Sunday, March 2, 2014

Comically Poor Customer Service

Last week I had a comically poor customer service experience with a major car rental company at Logan Airport. I won’t identify them by name, but let's just call them the Difficult Car Rental Company. It got me to thinking about how service or employee performance problems are so often erroneously tied to “training.”

In my career in the restaurant and corporate education businesses, I've heard the refrains all too often, from customers and managers: “The service sucks because they aren't trained.” “This person doesn't know what they’re doing. Send them to training.” “My team is not on-board with the new program. They need more training.”

In my experience with Difficult, I have a series of encounters with employees, all pointing to major service quality problems. On the surface, most seem like ‘training’ problems, but even cursory speculation reveals them to point to other issues in the workplace. (N.B. – I experienced what is described below as a customer starring in a 23-minute horror show. This blog would not take the place of the analysis that should happen with this place.)

The Situation: Swapping the rental car
I rent a car for my business trip. The windshield wiper fluid squirter isn't working, and the wiper blades are worn out. This won't work for a drive through New England in February, so I arrange to swap this car for another car.

Touchpoint #1: Checking in the car
Francesca checks in the car and seemingly does everything correctly, checking mileage and so forth. I explained that I needed to exchange this car for another. She asks, “Are you a Gold Club Rewards Member?” “No.” “Go up to counter the second floor.” Including the people I dealt with in renting the car originally, this makes about four consecutive employees who have asked me if I was a Gold Club Rewards Member. I'm already weary of typing the name - let's just call it Gold Member for short.
  • Problem: Everyone asks me if I’m a Gold Member,
    but no one invites me to become one. Being reminded over and over again that I’m not a Gold Member plants a mental seed that I’m not getting the best or most efficient service.
  •  Possible Root Cause: Process issue. The Training works: Everyone apparently has it drilled into their head to greet everyone warmly, and before providing any service whatsoever, to ask if they are a Gold Member.
  • Possible Solution: The service process could be redesigned in such a way as to not ostracize non-Gold Members. They should also examine why they ask this question and what affect it has on customers. If they want more people to become Gold Members, then the process should include an
    invitation to become one.
Touchpoint #2: In line at the rental counter
I get to the counter, and there is one agent behind the counter, Janet, serving another customer. I am first in line. A young man, Ted, warmly greets me at the front of the line and asks how he can help me. I explain. “Are you a Gold Member?” “No.” “Well, even though you're not a Gold Member, you can probably go to the Gold desk in the garage." In my head: "Oh, you mean that place the place right next where I dropped off the old car?” Out loud: “Well, there’s only one person ahead of me, so I might as well just wait for him to be done.” “OK.”
  • Problem: If I had known that I could get a new car via the desk in the garage, I would not have had to walk about 150 yards each way to the main rental counter.
  • Possible Root Cause: Policy and Communications. Two employees have two different conceptions of the policy for exchanging a car. Francesca sent me upstairs because I’m not a Gold Member, but apparently, based on Ted’s actions, there are exceptions. 
  • Possible Solution: The company needs to set proper expectations with employees about the policy. It needs to be clear, and everyone needs to know the policy. If there is leeway for exceptions, for
    example if it’s not busy, employees should know that. 
Touch point #3: Still at the rental counter
Five minutes pass. Janet is still with the same customer. Finally Ted says, “I’ll help you. Let me just sign into the terminal here.” He goes around the desk, and after trying two stations, finally gets logged into a terminal. As he is trying to log in, Janet comes over and asks Ted why there isn’t anyone else working the counter
besides her. “Because there isn’t,” Ted replies sharply. It makes me wonder if Ted is a Supervisor or in another role just trying to pitch in and help out. 
  • Problem: Even though there are only two customers present, me and the guy that Janet is helping, service is dreadfully slow, and the employees are stressed out.  
  • Possible Root Cause: Supervision (staffing and scheduling) and system performance. Based on the amount of time that Janet has spent with one customer, either she doesn’t know what she is doing or the system terminals are not performing. Based on his performance, I don’t think that Ted knows how to sign in and perform this transaction. Janet is overwhelmed, and Ted is trying to help. 
  • Possible Solution: If Ted is supposed to perform
    transactions, he needs to be trained to do so. The company also needs to look at the systems. Both Ted and Janet are struggling to get customers processed.
Touchpoint #4: Supervisor to the rescue
As I wait for Ted to sign in, Suzy approaches and warmly greets me. I explain my situation, and her first question is, of course: “Are you a Gold Member?” “No.” She assures me, very nicely, that Ted can help. Minutes pass. Ted gets logged in, and starts the transaction. “Did you put the old car into the spot where you
found it?” “No, I brought it to Returns, like the person on the phone told me to.”

