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The Humanity Variable

By Julie King |

Pop quiz: You are the evening desk manager working at a national hotel chain when a husband and wife come to you totally distraught to report that their truck has been stolen from your parking lot. While the husband leaves to check a second time the wife asks to use your phone so that she can call her insurance company. This puts you in an awkward situation, because customers aren't allowed to use the front desk phone.

How do you respond? Do you empathize? Look for a creative solution? Or do you coldly explain that no one is allowed to use your phone?

When this happened just a few days ago to friends of mine the desk manager put the rules first. With little sympathy he explained that customers could not use his phone and pointed out a payphone across the lobby. When the husband returned and complained about their treatment, the manager said that if they were not happy they could bring their concerns to the day manager on the following morning.

As you can imagine, my friends' shock quickly escalated to anger. The potential for a customer services experience that would reflect well on the hotel quickly turned into one that has tarnished the hotel's image irreparably.

Rules are important, especially when running a national organization. Yet customer satisfaction and your company's brand are equally important. Finding a way to establish clear rules while simultaneously providing the freedom needed to work around them in exceptional circumstances can distinguish your brand for the better.

Imagine another possible response.

Expressing great sympathy the desk manager calls over one of the other employees working at the desk. He says that the hotel will do whatever it can to help the couple contact the authorities and insurance company. The manager explains that there had been a string of robberies along Montreal's airport strip and says that unfortunately vehicles were stolen from almost every hotel in the area while the couple was on vacation. He then asks the employee to take the woman to a hotel phone that she can use, to help her call the police, and to get her a hot coffee, tea or snack from the hotel restaurant.

Once the truck was stolen there was really nothing that the hotel or the couple could have done to reverse time and prevent the crime. A remarkable difference in the couple's perception of the hotel could have been made, however, with just a few dollars and a generous show of humanity.

The recognition of someone's humanity and their emotions can be the first positive reaction to a customer problem or complaint. Communication is another important component. Consider a handful of recent customer service experiences and consider which one reflects better on the business involved.

The scenario: A new coffee shop is facing a string of customer complaints about getting the wrong order or badly prepared food. The customers ask for the manager to voice their concerns.

The response: The manager abruptly cuts the customer off as they start to complain and demands "what did you order", ready to hand out new food. She then again interrupts the customer if new food does not resolve the complaint, pushing a $5 booklet of vouchers at the customer while holding up a hand to indicate that she really doesn't have time to listen to the customers' concerns.

The scenario: A retail clerk has a long line of people waiting to be checked out, but it's time for her scheduled lunch.

The response: With no warning the clerk puts up her "cashier closed" sign and walks away, leaving the people at the beginning of her line to move to the end of another long line.

The scenario: A large grocery store consistently mislabeled one of its dessert products, mixing up apple, strawberry and cherry flavourings on a regular basis.

The response: Upon hearing the complaint and learning that this was a repeated problem the person in customer service not only exchanges the product, but she also insists on refunding the cost of the other two instances where the wrong product had been sold ... even though it was not expected. What's more, she is empathetic, explaining how frustrated she would be if this had repeatedly happened to her and promising to ensure the mislabeling problem was resolved.

In each of these situations a recognition - or lack thereof - of the customer's humanity and communication were the key to the customers' experiences, positive or negative.

In the first situation actually taking a minute to listen to the customers' complaints would have greatly improved the image of the coffee shop. In the second situation, by communicating that the line was about to close the clerk would have averted the mutinous response she got from those in line. In the third scenario, with hot competition amongst a cluster of local grocery store, the offer to refund a few dollars turned a negative into a positive, building loyalty in the process.

The cost of a few dollars, a bit of time, some communication and connecting with customers as real people can turn a negative experience into a positive. The cost of an abrupt, rude or uncommunicative response could damage the company's reputation and ultimately cost thousands of dollars in lost business. So the next time you review your business ask yourself this. Do your employees bring an attitude with them to work, or do they understand the art of serving your customers with clear communication and dignity?

Canadian, Eh!

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