Thursday, March 29, 2007

The ugly of customer service: A closer look

Now that I've thoroughly laid out my grievances with Delta (aka, complained), let's pick this experience apart a little more using marketing theories and principles so that, at the very least, we can take turn this nightmare into a positive learning experience.

As we saw with the RATER model in my other post, Delta fell flat in every dimension of service quality. There are other factors too that came into play during this service failure. One factor was customer expectations. Customers expect a certain level and quality of service based on a number of factors including their past experiences, needs, promotion messages and promises, their moods, specific circumstances, social context, and so on. Clearly, customers' expectations can be all over the map and it's difficult to make everyone happy all of the time, but service providers have certain responsibilities nevertheless. These responsibilities occur during the 3 phases of purchasing a service: pre-purchase, the service encounter, and post purchase.

First of all, companies need to figure out what their target customers want and expect. It doesn't take a genius to understand that airline passengers want to get to their destinations in a safe and timely manner. Of course, the most successful companies have a deeper understanding of how to please their customers than providing the bare minimum, but that's for another post. During the pre-purchase phase, organizations need to tell customers what to expect. And forget about that under-promising and over-delivering stuff. Companies should give customers a reasonably clear, accurate idea of what to expect before they do business with them. This is exactly what Jet Blue is doing with its Customer Bill of Rights. During the service encounter phase, organizations need to communicate with their customers and make adjustments to the service as the encounter unfolds to make sure expectations are being met. (In fact, one of the nice things about services, as opposed to products, is that they are created in partnership with the customer. Take advantage of this opportunity by asking questions and listening carefully to make sure the end result is the best it can be for both parties). In my experience, this is the stage where Delta began to take a nosedive in customer service. Yes, the captain did make us aware of mechanical trouble and the status of the problem, but he set unrealistic expectations by suggesting that we would get another plane and even keep our same seat assignments. In doing so, he set us passengers up for major disappointment, which will become clearer in a moment when I discuss zones of tolerance. Instead, the captain should have been completely honest with us and explained what the next steps would be, rather than turning us loose to fend for ourselves. Finally, during the post-purchase phase, companies should follow-up with customers and address any dissatisfied people promptly. I never received a letter or call or anything to indicate that Delta has the least bit of concern that I made it home alright. They knew I was on that cancelled flight, that I never took another flight to Richmond, and they have my contact information, but they chose not to use it. Delta utterly failed to manage expectations throughout this experience which only amplified our frustration.

Speaking of dissatisfaction, its worth keeping in mind that people have what's known as a zone of tolerance (ZOT). Basically, the ZOT is the range between a person's idea of adequate levels of service (the bare minimum a person will tolerate) and the desired level (what service a person wants or hopes for). If you're below adequate, you're in trouble. By hinting to us that we'd probably get on another plane and keep our seats, the pilot raised my adequate level of service, thereby shrinking my ZOT and making me all the more upset when my expectations weren't met. There is some wiggle room within ZOT's, which Delta should have recognized. For example, I understand that parts fail and that problems arise from time to time under even the best of circumstances. I would have been much more sympathetic to Delta if the company would have made efforts to tend to my needs and provide alternate means to my destination. Since Delta took no remedial action, I attributed the entire service failure, and directed my anger, to them. (If you’re intrigued by this idea, do some reading on Attribution Theory).

What can we librarians take away from this discussion? First: communicate, communicate, then communicate some more. We need to give patrons our full attention before, during, and after their visit to the library. Second: Set realistic expectations. If you set expectations too high, you're bound to disappoint. If you set them too low in hopes of surpassing them, patrons probably won't find your service appealing to begin with. Just be honest and do the best you can. Patrons will remember your efforts and will cut you some slack if they know you at least gave your best effort. Third: A service isn't over even after it's over. Delta still could have recovered some of my good will by following-up with me after the flight cancellation, but their silence has pretty much cemented my opinion of them as an uncaring, inept organization. I know we can't follow up with every patron but when I have lengthy research consultations, for example, I set a reminder to contact the person a week afterward to check on his/her progress and make sure there are no further questions. Finally, be flexible. So Delta's plane had mechanical problems. What else could they have done? Rented a bus? Helped us find rental cars? Made hotel accommodations on our behalf? Good service providers can think on their feet and adjust the service as need be.

Next time, I'm going to talk about service recovery and what service providers can do to make sure that when things go bad, organizations respond well and fix the problem so it doesn't happen again. I'll conclude on a positive note with my Best Service Experience Ever.

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