The Future of Customer Service

the-ritz-carlton-cancunThe Ritz-Carlton Cancun

I am in the process of writing a book about customer service. I was worried I’d forgotten everything after my 6 month hiatus, but as I write my ideas down I’ve discovered I haven’t. It’s a great feeling to see my ideas transform into first concepts, then chapters, and hopefully soon a book. One I hope will become reality in 2016.

As part of the process, I’ve been reading other books about customer service. The best I’ve read so far was about the Ritz-Carlton experience. After recently staying at a Four Season’s in Vail, I have seen first-hand the next level of service offered at luxury hotels. Where else does a guy re-fill your full water of glass with ice cubes, just so your drink will stay cool?

One of the things I’ve been doing lately is giving feedback to stores/restaurants to see how they’ll react. Last night though, I didn’t have to give any feedback. I experienced instead a Ritz-Carlton style recovery at Fleming’s Steak House in Livonia, MI.

I’ve had a bad experience before at Fleming’s. On our anniversary a few years back, Rich and I went in for the 3 course prime-rib special. It’s an excellent deal that is now offered on Mondays. You get a salad, prime-rib, side and dessert for the price of your entree any other days of the week.  Imagine our surprise when we arrived at 6pm, only to be told there was no more prime-rib?  Worse yet, the waitress refused to substitute any other entree in its place.

I purposely created a scene as I slammed my menu and vowed I’d never step foot in Fleming’s again. She didn’t care. But the managing partner did. He found out about our experience when I filled out a form on Fleming’s web site. He not only paid for our next meal there (to our surprise) but also said to use the generous gift certificate he already mailed us another time instead. That’s what service recovery is all about. But in today’s age, since my issue was not handled at the point of occurrence, Fleming’s risked me going on social media and blasting them in the interim.

This time I didn’t even have a chance to complain. Fleming’s was running a special in their bar that their happy hour prices, which includes several appetizers, was going on all night. So we arrived around 8:30p, but were told they were out of the only 3 appetizers I was interested in. When I got the waitresses recommended replacement, I didn’t like it. I didn’t make a big deal out of it and said I was okay eating it. So, imagine my surprise when the manager came over and told me how sorry she was. Not only did she bring me a box of truffles, but she also gave us a $25 gift card and said she’d cover our meal. I thought she just meant mine, but when the bill came she also covered Rich’s and 3 drinks we ordered! This time, the wait staff was invested in our satisfaction and went out of their way to involve management to make things right – really, more than right.

Creating a culture of service isn’t easy. But, Fleming’s has gone a long way towards their goal of getting there.

Every year for the kids and my birthday, we always order chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting from Busch’s in Plymouth, MI. As everyone knows, there’s nothing a diabetic wants more than tons of sugar on their birthday. This year Josh’s cake came out lopsided. The bottom layer was not lined up to the top layer, making the cake look caved in on one side. It still tasted delicious, but I decided to write their web site about the issue.

The next day I received a call from the manager, who was not only apologetic but also asked me to come to the store so he could “take care of me”. I told him the cake was great and I’ve calmed down since I sent the feedback, but he still insisted. When I got there he not only gave me a gift card for the cake but he also rounded up the amount $3. Of course- having a perfect cake would have been a  better outcome, but his genuine care for my situation meant something. Busch’s clearly realized that although they were losing money at that moment, they’d gain it back with increased loyalty and brand engagement. Something I think many of us  in the service industry should think more about.

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Cognitive Dissonance – Yes, you have it.

funny-fire-sign-twitterLast week I wrote about 2 separate topics. Convenience friendships and how people have difficulty reconciling conflicting information. As I explained, when you strongly believe something, for example your husband is a wonderful person, you may be unwilling to accept any evidence to the contrary. That’s why friends are often advised not to tell a wife about a cheating spouse. The wife is likely to attack the messenger, thinking he/she has something to gain by lying. This can also translate to work situations and other types of relationships. Let’s say you are the GM at a Marriott and think your management team is the best in the business. If someone came to you and said that your management team was abusive to the housekeeping staff, you may have difficulty reconciling that against your previously held beliefs. You may decide the person making that claim is exaggerating, is mistaken, etc. It’s easier to remove the puzzle piece (the person making the claim) then to change your belief system about your team. That is really what my previous blog post was about.

