The Entrepreneur Life

Tag: Customer Service

Talent, training and trust – building culture person at a time

This evening I read Peter Bregman’s blog post about his experience at the Four Seasons in Dallas. It brought to mind my own experience at the ITC Windsor Manor in Bangalore.  The family and I had been visiting some friends in the northern part of town. It was late in the afternoon, when we headed back. Of course the kids waited till we were a fair bit down one of Bangalore’s interminable one-way roads, before clamouring to use the restroom. Usually, the chorus of “I’m hungry” or “I need to use the bathroom” from the backseat would result in much heated discussion between my lovely wife and myself. Luckily we were right in front  of the Windsor Manor, so no discussion was needed. We pulled in, parked the car and dashed to the front door.

The liveried doorman, the one with the enormous moustache, held the door open. “Which way to the rest rooms?” I asked as my eight-year old wiggled in front of me. The wife was still walking from the car, dragging our reluctant ten-year old behind her.  “Straight ahead sir, through the arch and turn left. You will find the restrooms in the first corridor on your right.” We made it safely with time to spare. As the girls and their mom, took their time powdering their noses or discussing Dad’s driving – I hung around the corridor, admiring the Raj era landscapes on the wall.

“Can I help you sir? Were you not able to find the restrooms?” I looked up to see the liveried doorman, who was clearly headed for his break. I assured him that I had already availed of their fine facilities, was merely waiting for the family and thanked him for his concern. After ensuring I had everything I needed he finally headed out the staff door. It was only then that I noticed the discretely designed staff door down the corridor, through which another staffer had just passed.

I was just blown away – there must have been 15-20 people at the front portico, as the family and I had passed through the front door. It was a good ten minutes or so later, when the doorman and I met in front of the restrooms. We were not guests at the hotel and I am sure that his job required him to manage matters primarily near the front porch. Yet, the care and sincerity with which stopped to inquire after my needs and the way he tried to address the matter of my possibly not having found the restrooms clearly reflected the sense of ownership he took over helping visitors and guests. Elsewhere at the Windsor Manor, at their incredible “Jolly Nabob” restaurant, I have seen the same excellent sense of ownership and pride with the maitre d’.

As anyone who’s been in the hospitality business knows, finding good help – the talent – is hard. Training them and inculcating in them the sense of ownership and service mindset is even harder. And institutionalizing it requires trust! This is a lesson all of us could use and Windsor Manor and the Four Seasons teach us well to use in our own business and lives.

Excellent service should seem trivial – a SpiceJet story

This evening I had one of those AHA customer service experiences. I had flown into Bangalore from Chennai on SpiceJet‘s afternoon flight. Even as I was headed home in a cab from the airport, I realized that I had left my (simple ruled 200 page) notebook in the pocket of the seat in front of me. I pulled my boarding pass, which amazingly had the customer service numbers (both toll free and regular) on it and in a noisy call from my cell had a customer service request put in. Before I got home, I got a call from the airline (from their local person I suspect) to whom the trouble ticket had been assigned. She called me to say that they’d expect to get back to me within the next 24 hours. At this point I was happy to have just remembered where I had left my notebook and having called it in. Their acknowledging my call was just icing. So I figured.

However within the next two hours I had six calls from them. Six – that’s right, six (missed) calls from SpiceJet’s customer service department – spread over a 15 minute period. And once I got home, I saw that they had emailed me a copy of my formal complaint with the relevant trouble ticket info. And having been unable to reach me on my mobile, they had sent a separate email, informing me that they had found my notebook and it now awaited me (armed with the boarding pass and a photo ID) to be picked up. Wow! What a feeling it was and I am practically glowing still (in the dark as I write this) from that experience of nearly eight hours ago. And to think I had picked SpiceJet (the second time this week) for my flight primarily due to their value pricing – for those not familiar with crowded Indian skies they aspire to be the Southwest or Ryan Air of India, especially with the leader in that space Deccan now moving upscale after their acquisition by Kingfisher Airlines. Such service on the phone, on-line and in person was unbelievable – Good work, SpiceJet!

All this, when I had only spent a grand total of Rs 2350 ($55) at SpiceJet, contrasted with my experience two weeks ago of trying to get a spanking new (2-day old) Nikon that had stopped working, fixed. But that’s a whole another story. This experience certainly showed how some training, committed service providers and simple follow through can make excellent service seem trivial.

