In continuation of looking at my own experiences for learnings, this post tries to identify a common thread in four different recent experiences. Let me describe them briefly:

  • SOTC: In April, I booked a trip for my parents on SOTC, where the sales guy offered a minimal cancellation fee upto 30 days of departure. Unfortunately, my mother had to undergo an operation, and I asked for a cancellation. It was a nightmare – the guys just didn’t want to settle, and held our passports as ransom. Everyday, they would come up with a different demand (obviously, higher than the promised cancellation fee) and then would back-off when I would agree. The police got involved, but to no avail (apparently, they cant do a thing if you don’t have the passport receipt, which none of these guys give). After weeks of torture, I dug out the CEO’s email id from the internet and wrote him a mail. The matter was resolved in 48 hours. Why could he do what his sales rep couldn’t?
  • Kingfisher: I was returning via a late flight, and on this airport, KF doesn’t have its own lounge but a shared one. The lounge had no food/drinks that were listed on the menu. I went out and bought food. A KF employee noticed this, came up, and took me to a restaurant. The lounge manager was there – the two had a 10 second chat, and served me food from the restaurant. All, unasked for!
  • Amazon: In fact there are too many – my favorite is when a book got double-ordered (don’t know how), and the customer service rep immediately acted to not only provide refund on one of the orders, but also refund international shipping charges on the same. What was the decision support system available to the rep?

I was thinking about these, and I think the common element was to devolve authority to the frontline. Leadership is more and more like herding cats. Customer service organizations are inverted – the layer closest to the customer is the bottom layer, and they have to be able to make decisions correctly and swiftly. Keys to getting it right:

  • Map out exception scenarios: Customer service is all about exception handling. Apply a lot of thought to mapping them out, and how each scenario should be handled for each kind of customer. Apply rules of fairness, but don’t expose yourself to exploitation.
  • Customer service is not about negotiation – provide clear and full authority as close to the customer as possible. Provide full information that the rep needs to provide a great experience.
  • Keep sales and customer service separate – it was obviously hard for the SOTC sales rep to reverse his own sales – perhaps the disincentive on sales front was higher than incentive on customer service front.
  • Treat every new exception as an opportunity to refine the system.
  • Hire smilers – you can’t train people to smile!

Any other experiences and learnings? Does customer service belong to the frontline in your organization?