What is coincidental about my post is that I began reading a new book on Saturday. It happened to mention the phenomenon I was trying to capture. There is actually a name for it, it’s called Cognitive Dissonance. As explained by Jon Ronson, the author of So You’ve Been Publically Shamed, “It feels stressful and painful for us to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time. So to ease the pain, we create illusory ways to justify our contradictory behavior”.  It felt good to know that not only did I understand a truth about human nature but there is actually a name for what I’ve observed.

Ronson’s book focuses on people that have been publically shamed by well-meaning people, who on their own would not engage in this behavior. For example, do you recall Justine Sacco? I have a feeling you won’t remember the name, but you will remember the situation. Justine was the Sr. Director of Corporate Communication at a Media and Internet Company. She sent the following tweet, before boarding her flight from NYC to South Africa.

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

Justine knew that white people are not immune to AIDS. It was meant to be a humorous social commentary, yet she was destroyed by it. You can read more about what happened to Justine at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/magazine/how-one-stupid-tweet-ruined-justine-saccos-life.html?_r=0.

Justine was an unknown person to the twitter universe. She had 170 followers.  Yet, because of this one tweet, people became her judge and jury. They vilified her. It was fun. Reading about Justine’s experience, I was moved by some of the things she said. One of the people credited for making the tweet go viral told Ronson that he had a feeling Justine would be, “fine eventually, if not already”. Justine’s response?

“Well, I’m not fine. I’m really suffering. I had a great career and I loved my job and it was taken away from me and there was a glory in that. Everyone else was very happy about that. I cried my body weight in the first twenty-four hours. It was incredibly traumatic. You don’t sleep. You wake up in the middle of the night forgetting where you are. All of a sudden you don’t know what you are supposed to do. You have no schedule. You’ve got no purpose.”

I have a feeling just as many of us can relate to that, as can relate to jumping on the social media bandwagon.

Are You a Convenience Friend or a Real Friend?

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When you have continual arranged contact with someone, through work or school for example, an illusion of closeness can occur. It takes a lot less effort to be friends with someone who, through their normal activities, interacts with you frequently than it does when interaction takes planning. You will find that many of these relationships, which I will call “convenience friendships”, feel genuine and easy at the time. In many ways, Facebook friends are friends of convenience. After all, what can be easier than pressing “like” or sending a quick note from your phone? It’s when life events happen that the truth becomes painfully obvious, especially when one party is more committed to the relationship than the other. When you really need people there to support you, convenience friends are rarely there. Unless of course, you are standing in front of them, because you both had to be someplace at the same time.

I’ve learned a lot about people over the past year. Not just from personal experience, but also from talking to others and endless amounts of reading. What I’ve learned is that when you are in a position of power, convenience friendships take on new meaning. Some of this is purposeful but it also is the by-product of our culture. A culture where success, money and status are so important, we innately act in certain ways to protect our position. Some of us are better than it at others. Unless you are prepared for this realization, you can misjudge your relationships in these settings and feel much closer to people than you should.

When you have something that’s important to you, for example your employment, status in a social circle, etc., you may find it impossible to reconcile information that conflicts with how you view the world around you. It’s similar to a Detective who decides early in an investigation, “the husband did it”. Information contrary to this theory is ignored, in favor of supporting the preliminary hypothesis. Admitting things were not as you initially perceived is difficult for anyone. If this acceptance challenges your relationships or your work, it is much easier to vilify someone or something than admit you’ve been fooled. No person is the summation of one comment or action. Yet we as a group, often shame those around us or simply ignore them, because doing so is much easier. If life is a puzzle and one piece is difficult to fit, many of us will simply give up on the puzzle. This is especially true of friends of convenience and those that judge without compassion. When you realize this, you begin to accept not all people are guilty, not all things that happen are just and what people tell you may not always be true. The world begins looking like a different place.

What we all need are friends who make time for us, who want to be there to offer support. Even if they have to drive somewhere or take time out of their weekend. I’ve been lucky enough to have a few of these, some near, some far. But I’ve also struggled with disappointment and hurt when convenience friends disappeared from my life. I am sure you have too. The difference is that I now know the difference. Will you?

