Monday, December 19, 2011

Is it Possible to Give Without Judgement?

There was a beautiful news story recently about an anonymous donor who went to several K-Mart stores in the U.S. and quietly paid off the layaway accounts of families with young children.  For those of you too young to remember, layaway plans allow customers to choose something they want, have it put aside, and pay for it in weekly installments until it's paid in full. Although they're available year-round, they're most popular at Christmas with parents who want to ensure they can give their kids the toys they ask for, without needing to save up and shop at the last minute.  I recall my parents using layaway plans when I was a kid and I think I even used one to buy a bicycle when I was a teenager.  However, I hadn't heard the term for a while and had just assumed they no longer existed till I read this story.

I enjoyed this story for many reasons.  I loved that the donor found a simple way to have a direct, positive, impact on the lives of the families she helped.  I appreciated that she did it anonymously, without any need for public glory.  I loved the descriptions of the beneficiaries, one of whom (a man with three small children in tow) burst into tears when told his account was paid off.

The story moved me so much that I took to the comments board of The Toronto Star to share my thoughts.  While most comments were positive, I was surprised to find that some posters had reacted negatively to the story.  A few accused K-Mart of staging a "PR stunt" while others expressed sadness and even rage that families who are in financial trouble would spend money they don't have on junk they don't need.  Some felt that the dollar amount attached to the layaway accounts was much more than they would spend on their own kids.  And then there was a general railing against the hyper-consumerism of the modern Christmas season.   As someone who has spent two decades in PR, I am fairly confident that, while K-Mart may have shared the news to boost its profile, it's unlikely they fabricated the whole story out of the ether.  I can also say that in all my years working at and running PR agencies, I have never staged a "PR stunt", but that's another story.

That aside, the other negative sentiments got me wondering if it is possible to give to others without considering why they are in their current predicament and what role, if any, they played in it. I can say with all honesty that this is something I have struggled with for years.  I try to be philanthropic in whatever way I can, but, despite my best efforts to be non-judgemental, I tend to draw a line between people who are responsible for their own issues and people who had the problems thrust upon them.  This translates into heartfelt compassion for victims of a tsunami and indifference for able-bodied, able-minded people on social assistance.  I'm not particularly proud of this, I'm just being honest. Through extended family, I know someone who benefits from one of the many toy drives that take place in the city each Christmas.  Having been a recipient for many years, she now expects her annual delivery of toys for her children and therefore, makes no plans to improve her situation. Friends who have volunteered to deliver toys for needy families, have also told me that they were shocked and hurt by the lack of gratitude and the sense of entitlement they encountered at some of the homes they visited. It begs the question, when we give, is any kind of recognition  required?  A "thank you" is nice but is it mandatory?  And should we feel ripped off if we don't get it?

Getting back to the K-Mart article, I think we can all agree that children are not responsible for the financial situation of their parents, and shouldn't be punished for it.  The way I see it, more-affluent parents have the luxury of keeping Christmas presents to a minimum because it's only one of many gifts they will give their kids throughout the year.  Their children will have swimming lessons and ballet and summer camps, not to mention, parents who have the time and resources to encourage them with their homework and their goals.  Thanks to the work of donors like the woman in the story, many underprivileged kids can wake up to presents under the tree on Christmas Day, even if the rest of the year  is bleak.  So, I for one, applaud this anonymous donor and everyone like her who is able to "give without judgement".

Friday, December 16, 2011

It's not the problem, it's how you deal with it that counts

Many years ago, on one of my first ever business trips, I boarded a non-stop Air Canada flight to Los Angeles. About 90 minutes later, the pilot announced that we would be making an unscheduled landing in Cincinnati and would need to get a connecting flight to LA from there.  As we were herded out of the plane, smiling flight attendants assured us that Air Canada reps were waiting in the airport to usher us to our new planes.  Some of the more seasoned travelers rolled their eyes but as I was still unjaded, I marched down the jetway and was completely surprised when in fact, there were no Air Canada reps waiting for us. We wandered around till we found the Air Canada service counter only to find that the befuddled staff had no idea who we were or why we were expecting to be put on planes to LA free of charge.  This was just the first of many air travel disruptions that have left me feeling in the dark, out of the loop and completely alone.  The most recent was a four-hour delay on the tarmac in Paris with half a cup of water and only the briefest, most vague information on what was going on.  But this is not a post about air travel, and it's not even a post about Air Canada.  I have been treated like garbage, ignored, lied to and left alone by many large airlines.

This is about a customer service experience I had with train travel.  I go to Montreal on business a few times a year and always travel by train.  With VIA Rail's first class service, I don't have to arrive at the station until 15 minutes before my train leaves, the staff are pleasant and helpful, there are no security check lines and, I usually have a glass of wine in my hand before the train clears the Greater Toronto Area.  With free Wi-Fi and lots of room to spread out and work, it makes for a relaxing and productive five hours and even though it's a five hour journey, I always arrive refreshed.

