Customer (Dis)Service

My fellow associates and I began writing a weekly blog over one year ago which we publish regularly each Wednesday. Blog topics fall into one of four categories: Business Best Practices, General Economic Conditions, PE News, and MCM News. Four of us blog (we excused Kevin, our CFO because he actually has real work to do) and thus “my turn” to fling pearls of wisdom into the internet ether for my readership (so far consisting of my wife and daughter) has ambushed me yet again as it does every month. My usual reaction is, it can’t be my turn already, can it?

As the deadline for my blog fast approached, I found myself sitting in the Philadelphia airport awaiting a 3:50pm US Air flight home in time for dinner with my family but at a loss for a worthy topic. I began to mull over plausible reasons why one of my cohorts needed to take my turn. Lost in my search for either a viable excuse or salient topic I almost didn’t register the gate agent’s announcement our departure time was being delayed 45 minutes. Thus begins a good news/bad news story.

This story dictates I start with the bad news. Prior to booking our trip, I had implored Jackie, our valued assistant, to explore every alternative to US Air, including departing from Akron Canton airport. By design, it has been many years since I have flown US Air, on which, I rarely have had a good experience. They would be better treating departure and arrival schedules like your cable company…you know, we can have a serviceman at your house somewhere between 8-12 or 12-5. In any case, our alternative was Continental costing almost $1,000 more, which I could not justify. True to form, our departure from Cleveland left an hour and a half late, but we arrived just in time to make our first meeting. Past experience suggested our departure would follow a similar pattern. In fact, we did board our departing flight 60 minutes late, which is actually 10 minutes early UST (US Air time). We pushed away from the gate and began our taxi to the runway when we unexpectedly stopped and, much to my chagrin, shut down the engines. The pilot came on and announced the tower had just put a hold on all departures until an approaching storm cell vacated the area. He explained we were likely to be on our way within twenty minutes. Oh well, an opportunity to sketch out a few ideas for my blog. Perhaps a piece on fiscal responsibility…no, too divisive. In any case I nodded off and awoke an hour later to the pilots announcement it shouldn’t be too much longer.  As a diversion, I grabbed the US Air magazine out of the seat pocket and read the CEO’s letter on pilot training, which, and I am not making this up, included the following:

“With our training, we are committed to being the best. All of our pilots would have performed as well as Captain Sully Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles, who safely splash-landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River,” says Captain Skinner, adding, “We believe we have the best pilots in the country.”

I certainly admired Captain Sully’s skill but it did seem a bit counterproductive to assure passengers all US Air pilots are capable of landing their aircraft in a heavily trafficked river. I wondered if Lake Erie would pose any special challenges. Time continued to slowly pass when after 2 1/2 hours the pilot announced if we didn’t leave soon the flight would be cancelled. Time to text my wife, ‘not to worry but I would be home quite late or perhaps not until the next day.’ Finally, after 2 hours and 45 minutes on the Tarmac and almost 4 hours past our departure time the engines restarted and we took off for home!

At the risk of pointing out the self-evident, most of the 50 or so passengers, including myself were no longer in good cheer. I began to wonder how the stewardess would handle a plane full of grumpy passengers when, and I swear this is the truth, she announced on the intercom she would be coming through with the snack cart and blue diamond almonds could be purchased for $5, potato chips for $3, etc. Borrowing from my daughter Erin’s vernacular, “Seriously?”

This experience caused me to consider the impact customer service, or lack thereof, has on the value of goodwill, particularly when information can be broadly and easily disseminated on the internet. No longer can your company hide behind voicemail, or sit and wait for the postal service to deliver a complaint letter. With the introduction of e-mail and the Web, customer service is now at the forefront of every business. Perhaps this blog would have taken a different tone had the stewardess apologized for the inconvenience and offered the passengers free snacks as a token of goodwill.

Purely for research purposes (not a bit of acrimony), I googled “US Air sucks” and discovered the following first page search results: (must be a nonprofit)

US Airways Sucks Facebook page

These were but a small sampling of the numerous websites, social media sites and blogs dedicated to broadcasting unhappy encounters with US Air.

When we evaluate a potential acquisition opportunity we request the company’s customer service metrics, such as on-time and complete. In almost every case, if customer service metrics do not exist, customer service is poor to average. We have always emphasized customer service levels to our portfolio companies and insist such metrics be presented in our quarterly board meetings. At our recent “executive summit” the importance of outstanding customer service in the internet age was hammered home in a presentation by Greg Thomas, Creative Director of Point to Point Inc., a Cleveland based interactive marketing firm.

Customer service should be a key element in your business. Just as some companies have pre-sales and post-sales teams, think of customer service as your pre- and post-customer team, making sure a customer stays a customer and not a blogger!

Ok, finally we get to the “good news”. I think I may have my blog topic!

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