowicz

Last year I reported on my "adventures" in customer service leaving the wintery weather of Toronto, Canada to "experience" the malls and the mills in Dallas, Houston, Buffalo, Chicago, Phoenix and Las Vegas. It was a wonderful adventure and it is here for your enjoyment and reflection on the state of the union of customer service.

This year I have compiled several of my most recent memorable adventures for your review. The purpose? A little commentary, perhaps an interesting article, and just maybe - a little "head twist" and reality check to get us back to business - and back to what really matters.

The bottom line? Please listen slowly.

There is a very, very serious "disconnect" between what you want to have happen and what you think is happening, to what is actually happening with respect to customer service in retailing today. Aside from a few exceptions, service stinks! It sucks! It's very bad. It is so bad that a few smiling faces and basic common courtesy stands out as exceptional. We are missing such an amazing opportunity.

Here are several of my most memorable service encounters. The names have not been changed to protect the innocent. In fact the names have been highlighted to lambaste the worst encounters but also to recognize great performance wherever it appears.

On with the adventure.

Bill and Rick's excellent adventure

Bill and Rick want to go Las Vegas, for business (seriously.) We get quotes and find Air Canada wants some absolutely outrageous amount for direct service. Why is that? We are getting very pissed that Air Canada wants to extract about $3,000 for a simple trip there and back. We start to dislike what Air Canada is up to. So we book US Airways for about $1,500 less (little $CDN) but it requires a brief stopover in Pittsburgh. That's fine - major savings with just a little inconvenience. (But what are these Air Canada pricing gurus thinking?) We opt for the savings and opt out of Air Canada. (And WE ARE Canadian!)

US Airways ticket counter (in Toronto) - Our first encounter is to witness a ticket agent (likely with the title "Customer Service Agent") ragging on this individual who apparently was late for the check in. This weary traveler, with a mound of luggage, just wanted to get to his destination, and likely was late for the ticketing. We witnessed a conversation where the US Airways CSA called the individual a "liar" - because he did not arrive one hour before the departure time as he originally stated. She ragged on this fellow to the point that he (very calmly) stated that he did not appreciate her assistance and would reschedule with another airline. What an embarrassment! What an idiot! This CSA needs a major lobotomy! (US Airways in Toronto - you have serious work to do.)

There's a duty free store right at the transborder entry - and what a joy! Smiling faces - very nice to see at 6:00 am - and so very helpful - there's hope! (And I think I will write to congratulate them.)

So we're off to Pittsburgh, in a snow storm.

Of course we were late for the connection. No fault to the pilots - I don't want to fly when there is a risk I will die. With the turbulence we experienced on the way I'm very OK with whatever delay we encountered and I was overjoyed just to be able to have a tall latte with my feet planted very firmly on the ground in Pittsburgh (of all places.) (But I do, seriously, love Pittsburgh.)

So we missed the connection and find the special "agent" and discuss the possibilities. Ends up we have a four hour delay in Pittsburgh, and then it will be off to Charlotte for a two hour stopover, and then to Las Vegas. (Curse Air Canada again.) It's assured that the luggage will move with us all of the way. And in this special case US Airways was so very kind that they gave us a voucher for food during the stopover. Bill and Rick each received a voucher for $8.00 (Real $US) for the inconvenience of missing the connection.

Serious question. Someone somewhere decided that this "empowered" special "agent" (likely trained in all sorts of service recovery procedures) could offer passengers who were inconvenienced by a missed connection an $8.00 voucher for their trouble.


What on earth are we supposed to do with $8.00 for a four hour delay? Buy peanuts? Most definitely! That's all we would get on the plane anyway! I think I would have been more "satisfied" if I received nothing (save and except a little conversation and directions to anything that could occupy us for the layover.) I'd have been more "satisfied" with a voucher for a shoe shine, or a frappachino, or just about anything that had a little "thoughtfulness" other than this so very pitiful stipend. I start to curse US Airways.

But it's Pittsburgh and they have the "Air Mall." It's wonderful! Watcha gonna do for four hours? It's called "dwell time" in the travel business - so we will "dwell" and that means - we're going shopping! That's fine with me as any "dwelling" for me means more fodder for the next great article - and there is always more.

Wow! A shoe store! Bill wants shoes and after you've "dwelled" for a considerable time even the exchange rate for our little Canadian dollars seems to fade into the background. He's ready to buy two pairs - each over $100 - but they only have his size in stock for one. After "dwelling" and watching Bill I too want to buy shoes, but they also don't have my size in stock for the model I want. C'est domage - coulda been three but at least there was one sale. (We're both right in the norm for sizing - nothing exotic - and they didn't have the goods.)

So after shoes what do you buy? Socks of course - and there is a store that sells only socks. I think they are called something like "Only Socks." I wander in and wander around. There are two young ladies talking at the cash. I look, I browse (and I really want black cotton socks), I look through everything. No greeting, no hello, not even a "How can I help you?" After about fifteen minutes of "dwelling" I have to ask. "Do you have any black cotton socks?" The young lady I asked said she didn't know. She turned to the other young lady who said, "Yes we do, we have this one style over here." I'm relieved - I think I can now buy something. I look at the black cotton socks and grab a few pair. I'm sold.

