Tuesday, November 15, 2011

When Customer Service is Just Explaining Things Away

Sorry about your bad experience! Let me explain to you what happened, and why we are not going to do anything about it!

Customer service is an interesting beast.  As I noted in an earlier posting, in some businesses, it is just better to not bother serving a certain percentage of the population, as they will never be happy, no matter what, and moreover will want a discount or rebate far in excess of any potential profit the company could realize.

So, for example, with Vonage, if you bought the equipment and service and plugged it all in and it wouldn't work - and they couldn't get it to work after some telephone technical support, their only suggestion at that point was to mail it all back in for a full refund.  There was no point in sending out a technician to the home to "fix" a bad Internet connection that probably couldn't be fixed.  And the cost of doing so would exceed years of service revenue.  Yea, you get a few folks browned off this way, but it is cheaper to piss off a few people that to try to make everyone happy and raise everyone's costs accordingly.

And in the Cruise business, this is very true as well.  A lot of people like to play games with the cruise lines, claiming they were unhappy about this and that with their cruise.  Their real goal, in many cases, was to get a discount on their next cruise, a free cruise, or shipboard "credits" on their next cruise.  And for a long time, many cruise lines did this, in the interests of "good customer service" - which of course raised costs for everyone else who didn't complain.

But in one recent case, a couple who complained loud and long about problems with their cruises was asked, politely, to just not come back.  And that is the deal right there.  If you don't like something, why are you going back?  Are you really complaining because you don't like it, or because you want a discount or deal?  If you keep going back to bad service and bad experiences, well, I think the latter is the case.

Myself, I feel the best way to provide "feedback" to a company is not to complain or moan and groan to customer service, but to instead vote with your feet and your pocketbook.  Leave and don't come back.  Take your business elsewhere.  If enough people do this, then they have to listen - or go bankrupt, as happened to GM and Chrysler.  If enough people do not walk away, then perhaps the problem is with you, and not them. 

So myself, I plan on voting with my feet - I am not interested in going on any more sea cruises.  The experience is little more than being trapped in a gaudy shopping mall for a week.  No thanks!  A coupon for a discount won't fix the experience, when the experience was in fact, the problem.

And complaining to customer service, other than to get your bill corrected (something they can do) is pretty pointless.  All they can do is correct your bill, offer a discount or coupon for another cruise, or simply make nice and not do anything, hoping to wear you down until you give up and go away.

In his book Cruise Ship Confidential, Brian Bruns explains this phenomenon.  The staff on the ship can do little to change procedures or really help you out.  So instead of providing customer service, they just try to explain things away.  This is, assuming, they speak English.  It is funny to watch some people on a cruise ship explain their long boring stories to some person from the third world, who nods and says "Yes Sir" when in fact they have no idea what the tourist is blabbering on about.  And oddly enough, in many cases, this works, as most people just want someone to unload on, not necessarily someone to do anything.  But in other cases, the customer service people will try to explain things to you, as if that is the same as fixing the problem.

For example, the fellow in the cabin next to us complained about loud banging noises all night long, particularly at 3:00 and 7:00 AM.  We heard them, too - they sounded like someone slamming aluminum cupboard doors over and over again.   Sounds travel far in a steel hull - and you can hear loud noise from far away that sound like they are in your Stateroom.   Our neighbor called customer service and they even sent someone up at 1:00 in the morning to listen.  He heard the sound and said, "Aaah!  That is the kitchen staff across the corridor cleaning up overnight!" - as if an explanation of the source of the sound was sufficient for our neighbor to get back to sleep.

And the next night, we noticed the slamming was somewhat quieter.  But not for long.  The night after, the noises were back.  We were woken up by it, too, but learned to live with it.  After all, during our last cruise, our stateroom was next to the anchor chain locker, and when they free-fall the anchor at 5:00 AM, well, it literally throws you out of bed.  But our neighbor was a light sleeper and wasn't too happy about the door slamming.

Now, from my perspective, if the cruise line knows the source of the noise, I would think you could train the staff not to slam the doors.  Or perhaps some foam tape on the door edges might dampen the noise.  But rather than actually DO anything about it, they prefer to simply EXPLAIN it instead.  And that is really all they can do, at sea - or at least all they choose to do.  So you learn quickly to stop complaining and just accept things, and when people ask you "Is there ANYTHING I CAN DO to make your cruise experience more satisfactory?" you just give up and say "No, everything is just fine" - because if you mention something at all, you end up just being lectured about what caused the problem and how it was unavoidable, etc. or perhaps that even it was your fault.

And that pretty much was the order of the day, no matter what was going on.  I talked to the IT guy at a party one night, and mentioned how one of the touch screens on the elevator was showing a Windows error message (always a little disturbing on an elevator.  Let's hope Otis is not using Windows for the elevator O/S, or we'll all crash!).  His reaction was, "Well, what can you do?  You know how Windows is...."

And similarly, when our law conference was supposed to be treated to a special lunch and seated by the Executive Chef, and it all went horribly wrong, we were told that nothing could be done, and it was implied that it was our fault for arriving too early (which was not the case, of course).  It was explained, and that was all.

