Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Southwest Air - Standardize This!

Love this visual!

Today I had a chance - again - to practice self control on a phone call with a customer service rep for a large corporation. 

What is it about telephone customer service that makes it so frustrating?  It is the place I am most likely to lose my cool.   My hunch is that it's because there's no way to get from "here" to "fair."  

Sunday I attempted to apply "travel funds" - money Southwest Airlines holds when you cancel a non-refundable flight - to a ticket purchase. I put in the confirmation of the cancelled flight, hit "apply travel funds" and was swiftly booted to an error message. My second choice would have been to purchase the tickets using points. However, in the five minutes before I called customer service first to find out why the internet wouldn't take my travel funds, I received a receipt that confirmed the tickets and charged them to my credit card - even though the error message was still on my screen and I'd never gone back to complete the purchase.  I purchased dozens of flights via Southwest's website over the years, and I know this is not supposed to happen. But it did.

When I told this to the first customer service rep, she did not believe me.  By the time I got to the fourth customer service rep, he said something like, "I can't always explain why these burps happen.  It somehow populated ...well, I just don't try to explain." 

The first customer service person told me that I had to call a special number to get a refund, which had to be done within 24 hours, and then I could re-book using my travel fund dollars. Except, due to weather related call volume, that phone number gave me a busy signal each of the 30 or so times I tried it between Sunday and this afternoon. When I finally got through, they offered to refund me the money so I could use my points - even though the 24 hour period had passed - but in the interim the ticket prices had risen. Meaning, whether I pay in dollars, travel funds or points, if I get a refund now, a repurchase will be at a higher price.

Although they were apologetic, they do not see the fact that the computer took $237 dollars off my credit card without permission, or that they were not available to refund the money in time for me to preserve the fare, as a problem.

I spent the entire conversation talking myself down so that I would not sound like a bitch to the guy on the phone, knowing this really wasn't his fault. And it wasn't even his attitude. It's just the way it is, and nothing he can do about it.  

And by the way, an apology that is not accompanied by fixing the problem feels like no apology at all.

There is a tension between what a human being - the customer service rep - might be moved to do by the plight of another human being, and what it is in a company's best interest to do.  This tension occasionally results in a gap between what it might be right to do, and what the company has authorized someone to do.  Or even what it is possible to do. For example, I'm pretty sure Southwest's computer system would not let the rep give me tickets today at Sunday's fare - even though that would be the fair thing to do.  

In an older, slower, smaller world, your beef could be taken up with the proprietor.  You knew the proprietor. He or she was probably a neighbor, or at least lived in your community. The proprietor had an interest in keeping customers happy in a more immediate way than today.  There were fewer customers.  Customers talked among themselves.  He or she had a reputation to keep.  

Today the beef is with the proprietor, but it's handled through channels and layers.  And there are so many customers, that this all has to be standardized.  And there is technology, which both enables amazing things like online ticket purchases, and constrains our ability to have a truly human interaction - eye contact, facial expression, things that make us human to one-another, and hopefully draw out the best in us.

To Southwest's credit, the customer service guy actually gave me his first and last names, which I think is a step up from the normal run-around one gets.  And all four of the customer service people I spoke with, the woman last Sunday, the two women at the Rapid Rewards Customer Service number I called today when I was sick of a busy signal at the other customer service number, and the last fellow, were polite and even "patient."  More patient than I.  At the beginning of the call, I even apologized to the last of these folk in advance for whatever frustration he heard in my tone, after spending so much time trying to resolve a problem that should never have happened. 

I think Southwest wants to keep customers happy.  But in standardizing everything - and I understand why it has to be standardized - it cannot anticipate things like weird computer phenomena, or my not being able to get through to customer service past their 24 hour deadline due to heavy weather in the middle and eastern half of the country. 

So, given those realities, there are questions to be answered.

Who should take the hit for something that can't be corrected because of the nature of the system, even when it wasn't my fault - in this case, for pillaging my credit card without my permission, removing the choice I had about how to pay?  The company or the customer? 

What approach might help the poor customer reps who play the middle between customers and big, impersonal, corporate proprietors, even when they are trapped by constraints like these?   What would ease the frustration for customers, and what would maintain good will on the part of the proprietor?  What else could they do that they're not doing now?

Here is my idea:  why not "standardize" some of these responses:

Let the customer be right, like the good old days.  Train your reps to be ombudsmen instead of defensive line backers.  Find a way to get faster resolutions, instead of lengthy waiting periods that waste hours, compound frustration, and create bad will.  If one person can't solve the problem, enable that person to "take" the customer to the person who can, and to stay on the line for a few moments as the ombudsman, to smooth the transition.  If all else fails, create and factor into the bottom line some "gimmes" that can be used liberally to soothe customers in situations like these.  

What ideas do you have?

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