Serious question: They must have had over 1,000 pairs of socks on display and only 1 style of black cotton socks. Is it me - or perhaps shouldn't they have a few more of the basics? And what if I had kids - and since I'm in a serious "dwell time" - wouldn't I consider some of the more novelty items for them? Or perhaps I might venture over the edge and buy blue socks, or a patterned pair, or anything else they might want to show me. At this point I just want someone to just try to sell me something! Anything! I'd buy it just to reward the effort. But the young ladies did say, "Thank you and have a pleasant flight." (Curse US Airways again because we're not flying for at least another three hours.)

Books. So many books. WH Smith has at least eight stores in the Air Mall. Everywhere you turn you see books. I resolve I will not buy a book. I will never buy a book at an airport. I brought the books I want to read. I want to buy ... something interesting. I want to do ... something interesting (although "dwelling" and "experiencing" service is always very interesting.) So what are we going to do?

TGIF - what a great spot! There is absolutely no doubt that the best place to "dwell" at the airport in Pittsburgh is TGIF. What an enjoyable experience! Great food! Wonderful people! Great conversation! We had fun and the hours passed quickly. The servers were attentive and animated. They were having fun and we were comfortable and relaxed. We were "engaged" in conversation and had to run out to catch the flight. Great service TGIF - thank you!

On to Charlotte - and what a great flight! I did get all of the peanuts I needed and this wonderful flight attendant watched me complete the crossword before takeoff. She thought I was some kind of genius. I reveled in the glory but had to confess that I had done it earlier in the day en route from Toronto. She then challenged me with the crossword from USA today that she had been working on - and supplied me all the peanuts I needed to keep my brain functioning to the max to get it done. And believe it or not I did it in record time - and now she knew I was a genius. We now live happily ever after on the coast of Maine ...

Charlotte was great! Great retail at the airport, except they are missing something. Do you think that I don't know what a reasonable price is? Outrageous! Walk on by and I will pick up what I need elsewhere. Their concession rents must be astronomical - but do they think we are stupid? Great airport, but you have to at least be reasonable. So we will again "dwell" at the watering hole closest to the gate.

Another great adventure! Wonderful server, great company of travelers, great conversation - and I wonder ... they really do "get it" at the watering holes, but why not elsewhere? You really can do the same for shoes and socks and just about anything - if you really want to. It's about engaging conversation. It's about an interest in what you are up to. It's "humanness" and it should be a part of every service encounter.

On to Vegas. zzzzzzzzzzzzzz

So the luggage was supposed to follow our flight, NOT! After the day long rerouting and an hour waiting we find the luggage went some different way and will arrive some time later. OK - who needs luggage anyway? (At least we didn't get an $8.00 voucher - we didn't get anything except a number to call to see if our luggage arrived.) It was perhaps a fitting end to the US Airways experience when the luggage arrived at the hotel at 4:00 am. (So what do you think I think about US Airways ... aside from my favourite flight attendant?)

Las Vegas - what a treat! Aside from a ridiculous 30 minute check-in the rest was wonderful! Smiling faces - an entertaining experience - great service especially in the cafe at Paris. It's showtime and I like it. You might "pay through the nose" but it is wonderful to see service and entertainment in action. Paris and The Venetian and Caesar's Palace "get it" with an engaging retail environment that is awe inspiring. The only trouble is ... and the only trouble is always service - it's very aloof and quite uninspiring in the retail establishments.

There is a lot of pizzazz ... but very little ... engaging service. A walk through The Venetian is superb, with the strolling and costumed characters and a wonderful ambiance. We know it's contrived and staged ... but we like it. The only trouble is that when you walk into almost any retail store you get the same somewhat disinterested service you find just about anywhere in the US and Canada. They're just there! A few smiling faces and just a very few who seem to be enjoying their work - but for the most part - they're just putting in time and holding up the cash desk and waiting for closing time.

Great golf store - and a wonderful place to browse - but nobody's home! No greeting, no "How are you?" no interest, no nothing! What a waste! We move into the high rent district and create a physical plant and shop of excellence that in and of itself is a "wow factor" and then screw it all up with the most uninterested and lifeless people. I know it's frustrating, and perhaps the retail gurus think they can engineer an "experience" of store design and fixtures, and amazing products and props, but it's all worth diddly unless the people in the store bring it to life. I want to repeat that. Regardless of the expense and the engineering - it is the human factor - your people in the store face to face with your customers - that bring your strategy and your intended experience to life with your customers. Your people make the difference - and for most in my experience - your people are very disinterested, ambivalent, and ... yes ... bored. And they create a boring experience. C'est domage.

On to Denver

Checking in at the United counter my associate in Denver advises they are fogged in with a major snow storm on the way. Quick change of plans and let's high tail it out of here for Toronto.

