Customer care and raw chicken balls – Part 1

Photo by mil8

I made a quick trip to sunny Florida last Friday that started and ended in frigid Rhode Island in just over 16 hours. I was in town for several meetings with existing customers– really digging into my new, customer focused responsibilities. From a business standpoint, the trip was only moderately successful.  But, that 16 hours taught me some important lessons about humanity. It also reinforced my respect for the willingness of our top executives to support my efforts to proactively kickstart the success of our customer base. The two are related. What I’m trying to do is step in and provide a caring, human relationship surrounding the proper implementation of our technology.

An example of how NOT to treat your customers
I generally fly Southwest Airlines from Providence to take advantage of the many direct flights offered to my usual Southern destinations. SWA is lucky to have those direct flights. Otherwise, it would never see my American Express card again.

On numerous SWA flights this year, I’ve marveled at the disrespectfulness of its new boarding policy. Southwest used to issue boarding passes stamped with A, B, or C. Get to the airport early enough, and you’d get an A. Which meant you could stand in the A line and be one of the first to board the plane for open seating. It was a nice idea, but didn’t really work. People were queuing up several hours prior to each flight to secure a good position in the A or B line.

So, SWA came up with a new idea to kill all that grueling standing on line. Boarding passes now get stamped with a letter and a number so you don’t need to stand in line to hold your spot. At boarding time, the gate workers start telling the customers to line up in numeric order as designated by a series of numbered signs on poles lining the entrance to the gate.

Sounds simple. And, maybe it should be. But, it clearly isn’t working. I have never seen this go smoothly. People are confused about where to stand. Strangers are uncomfortable comparing boarding pass numbers. And, they very clearly don’t appreciate being loud-speakered with instructions straight out of a kindergarten fire drill.

Worse, the gate workers are fed up with trying to teach a simple system. You can hear the disdain in their voices. “I know it’s difficult to count to 10, but if you’ll just look at your boarding pass, make sure you number is higher than the person in front of you, and lower than the person in back. Come on people, get it together and we’ll all get out of here on time.”

This system doesn’t work– and after many months of trying to unsuccessfully train the customer, SWA should abandon it. Unfortunately, I would bet they don’t make a change until January 1, 2009.

Personal takeaway: I need to guard against my notions of “easy” when dealing with customers. If my customer isn’t “getting” what I think should be a simple concept, it’s my job to help find a way for them to be successful with a set of steps that more naturally fit their way of thinking… and not be a pompous ass about it.