I've done this many times and have never had a problem but my luck ran out last week when my east-bound train ran aground west of Kingston.  Less than ten minutes later, the driver came on the loudspeaker to tell us that there was a problem with the engine and the engineer had gone to try to fix it.  I was slightly alarmed but figured it would be resolved soon and went back to my paperwork.  As the engineer tinkered away, the driver communicated with us at least every ten minutes for a half hour until he finally announced, apologizing profusely, that they were unable to restart the engine.  At that point, he said he was communicating with central control about how to get us safely to Montreal and promised he'd be back with details later.  True to his word, he came back on the loudspeaker five minutes later to tell us that we would be transferred onto another eastbound train that was about 20 minutes behind us but, since it was ending its run in Brockville, we would have to continue on to Montreal by bus.  This prompted moans and groans and mumbled profanity from the passengers and at least one panic attack by a woman who was horrified at thought of a prolonged bus ride.  Shortly after, the staff came around to chat with us in person, answer questions, and provide details on when we would actually arrive in Montreal.

20 minutes later, we were on board a second train hurtling towards Brockville.  For logistical reasons, we were downgraded to economy class but staff from the first train came with us and brought drinks and snacks to hand out to everyone.  When we pulled into Brockville, the buses were already waiting and warmed up and while they were a far cry from the first class cabin of the train, they were comfortable, if cramped.  The VIA staff who had been with us since Toronto were also forced to ride on the bus with us and again, they brought bottles of water, snacks, soft drinks and pillows.  They continued to answer our questions and before we got off, they provided complete details about how we could be refunded for our lost time and convenience.  We finally arrived at the Montreal train station at 1 a.m., three and a half hours later than our scheduled arrival time of 9:40 p.m.

So, is it a problem when a transportation company can't fulfill its promise?  Yes!  Was it a huge inconvenience that the first train broke down?  Absolutely!  I had planned to do five hours of work on my train trip and I only got in 90 minutes.  I didn't get to bed until 2 a.m. and was exhausted and disoriented the next day.  But, that said, overall I was impressed with how VIA handled the situation and how different it was from similar experiences with airline travel.  From the start, the staff were honest about the problem and the possible consequences.  They communicated regularly throughout the ordeal and handled angry customers in a way that diffused potential outbursts.  All of the staff members we encountered apologized several times for our troubles and they provided complete details on how we would be reimbursed within hours of the service breakdown.  And while they were on the bus with us for purely logistical reasons (it was their only way of getting home), somehow it softened the situation and made it difficult to continue to complain.

It's been said many times but people are generally willing to forgive any screw-up as long as you take responsibility, apologize appropriately and work to make amends.  In cases like this, the story becomes more about how a crisis is handled, rather than how the actual crisis happened.  I have always been a fan of VIA but despite being inconvenienced, I actually have more respect for the company now than I had before. After all, it's easy for people to be kind and happy when things are going well.  It's how people behave during a crisis that reveals their true character.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Five Most Annoying Customer Service Practices

Last week I was shopping at my local branch of a large Canadian chain store when I heard a commotion coming from the customer service desk.  I looked over just in time to see an employee yelling "why are you giving me a hard time" to a customer who was trying to return something.  Yikes! In a perfect world, customer service transactions would be settled without voices being raised but whatever happened to "the customer is always right"?

I am always dismayed when organizations invest a lot in research and development, manufacture great products, conduct powerful marketing campaigns and then fall down drastically when it comes to customer service. Some companies have horrible reputations based solely on their approach to customer service when their products are actually great.  Some even have websites devoted to how awful they are and are still not spurred to improve the situation.

As someone who believes that companies can benefit from feedback, I am often on the line with customer service representatives.  So, based on my experience, here is my list of the five most annoying customer service practices that have to stop now:

1. Hidden contact info - Customers should not have to hunt through web pages, call directory assistance or do a Google search to find your customer service number.  What are you afraid of?  Put a Customer Service tab on your home page and list the various ways that make it easy for people to get in touch with you.  It should take no more than one click for a customer to find your 1-800 number.

2. Longer than normal wait times - How many times have you heard that "due to a higher-than-normal volume of calls, the customer service department is temporarily experiencing increased wait times"?  If the call volume is genuinely higher than normal, then this message is useful.  However, most of the organizations which use this recording have it playing all the time, which suggests that in fact, call volume and wait times are always high.  To use a Canadian example, every single time I've called Rogers customer service in the past five years, I have heard this message.  Rather misleading don't you think?

3. Advertising to unhappy customers - People don't generally call customer service when everything is going great.  Knowing this, why do companies think it's a good time to advertise to them?  If you're upset because your brand new dishwasher has gone on the fritz, do you really want to hear a recorded loop about the wonderful deals on washing machines?  Or worse still, a suggestion that, instead of staying on the line and talking to a human, you should hang up and go to the website.  If the website offered any assistance, you would have already resolved your issue there.

4. Requesting the same information over and over again - Often, when calling customer service lines, you are asked to provide information in order to get past the first stage of the voice prompt system.  You might be asked to give your phone number, membership number or credit card number.  When you finally have an opportunity to talk to a human, the first thing they do is ask for the same information.  If they're unable to help and need to transfer you to another department, the next person asks you for the same information.  It's a small thing but it just adds fuel to an already volatile situation.

5. Lack of empathy - I know some people disagree with me on this but I don't think customer service representatives have a right to get upset or annoyed when customers are angry.  I used to work on a 1-800 support line for the provincial government and people often phoned in a state of rage.  I didn't take it personally.  I just let them vent for a while and then I tried to help them. Even if I couldn't give them what they wanted, they were usually grateful for the opportunity to get it off their chest.  People call the customer service lines because your organization has let them down in some way.  Getting uppity with them is only going to make things worse.  Yes, it's tough to deal with angry people all day but that is the role and, if you can put aside your own indignance, there's an opportunity to make someone's day.