Major problem - non refundable tickets (thanks to the schlepps at Air Canada and our quest for reasonable fares) but you know that wasn't a problem after all. We explained our dilemma to the United ticket agent and guess what? In all of twenty minutes we were booked on a direct flight to Toronto the next afternoon. What a joy! What a monumental triumph! Jack took the challenge personally and made it so - and guess what? From now on and for ever - we will fly United - thanks Jack. You saw an opportunity to be of genuine assistance. You listened and understood our dilemma. You took the time to explore ways within the parameters of your "box" to find the solution. You may have even broken a few rules along the way to solve our problem. We appreciate your assistance and caring. We thank you. And from now on we will book with your employer every opportunity we can. (Think about flying transborder once per month at a rate of at least $1000 a pop - $12,000 annually for the foreseeable future of at least ten years - makes me a $120,000 customer, as well as the referrals I might bring from my firm and about 400,000 viewers that will read this in the next few months. You did very good work my friend. Thank you again.

New York

Do you love New York? I know Darlene does because she's lived there. But my most recent experience wasn't pleasant, but it was very memorable. Imagine ... $295 (serious $US) for a room with shower only (no bath tub - why?), no hair dryer (not that I need one really - but I do need to fluff up what I have left,) an ironing board but no iron, two telephones and a fax but no instructions, $60 for a ten minute phone call and a major burn hole in the carpet. Can anyone say Grand Hyatt? Bizarre. Will never stay there again and I now have an aversion to New York - and I know that's unfair.

Kenneth Cole - 42nd avenue.
I packed the wrong shirt and needed one for the next day. I was happy the store was open. Walked in and looked around. No greeting, no interest, no nothing. A lot of servers milling about and talking about hair. Their hair. Wonderful conversation except there was absolutely no interest in selling anything to anybody. I picked up a shirt and checked out. Not even a thank you! This was an amazing service encounter! There was none! But they all did have .. great hair. So much for branding - what a bunch of bozos!


Fairmount Hotel at the Vancouver Airport. Check in took less than a minute! (How do they do that?) And the desk clerk remembered me! (Wow!) No wonder I book there ... every time! Great room, reasonable rate, outstanding service - favourite table for breakfast with a view of the mountains - a very pleasant, positive and memorable experience.


Marriott Hotel at Dulles - convenient, clean, quick check-in, great rooms. I think they "get it" because everyone says hello in the morning. Everyone says hello to every customer - I like that. It's comfortable and it works. Keep up the great work. It's appreciated.

Dulles Airport - They have a new security service at the line up. Imagine in this day and age of line ups and "dwell time" to encounter very smiling faces and very well dressed men and women with carnations in their lapels! They are absolutely refreshing! I think they've also had Disney in to help with the line up situation as it was a breeze. Great work Dulles - you "get it."

Air Tango

Air Canada launched Tango as a discount airline and it is an enormous success. Imagine, as a business traveler I used to pay under $800 to commute to Vancouver from Toronto with the ability to upgrade to business class from time to time - and now with Tango can commute to Vancouver for about $800 return with no upgrades at less convenient times and with some buffoon's quoff staring me in the face for about five hours. Oh joy, oh bliss! Have you ever had someone crunch your lap top when they moved their seat back? At least on the Dash 8's the seats are immovable. The trick is that when you see anyone fidgeting and prepared to recline their seat - you adjust the airflow on the air vent maximum forward - so if they succeed in reclining (against your fist planted against the seat in front) they will have to endure a full blast of air on their face or quoff (or whatever). What an amazing and most negative service encounter. Their passenger load rates may be up, but they are driving away the business traveler in droves. (The gurus at Air Canada should think about a basic comfortable business traveling "experience" and find a way to "make it so.") Otherwise teleconferencing is looking better every day.

I'm not a negative person - in fact I am an eternal optimist. I believe that people want to enjoy what they do, and truly enjoy being "of service" to others. I do value "service" and enjoy recognizing and celebrating great or even "decent" service where it is encountered. I do believe that it is possible, but I absolutely hate stupidity and the mindless "lip service" that seems to be the rule of the day.

There is a very serious disconnect between your platitudes of great service and the reality of what your customers experience every day. Even good service is rare - and it only occurs when you some how "luck out" and manage to have a "service provider" that has a natural flair and provides a "human touch."

It is very obvious that service is really not that strategic for most enterprises - and that is very disappointing. There are, however, a few enterprises where it is strategic and where it is done for the right reasons - simply because it is the right thing to do. Over time you will see that they will thrive in an almost magical way - leaving their competitors struggling to keep up and wondering how they managed to do it.

In a way it is magic. But on the other hand it is really a major dose of applied common sense. Enterprises that provide positive and memorable experiences for their customers will win. Those who do not will lose. And life will unfold as it should.

Rick Sidorowicz is the Publisher and Editor of The CEO Refresher and
the Minister of Culture of High Performance Retail.

Many more articles in Customer Service in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2002 by Rick Sidorowicz. All rights reserved.

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