Monday, May 31, 2010

Beyond "The Customer is Always Right"

Last week I had an errand day where I had the opportunity to check out six counter services and two phone desks. As I walked the blocks between two of them (I had gone to the wrong counter) I pondered again the customer experience. I did not mind being redirected so much, as if I had been given no option at all. Papers in hand, time and energy marshalled for my day, I did not want to hit a wall.

At the City Hall counter (the wrong counter), I was impressed again by the angular architecture, the zebra terazzo floors, the imposing ranks of stairs reaching two stories, all intended to impress and hush. The counter is tucked in behind and to the left. There was just one gentleman ahead of me, shifting gently from foot to foot. As I have become more aware of mobility, I realized he is likely nursing some pains as he waits. He was gently advised that they no longer accept utility payments at that location, and was told where he can go to pay. I imagine his disappointment as he decides his next action. I realized that barriers become critical as mobility becomes an issue.

At my turn, I too find out that I am at the wrong location. The counter clerk helpfully supplies me with a map and describes how to get there. As I make my way out of City Hall, I wonder if administration has reduced counter service there in order to preserve the atmosphere. There's nothing like a long line of sweaty, noisy, impatient petitioners to ruin the classic lines of a building.

So there I am, walking between the buildings, and I ponder again the core needs of the customer. Like I said before, I did not want to hit a wall. I wanted to get my errands done in the time and energy I had. I thought of unreasonable customers I'd seen, who wanted full refunds without a receipt, or other demands outside of what the counter staff could do. They also had come with plans, and were frustrated when they were not met. The counter staff used what skills they had to calm the customer while standing their ground. So is the "customer always right"? Not quite so. If a worker has no recourse to stand their ground in the face of unreasonableness, how can they maintain their dignity and self-respect?

The answer, I believe, is to build a better relationship between petitioner and receiver. Seek to build win-win opportunities (Covey's fourth habit). Foremost on the customer's mind, is if their request is going to be met. They don't want barriers. If there will be one, they at least need to know that they have been heard, and what options are left open to them (where do I go now?). In the face of disappointment, the petitioner may resort to aggression or emotion in order to push their way through (Dinosaur Brains). Bernstein helpfully provides tips to calm the dinosaur and bring the conversation back on a cognitive level. Those tips just happen to be the same as those Covey describes. Which makes me think we are dealing with some fundamentals in human interaction.

The person first needs to be heard, acknowledged. They need a new course of action. But then, once calm has been achieved and the petitioner's core needs are met, follow up on how they can better meet the needs of the service provider, such as bringing the necessary documents. If the encounter is too short, take the lessons learned to improve the next experience.

I believe if counter staff are trained and empowered to create winning opportunities, they can stay strong and confident while providing great service.

P.S. The service counters I visited that day included Alberta Health Services, City Hall, City Planning Department, Scotiabank, Future Shop, and the YMCA. I also spent some time on the phone with the ever energetic Shaw desk service and my Internet Service Provider (ISP).

Christophe Serdakowski graciously gave permission to show off his interior shot of City Hall.