As Ted is trying to assign me a new car in the system, he gets stuck. He calls over Suzy to help. Suzy nudges him out of the way and completes the transaction. Apparently Ted pressed an incorrect button along the way. As Suzy helps me, Ted steps out from behind the counter and begins answering questions for other customers now waiting in line. Suzy completes the transaction.“Thank you for your patience today, Mr. Winter!” It feels like she delivers this line often!
  • Problem: Suzy thinks that Ted knows what he is doing, but apparently he doesn't.
  • Possible root cause: Supervision. Suzy needs to schedule and assign employees based on their capabilities. It wasn't busy at the rental counter, but the employees were still overwhelmed. 
  • Possible Solution: Suzy needs to get a handle on her employees' capabilities and not put them in situations where they look incompetent. Also, as a side note, if Suzy does want to help Ted learn how to do a transaction, she should help him to do the transaction, rather than hip-checking him out of the way in order to do it herself.
Touchpoint #5: Leaving the parking lot
I get to the new car, and I check the wipers. All set. Leaving the parking lot, I need to speak with Tasha, who looks over my paperwork. After warmly greeting me, she asks, “Full tank of gas?” “Yes.” “Have
a great trip!” As with the other employees, she could not have been nicer. I leave the parking lot and immediately head towards the nearby Ted Williams tunnel. Oh no! This car has no EZ Pass transponder, and I have no cash! 15 seconds later I brazenly drive through the EZ Pass lane with no EZ Pass, cursing Difficult to high heaven. Ironically, when I checked out the original car, the employee checking me out of the parking lot asked me if I had my EZ Pass transponder, which I did, but she did not ask me if the gas tank was full, which it was not.
  • Problem: Inconsistency. If the primary purpose of them stopping me on the way out (other than ensuring that I am taking the correct car) is to make sure that I'll all set, then the questions that the employees ask of the customers should be consistent. 
  • Possible root causes: Process design and supervision. Based on the two times I went through this process, different employees check on different things. Apparently, the people who prepare the cars to be rented make a variety of small mistakes, at least one per car! 
  • Possible solution. These interactions should be designed to focus on common problem areas as well as creating peace of mind with the customer. Systems should be put in place to minimize these annoying problems, as well as create a consistent customer experience.
What to make of this?
There you have it: Five touchpoints, five annoying interactions. Let's tally the possible root causes of the problems:
  • Supervision - 3
  • Process - 2
  • System - 1
  • Policy - 1
  • Communications - 1
They have a myriad of problems with their customer service, but training is not the primary root cause of any of them. Training could be part of the solution (e.g., teaching Ted how to use the system for transactions), but training alone will not fix any of Difficult's issues.

Epilogue: Manny
Four days later, I return the car. Jessie, who checks in the car, doesn't greet me warmly, doesn't smile, and doesn't ask me if I'm a Gold Member. Through our interaction he says 4 words: "Hello...yeah...all set." Now I've lost it: This guys needs some damn training!

As I start the lonely walk across the cold parking lot at the end of a week-long business trip, wondering at 10 p.m. if I can find a cab anywhere nearby, a man yells at me from the next aisle over. 

"Hey! Hey!!! You all set?!?!?!" 

I wonder what is going on. Why is this guy yelling at me? Oh, he's wearing a Difficult uniform. "Yeah," I reply, waving my receipt. "The other guy took care of me."

He walks closer. "Where you going? You catching a flight?"

"No. I'm going home."

"You need a ride to the taxi stand?"

"Actually, yes."

Thus begins a very pleasant 5-minute experience with Manny, as he drives me, in the rental car I just returned, to the taxi stand at Terminal A. Manny doesn't follow a script. Manny doesn't ask me if I'm a Gold Member. Manny doesn't even really smile, but he is affable and helpful. We converse easily about the weather, the construction at the airport, and the consequences of driving through a toll booth without an EZ-Pass. I don't think about whether Manny is following a procedure, what his role is, or even if he needs more training. He's just Manny, a guy who makes sure that I'm all taken care of.

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