The Customer Isn’t Always Right

I gave this jar to my partner as a gift once, because he was responsible for customer complaints.
I gave this jar to my partner as a gift once, because he was responsible for customer complaints.


Back in my uniformed police officer days, I once responded to a call at a home our department had visited many, many times. The calls were always of the neighbor/family/kid trouble kind, and the woman who called was often unreasonable and irrational.

I was walking up the driveway alone, because our department was a small one, and working in a double car – two officers – was rare. As I approached the house, the occupant came out her front door and onto the porch. She pointed her finger at me and yelled, “NO! I want a real cop here!”

I stopped and said, “Ma’am. I am a real police officer. If you don’t want ME here, then I presume you don’t need the services of the police.” She continued yelling that she wanted someone “real”, so I returned to my patrol car. I radioed into the dispatcher that the caller didn’t want my services. Then I left.

You may be able to guess what happened next. The woman had apparently called the station and spoken with a supervisor, and another police officer – a male – was sent to take the call instead.

I was livid.

I thought – and think to this day – that she should have been told that a competent, sworn police officer was available to handle her complaint, that she didn’t have the right to choose on the basis of sex, and that no other officer should have been dispatched.

I was recently reminded of this incident after reading about a Flint, MI hospital that allegedly granted a new father’s request that his baby not be looked after by any African-American nurses, one nurse in particular. There is some dispute about whether the father’s request was actually granted, but one statement from the hospital CEO said, “We regret that our policies were not well enough understood and followed . . .” I don’t think this statement leaves much doubt that the nurse in question was somehow prevented from doing her job for this white baby.

HR writers and thinkers – including me – implore HR to have a larger sense of the business that employs them, including an increased awareness of and attendance to the customers that fund them and their departments. But cases like mine, and the hospital in Flint, should serve as a cautionary tale to be sensible about what the customer is asking the employees to do. HR managers should train their employees to managers to ask one simple question:

 Is the customer’s request reasonable and non-discriminatory to the employee?

If the answer is NO, tell the customer to take a hike.


(Do you have any stories of unreasonable or crazy customer service requests? Share them in the comments.)

My TSA Customer Service Story

My friend Mark Stelzner, an HR consultant, travels a lot for his job. Because he spends so much time in airports, he often posts hilarious – and kind of sad – stories on Facebook about people and their airport behavior. Like this one:

 But one thing I have never seen Mark post about is similar strange and/or obnoxious behavior from TSA agents. Others, like my frequent flyer husband, confirm that while TSA agents may not always be chatty and effervescent, they are generally respectful, well-behaved, and take a lot of crap from members of the flying public who are the real behavioral problems.

So why does the TSA get such a bad rap? When I posted about having a great experience with TSA in Detroit recently, at least one Facebook friend thought I was joking. Others were skeptical. Here’s what happened:

I tried to return to Florida from Detroit with one carry-on bag and one small under-the-seat item, just like the rules say. When my bags went through x-ray, a TSA agent grabbed my carry-on and waited for me to get through the scanner to where he was standing at the end of the conveyor.

“You have 3 jars in your bag. What’s in them?” was his question.

I smiled and said, “Jelly. Preserves.” I said it with a smile because I was absolutely confident that you could bring food through security. After all, my meat processor husband never checks his bag, which often contains odd food items like corned beef, pastrami, or salami. Once he brought 5 pounds of bacon to me in Florida in his carry-on.

But Kevin, the TSA agent, explained to me that jelly, jam, and preserves violated their “no liquids/gels” policy, an idea which had never even occurred to me. Shampoo and toothpaste, yes! I had my little quart bag full of 2-3 ounce containers out and x-rayed. But Michigan sour cherry preserves and cherry butter? Not in my wildest.

The offending items

Kevin apologetically insisted that I had to check my bag. But instead of leaving me to handle the issue on my own,  he walked my bag (and me) back to the front of security, then moved the rope line so I could quickly get to the Delta check-in desk. When I was finished, I just walked back up to the front of security where Kevin was waiting for me. He escorted me back through x-ray and the scanner, pushing me up to the front of all of the lines and staying with me until I cleared security. He was pleasant and professional the entire time.

So why do people complain about the TSA? Because they pat down grandmas and children? If they only patted down Arabic-looking men, wouldn’t they be racist and stereotypical? Wouldn’t you complain if some nut case sacrificed their small child and blew up a plane because TSA never searched kids? Let’s face it, people do scary and awful things to their children sometimes. I’m a grandma, and I have been patted down several times. You know what? I’m still here.

I was breaking the rules, even if it didn’t enter my menopausal brain while I was packing. But when I was called out on my error, I was polite and humble with the TSA agent, and he was extraordinarily kind and accommodating with me.

So the next time you are inclined to TSA-bash, think about that Facebook post at the top of the page, and remember how many thousands of people like this the TSA sees every single day. Then remember my experience with Kevin Goins in Detroit, and wonder if you could possibly do that job any better.

(Thoughts or comments? Want to share a TSA experience? Go for it.)