Service – it’s a mindset

For over ten years now I have tried not to miss the Palo Alto Library book sale, that’s held the second Saturday of every month. In the early days I’d go berserk picking up every book that I could lay my hands on (at $1 for hardbacks and 25 cents for paperbacks could you blame me?). In December when I was in San Jose, I took a much more leisurely stroll through the sale. Besides a pulp novel for the plane ride, I picked up only one book, “The Customer Driven Company” by Richard C. Whitely. Little did I suspect how appropriate this book was going to be to my ride home. I guess when we are ready, the lessons seek us out.

It began at Chicago – despite some 200 flights being cancelled earlier that day, my flight to Paris was going to be on time! Thanking the travel gods, I ran to get into line for my check in. Once I got to the counter, is when my troubles began. To save you the gory details, the litany of woes from here on out included:

  • They didn’t have a vegetarian meal for me – worse yet the lady couldn’t care less – when I showed her my printed itinerary with the AVL tag on it, she said “That’s Delta’s computer system – its not in ours” (it was a code share flight). Then she coolly went on to call out for the next customer!
  • In Paris, they board all of us (still with no AVL), and after nearly an hour on board, announce they have a problem with the potable water system and engineers are trying to fix it. An hour later they say there are still trying and we should stay put. An elderly gentleman, walks up to a flight steward and tells him that he is diabetic and asks could he have some orange juice. The steward responds (I am not making this stuff up) “We have water – if we gave you juice, we’d have to give everyone juice.” Finally after four hours (during which the flight crew was found snacking and drinking juice in the rear) we are asked to deplane – all 350 of us – and head back to the transfer counter
  • The only silver lining at the transfer counter (we get in line around 3PM) is that all passengers are treated with truly equal disdain without discrimination on the basis of skin color, nationality or gender. By 5PM we are actually given some bottles of water, juice and sandwiches arrive at 6PM. The plight of the folks who were unfortunate enough to be travelling with kids was truly appalling. Each passenger was being re-routed (next day, same day through Dubai, or via Frankfurt). The miracle was even at this point, NONE of the passengers were yelling or screaming. By mid-night there is a near riot, when the remaining passengers are told they may have to stay over yet another day. Till the time, I got my own ticket re-routed to London Heathrow and then onward to my final destination, no airline official had explained to any of the waiting passengers what was being done – let alone apologize for the inconvenience to the customers. The irony of standing in line reading “The Customer Driven Company” seemed lost to any the crew members.
  • Beyond all these indignities, what stayed with me was the surly nature and utter indifference of the crew even in the normal flight, going out to San Francisco from Paris and on the way back from Chicago to Paris. It made me wonder what is it that makes, an entire crew and later ground staff, in essence a statistically large sample of the organization behave without any semblance of a customer service mindset.

I have been travelling across the Pacific (ANA, Cathay, Malaysian, Singapore, Thai) and the Atlantic (Air India, American, Delta, Lufthansa, United) for more than twenty years. In the last five years, I have travelled a minimum of five times a year internationally and put in my share of hops on Jet Airways, Kingfisher, Ryan Air and Southwest as well. This makes me a reasonable judge of the service levels for air travel. While by no means is poor service the sole prerogative of my (via) Paris trip, surly and inconsiderate cabin crew has been seen on Delta, United and occassionally even on Thai – the French experience was on an altogether new low. A casual browse through the Internet shows that my experiences are by no means unique.

Every airline has problems, often caused by things way out of their control – however, how they respond to it is totally in their control. This is true for every business and in our own lives. Truly successful businesses, Singapore Airlines and Nordstrom jump to mind, lay great emphasis on having a customer service mindset. And this shows how they respond especially when things don’t turn out they way they are supposed to. As someone who has travelled with two kids multiple times across the Pacific, I can personally vouch for what a world of difference a customer service mindset can make even when the kids are sick and throwing up, the TV doesn’s work and your special meal is no where to be found. A graceful smile, an apology, an understanding nod, maybe an extra blanket or pillow go a long way to not only making a passenger comfortable even in adverse circumstances but convert them to a lifelong customer. You’d think this would be simple – alas even good companies that knew how to do it well even on a short haul flight across California (such as AirCal, PSA) lost it when they were acquired by larger airlines and of course the trans-oceanic flight history is littered with its share of horrow stories (can you say TWA)!

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