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In this brave new world, customer service seems to have disappeared. 

When Did the Customer Stop Being Right?

I've always believed that things work out better if you are pleasant. But lately I am beginning to wonder if that's really true. In the past week I have had more instances of lost reservations, failed connections and lack of good old-fashioned "follow-through" than anyone would care to imagine. The only thing I can figure is that customer service is no longer a top priority. I'm curious: Am I too nice? Or would I get the same treatment if I were just plain rude? Either way, I wonder: Just when did the customer stop being right?

Case number one. Several months ago I made reservations at one of Richmond's finest hotels for our third wedding anniversary. I provided my credit card number and was graciously given a reservation number. I purchased a package that included a one night's stay, champagne, chocolate truffles, and brunch. Sounds heavenly, doesn't it? Well only if they are actually serving brunch that weekend. Which they are not. I did not find this out until I called to confirm our weekend and make a brunch reservation. I had been told I didn't need to call to confirm, but, out of a strong need for organization, I did anyway. It took a week, five phone calls, no returned messages, and something that can only be described as sheer will on my part to get someone at the hotel to tell me that although they were not serving brunch that weekend, we would receive vouchers to use another weekend. We have yet to receive them.

But I have faith. And a smile and will of steel. No one apologized. No one offered to correct the error. No one acknowledged how rotten it would have been to find out this information once we had arrived at the hotel. Everyone was very pleasant. But no one really seemed to care.

Case number two. For the same weekend, I made dinner reservations at a fine restaurant. I left a message. No one returned my call. I called again. We were not on the book, but were promptly added. I called to confirm, once again out of super-mom organization, and was told that, yes, we were in the book, but that the restaurant would be closed that night for a private party. Information which, I was told, was written directly above my name, time, and phone number. No one called me. The man on the phone apologized and assured me that when my husband and I came to dinner another night he would remember me and "take care of us." Once again, there was no understanding or appreciation for the fact that I could have very well arrived, in my opera dress no less, two hours before the opera with a rumbling stomach (that would be sure to ruin any aria) only to find a locked door. Everyone was very pleasant. But no one really seemed to care.

Case number three. I reserved a rental car on Monday. My car was to be in the shop on Wednesday. I was told I would be picked up at 9 a.m. Wednesday morning. 9, 9:10, 9:15, 9:30 no rental car. I called. No answer. I called. The sound of a fax machine pierced my ear. I called. I was put on hold without ever hearing the sound of a human voice. I called the 800 number and even they could not get an answer from the location. The man on the phone, who works at another Richmond location, agreed to pick me up. It was then 10 a.m. And still I received no word from the original location from which I reserved a car. The man who brought me the car told me that a reservation is no guarantee that there will be a car or someone to bring it. So what is the reservation for? And yet again. Everyone was very pleasant. But no one really seemed to care.

I understand that people make airline and car reservations and then never take the flight or pick up the car. So companies obviously stand to make more money by overbooking. Even my all-time favorite mechanic does it, telling me to bring my car right when they open at 7 a.m. I arrived only to find out that that merely puts me in line with all of the other lemmings. At noon, they still hadn't looked at the car, but they had guaranteed themselves a full day of business.

How about telling the customer:"We have no cars, we are short-staffed, the plane is full, don't drive two hours in the snow to get here an hour and a half early, the restaurant is closed, brunch is not being served, the mechanic's on duty, but it'll be after lunch before he even unlocks your car door." How about an old-fashioned "I'm sorry. This certainly must be inconvenient for you. I am so glad you called to confirm so that my error did not cause you any further trouble"? I'd even settle for "I'm sorry I goofed."

Why do these situations arise? I'm confident that I am not simply a customer-service jinx. And I hate to blame it on the unemployment rate. I know that "good help is hard to find," but this is ridiculous. Maybe it is just yet another growing pain that we as a new "global community" need to work through. Perhaps we have simply become too accustomed to "pressing one," "faxing in" and "dialing up." Our social skills have gotten rusty. Person-to-person interaction has sadly become the exception rather than the rule. But no matter how electronic we get, saying "please," "thank you," and "how can I help you?" would be a wonderful rule.

And kudos to the man or woman who finally rediscovers and operates on this fact — he or she is sure to make a fortune.



Jennifer Bradner is a free-lance writer who lives in Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.
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