Customer Service Should Quit Apologizing and Start Fixing



HR people love to write about customer service. I’ve blogged about it before, and so have many others. TLNT blogged just last week about the importance of customer service to the business bottom line, and why ensuring that employees have the proper customer service skills is ultimately the responsibility of HR.

But while HR is quick to discuss how important customer satisfaction is to employee satisfaction, someone else is telling a lot of companies that good customer service means continually and meaninglessly apologizing to the customer.

A couple of weekends ago the power in my house went out for 5 hours during a wind storm in the metro Detroit area. Maybe not exactly a wind storm, because winds were about 16 mph, with gusts up to 40 mph. Call that “medium windy”, at best. It’s not unusual for me to lose  electric power when the weather is windy. Or snowy. Or rainy. Or just about anything, because I lose power all the time.

The next day I received a pre-recorded call from DTE energy. The recorded voice said she “hoped my power was back on”, and apologized for any inconvenience that was caused. Does that mean their company doesn’t even know if they’ve fixed the power, but it’s okay since they apologized?

I don’t even care if they apologize (especially with a pre-recording) for causing me inconvenience, I just want them to fix whatever is causing my power to go out so frequently.

Other companies have the same “tell them you’re sorry and they won’t be unhappy” attitude.

About a month ago I began experiencing difficulties with AT&T U-Verse, after a couple of years of pretty exemplary service. It took several phone calls and 4 different technician visits to finally fix the problem. One of those phone calls took almost an hour, during which time I was placed on hold several times. Each time the customer service rep apologized profusely to me for placing me on hold. Each technician that visited my home was apologetic for the one who came before and for the multiple mistakes that were made. The AT&T employees were exceptionally c0urteous.

Call me crazy, but I don’t think that the multiple apologies from those employees were helpful at all, given the inability of this company to fix a service problem over a month’s time, several phone calls, and several visits to my home. In fact, those apologies are annoying when you have heard them 4, 5, or 6 times without results.

HR, tell your employees to apologize to customers once, and then spend the bulk of their time cheerfully fixing the problem.

Unless your employee sings like Brenda Lee.


Attitude of Entitlement = Poor Customer Service

Daughter Amy as sketched by a Norwegian Cruise Line employee on the back of a bar ticket (circa 1996)

Customer service is an important issue in the Human Resources world.  As succinctly stated by China Gorman, former COO of SHRM, “As business leaders and HR professionals, we all know about the close relationship between employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction.”  In the past week or so, China , Trish McFarlane, Mike VanDervort, and Deidre Honner – exceptional HR bloggers all –  have posted about customer service.

I recently returned from a vacation with a desire to write about the same issue, but from a slightly different perspective.  I want to tell you about genuinely helpful and friendly employees who bent over backwards to service my needs, and I am going to theorize why this type of service is so rare that one is surprised and delighted when it occurs.  Especially because it does not involve Zappos. 😉

I went on a cruise.

For 10 days and nights I was aboard a floating hotel city, where my need for food, drink, sleep, recreation, and entertainment was in the hands of one company and their employees.  For those 10 days, I was surrounded by cruise employees with friendly faces and cheerful greetings.  It did not take the wait staff long to learn that I like iced tea a lot, so when I sat down at a table 3 or 4 glasses of iced tea would instantly appear.  My room steward had the sweetest smile and happiest voice ever.  Her “good morning!” always cheered me, even on the day I had a bad eye infection and was running a fever.  It amazes me that she could display such a consistently positive, upbeat demeanor after cleaning my toilet and shower.  I could bore you to death with other examples.

I have been on well over 20 cruises, so I am not a gushing newbie.  I have found that most cruise line employees try very hard to ensure the customer’s satisfaction, although Regent Seven Seas Cruises (RSSC) (my recent host), did a truly exceptional job in this area.

So why does the cruise industry, and RSSC in particular, excel in the customer service area when so many other companies fail?  The sad answer, in my opinion, is entitlement.  Many US workers feel that they are entitled to jobs, and many US companies feel they are entitled to customers.  That attitude of entitlement causes both employees and companies to forget that they exist to serve their customers, and leads to the online gripes and complaints that they earned.  Remember Dave Carroll and his broken guitar?

Most cruise ship workers come from economically depressed countries where earnings don’t come close to matching the US and other Western countries.  The workers on my recent cruise -and who I interviewed specifically for this blog – came from Romania, Indonesia, Phillipines, Serbia, and India.  They work for cruise ships because they can earn a lot more money than they can in their countries of origin.  They don’t feel the slightest bit entitled to any job.

Cruise companies aren’t entitled to passengers, either.  Only  20% of Americans have ever been on a cruise, and competition for passengers is fierce.  These companies can’t afford to let lousy customer service make them lose a competitive advantage.

I’m not going to talk about other issues with cruise workers – and yes, I know there are many – in this blog.    Whatever the other issues, I am grateful for the RSSC workers who tried so hard to give me a pleasant vacation experience, and wish more companies and their employees would follow that lead.

Weigh in!  Does an attitude of entitlement foster poor customer service?

Enhanced by Zemanta