And the list goes on and on, from the complete confusion of "mytime dining" (a nightmare of people pushing and shoving each other out of the way - as in a cattle yard) to the long lines at the customer service desk (which inexplicably, provides multiple lines, instead of a single one.  You chose the wrong line, you can literally be there for hours, while others breeze through a faster line.  Every bank and airline knows about this and buys velvet ropes.  We are told nothing can be done about it, as "Miami" wants separate lines.  An explanation, not a solution).

So you learn to give up and give in and be passive, like cattle, and end up beaten down and depressed.  A cruise can be a very depressing experience, and I noticed a lot of couples being stressed out this way - ending up in arguments.  One fellow, I saw near the fantail, weeping profusely.  I was concerned about him, as a lot of people do get so bummed out that they just jump off the boats - which is a horrible way to die.  Frankly, after three days of the cruise, I was feeling pretty suicidal myself.  I guess I wasn't on the "Funship" or something.

Note that the crew didn't seem much happier.  Most were stony faced and looked exhausted and tired.  The few "happy" crew members were putting on that forced sort of happy-face that employees at theme parks use.  "Are we all having FUN FUN FUN here?" they chirp, but in their eye, you can see them saying, "Someone, oh God, just shoot me and put me out of my misery!"

Anyway, that night, after hearing my neighbor's story, and after being woken up again at 3:00 with the slamming, I fell back to sleep and had a dream about cruise line customer service.

We were in the dining room and the waiter had spilled an entire bowl of hot soup in my lap.  I asked to see the headwaiter.  The conversation went as follows....

HEADWAITER:  Is there a problem here?

ME:  Yes, the waiter spilled a bowl of hot soup in my lap.

HEADWAITER:  Ah, yes, I see.  The problem is, you understand, the law of gravity. In 1687, English mathematician Sir Isaac Newton published Principia, in which he described the inverse-square law of gravity, which is a natural phenomenon by which physical bodies attract with a force proportional to their mass.  Gravitation is most familiar as the agent that gives weight to objects with mass and causes them to fall to the ground when dropped.

ME:  Huh?

HEADWAITER:  So you see, when the waiter spilled the soup, it was attracted downward by the law of gravity, toward the center of the earth.  You lap, being in the way, interrupted the path of the soup.  And that is why you have soup in your lap.  Are there any other questions?

ME:  Uh, I guess not.  But my pants are all stained, now.

HEADWAITER:  Ah, yes.  The process of staining is caused where the staining substance is spilled out onto the surface or material and is trapped in the fibers, pores, indentations or other capillary structure of that surface. The material that is trapped coats the underlying material, and the stain reflects back light according to its own color. Applying paint, spilled food, and wood stains are of this nature.  Hence, when the soup landed in your lap, it stained your pants.  Any other questions?

ME:  Well, uh, gee, now that you put it that way, I guess not.  But the soup was hot, and I think I burned my crotch.

HEADWAITER:  So unfortunate!  However, you are aware that a burn is a type of injury to flesh caused by heat, electricity, chemicals, light, radiation or friction - in this case, heat from the soup, which is searing your flesh, causing pain.  Most burns affect only the skin (epidermal tissue and dermis).  Rarely, deeper tissues, such as blood vessels can also be injured.  Burns may be treated with first aid, in an out-of-hospital setting, or may require more specialized treatment such as those available at specialized burn centers.  Are there any other questions?

ME:  Gee, I guess not.  I'm really sorry to have wasted your time.

HEADWAITER:  Not at all!  It is my job to explain these things!  If there is anything at all I can do - anything - please do not hesitate to contact me!  I will do everything in my power, which alas, is not much, to make it right.

ME:  Thank You!

At that point, I woke up in a cold sweat.  It was 7:00 AM and they kitchen staff was slamming their doors again.  I tried to go back to sleep.  Only four more days before we could get off this thing!   It was like spending a week in jail.

* * * 

The thing I take away from all of this is something very simple and elementary.  If you don't want to be disappointed with customer service, simply don't consume - or consume as little as possible.  You will never be bitterly disappointed in a cruise you do not take.  You will not feel outraged over the "Lemon" car you bought, if you do not buy one.  And in most cases, that is the ultimate customer service issue - people feel that they paid a lot of money and are now regretting doing so.

The one way to avoid this problem is to simply consume less, spend less, and thus not have your expectations shattered.

For example, people buy a brand new BMW and spend $70,000 or more on it.  When the warranty expires, it breaks down and they get upset.  Not because it broke down, per se (all cars break down) but because they spent more than they should have on a car, and now they feel gypped in the deal.  After all, their neighbor's $25,000 Camry is far more reliable.

On the other hand, if you buy a used car and get a good deal on it, your expectations are far less, and you don't feel so put upon when it breaks down - after all, you paid less than half the price of the car when new, right?  So you feel you got a bargain, and are getting away with something.

Customer service will rarely "make right" an underlying bad bargain.  They can correct billing errors and that's about it.  The hassle and the stress of trying to make right a bad bargain is not worth it.  And since you've already made the bargain, the customer service people are loathe to alter it.  They will do little more than explain away the problem.