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What Accountants, Lawyers, Doctors and Others Can Learn From Poor Customer Service

I just came across this Inc. magazine article, “8 Customer Service Mistakes to Avoid,” by Jon Gelberg, and while I focus primarily on professional services, I think these mistakes apply to just about any industry or profession. The author writes about these mistakes based on his own experiences during a flight, and worked off of a recent survey of airline customer service conducted by the American Customer Service Index, where United came in last on the list. The type in black represents the author’s comments; the type in red are my observations.

Mistake #1: Go incommunicado.

After an initial delay that was no fault of United’s, we finally boarded the plane nearly an hour late. Then we sat on the runway. And sat. And sat–with very little air conditioning and no word whatsoever from the captain or crew.

What United should have done: Problems happen. It makes far more sense to inform passengers of what is happening instead of leaving them wondering why they aren’t going anywhere.

Couldn’t agree more, so why can’t companies and organizations be more responsive to their customers and clients? This isn’t difficult to do; just be honest with clear, open communications.

Mistake #2: Give a lame excuse.

We finally get word from the cockpit. It seems the delay caused the plan to lose its place in the take-off queue. The captain finally gets on the loud speaker to announce that the problem was a “communication issue.” Working with the tower in Istanbul, he said, was difficult because communications in Istanbul are a bit backwards.

What United should have done: How about a little honesty? Whatever problems United had were not based on backwards or primative conditions in Istanbul. Instanbul is wired up the Wazoo! Every tiny shop and hole-in-the-wall restaurant seemed to have its own Wi-Fi. By the way, Turkey has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. That isn’t the result of primitive communications.

Clients and customers will no longer tolerate excuses such as, “We’ve always done it that way” or “We don’t have the bandwidth to address this or that.” Face it – they’ll take their business elsewhere. I know I would.

Mistake #3: Ignore your customers’ needs.

We finally get into the take-off queue only to find that the fuel indication gauge isn’t working.

After yet another lengthy delay, a repair crew came onto the plane, checked out the problem, and then decided that it wasn’t equipped to fix the problem. We were informed that our flight had been cancelled.

What United should have done: In this case, United did the right thing. Safety first! However, the company surely could have made our wait time a little more pleasant by passing out something more than dry pretzels and tiny cups of water.

I have a very good friend who works in wholesale sales; instead of approaching his customers and asking them what THEY want to buy, he knows, before he ever walks into their store, what he wants to sell them because he did his homework and figured out what they need – often before they need it. Firms and companies should more of this – anticipate needs before it’s too late.

Mistake #4: Ignore your social media accounts.

All of these communications issues could have been helped if United happened to be paying attention to its social media accounts. Throughout this comedy of errors, I tried to reach the United Twitter team to get some help. As you can see from my posts below (and the fact that there was no response from United), either no one was paying attention or no one had a clue about customer service.

hat United should have done: Airlines like JetBlue have thrived in recent years because they embrace social media as a customer service tool. United, are you listening?

I know many professional service firms and companies still don’t have social media because they are afraid or hesitant to jump into it; either they don’t know how to do it or they lack the manpower to properly maintain those accounts. If you are participating in social media, learn how to use the applications properly. If you are not into it yet, start slowly with a Twitter account or perhaps blog or LinkedIn group. You CAN reap tremendous value from social media to build your business, but be patient; it takes time.

Mistake # 5: Fail to send in reinforcements.

After deplaning, we were all sent to pick up our bags and wait for further announcements. As we waited for well over an hour, with absolutely no updates provided, First Class passengers were quietly whisked away to a hotel.

Finally, in a completely disorganized manner, the remaining passengers were directed to three buses heading to three different hotels. Amazingly, there was no record of where anyone was heading. And although my group was assigned to a hotel a mere one kilometer away from the airport, the driver managed to get hopelessly lost.

What United should have done: An airline, or any other business, must have a plan for dealing with crises. There was only one United representative on the ground and he was completely overwhelmed. The disorganization not only angered the passengers, but also made a successful resolution to the problem almost impossible.

The concept here is to be prepared if a crisis comes about. Whether it’s man-made (ID theft) or natural (hurricane, tornado), every firm and organization has to be prepared with a safety-net plan. Don’t put this off!

Mistake #6: Use automated systems when a human being is required.

After hours of waiting for any word on our flight, we receive an email from United announcing we were booked on a flight. Unfortunately it was our cancelled flight from the day before, set to take off the day before the email arrived.

What they should have done: Don’t even get me started.

I’ve talked about this until I’m blue in the face. Remember that thing on your desk called a phone? Notice how I didn’t call it a “telephone,” because chances are you may be using your cell phone in place of a “landline” telephone. Regardless, pick up the phone and be in direct contact with your clients, customers and colleagues. I went round and round just yesterday on email trying to get a list of volunteers from one of my communications’ organizations. After being told that the info was not available and the coordinator had e-mailed people trying to get the info, I had a novel question, “Did you try calling?” No response from the coordinator. Big surprise.

Mistake #7: Don’t offer solutions.

Once we reached out hotel, there was no word from United until late in the night (long after we were asleep), when we were informed that there was no hope for a connecting flight for at least two days. This message offered no specific solution.

What United should have done: Something. Anything. Instead, we were forced to take matters into our own hands and try to book flights back to the U.S. ourselves. No one ever picked up at the local number United provided. We called the the 1-800 number only to be disconnected twice after lengthy conversations. Finally, well after midnight, a snippy, arrogant, and incomprehensible customer service agent announced that my wife and I had been booked on a flight through Munich on the following day. I requested an email confirmation (which, of course, never arrived).

This one really hits home. What are accounting, legal, medical and other professions all about if they are not about providing solutions?

Mistake #8: Fail to go above and beyond to repair relations.

When we arrived at the airport for the flight to Munich, the Lufthansa agent informed me that the United reservations had me flying on Monday and my wife flying on Tuesday. At this point, my wife was in tears and I had sworn never to fly United again.

What United should have done: Obviously, the company should have been competent and attentive. Instead, we were again forced to take matters into our own hands. Back on the 800 number with United, I was informed twice that the problem had been fixed and I should check in with Lufthansa. Twice I checked in and twice I was told… Nein!

Finally, after nearly an hour on the phone, I was told the problem was “really fixed.” This time, the nice Fraulein from Lufthansa gave me the thumbs up.

The connecting flight to Munich went smoothly as did the flight to Newark. Finally: quality service and efficiency.

Back before the merger with United, I remember every Continental flight ended with a voiceover thanking me for flying. “We know you have many choices when it comes to flying. Thank you for choosing Continental.”

Even something as simple as thanking the customer has been lost on United. Mistakes happen. Awful customer service, though, is never acceptable–whether you operate an airline or any other business.

I think this is the best lesson of all. As professionals, we have to do what we can to make sure our clients and customers are 150% satisfied with our work. When was the last time you asked them about your service delivery?

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