WE ALL HAVE OUR BATTLES. THIS IS MINE.

fibro strfong

I don’t often write about Fibromyalgia (FMS) because let’s face it, unless you have it, who really wants to read about it? When I was first diagnosed I felt separated from others my age. However, I’ve since learned that just about everyone has their own health issues. Especially now that I’ve aged 6 years! Some of these conditions are far worse than mine and after reading Jane Hawking’s autobiography, I realize Fibromyalgia is tame as far as neurological conditions go.

Considering that 5 million Americans have FMS, I am probably not the only person you know who has it. Nearly 90% of that 5 million are women. You probably already guessed that after watching the Lyrica commercials. I have a love/hate relationship with Lyrica (manufactured by Pfizer). In my case, I didn’t feel any improvement taking it, although studies indicate I should have. I appreciate however, that the drug educates people about FMS. If these commercials were aired when I first was diagnosed (2009) I may have realized what I had years earlier. I thought doctors would think I was a hypochondriac if I said I hurt everywhere, so I always focused on whatever symptom was bothering me the most. For a period of time, I was taking expensive medication for Acid Reflex. I virtually went through my $2000 out-of-pocket requirement within a couple months. When I didn’t improve, the doctor inserted a transmitter temporarily in my esophagus to figure out what was wrong. Perplexed, the doctor told me I didn’t have acid reflex. He hypothesized that instead I had a “hypersensitive esophagus”. It sounded nonsensical. However, when I went to the Cleveland Clinic a year later, the FMS Specialist nodded as I recounted the story. He handed me an article he wrote in a Scientific Journal. It was about hypersensitive esophagus in Fibromyalgia patients. What seemed nonsensical made complete sense after all.

While Lyrica is helping women identify they may have Fibromyalgia (a syndrome that normally takes 5 years to diagnose), it also makes things harder for patients. I say that because when I was working in the corporate world, I’d wince whenever the commercial came on with the woman sitting by a computer. She had a stack of paper work sitting on her desk that she wistfully looks at. She says, “Before Fibromyalgia I was on top of things”. It always concerned me that my abilities would be questioned as a result of this commercial. I’ve long wondered if others in the FMS community share a similar concern.

I also periodically check Google news to see if there is anything new on the research front. It’s been pretty consistent lately. I keep reading that FMS is largely viewed as a chronic pain condition resulting from the brain interpreting pain signals differently than it should. Imagine 2 people listening to TV, clearly it would be TLC in my case. The “normal person” hears it at a level 4 and the FMS patient hears it at a level 12.  Ironically, I am often telling the kids to turn down the TV. The sound in itself can be painful although other times, I don’t notice it at all.

Recently, there were a few interesting articles about hyperbaric chambers being helpful in treating FMS pain. Of course, it’s not covered by insurance and the expense is prohibitive for most. But, I am hopeful additional studies will prove its usefulness and this will be a new option for many of us. You can read more here:

http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0127012

While searching for news, I came across an article that made me say “F___ You” to the computer: http://www.prohealth.com/library/showarticle.cfm?libid=21156

In it, you will read about a woman who basically says since she began aggressively exercising her FMS was cured. I’ve read many times that exercise can improve symptoms; however, I have rarely read that it cures FMS outright. I believe that a) the writer was misdiagnosed b) is exaggerating her recovery for personal gain or c) is an anomaly. Let’s face it, fatigue makes exercising more difficult for FMS patients than the general public. No matter how committed you are, FMS is going to make training harder than it otherwise would. And- the implied “it’s the patient’s fault” message, is what led me to my FU moment. Now that I am not working in Corporate America, I am exercising considerably more. I went from zero activity to walking or biking 30-50 minutes 6-7 days per week. I also lift weights, but they are only 5 pounds. I can only do this in the evening, because earlier in the day I can barely walk across my bedroom. I can’t say I feel any better and I know if I was working, I’d never have the energy. I realize I may feel worse if I didn’t exercise, and I know it has led to other health benefits. But, I could do without articles like this one.  It oversimplifies the problem and the cure.

If you are still with me, this is the message I want to leave with you. People with FMS look fine. They look healthy, young and vibrant. You never know what is going on in someone’s world, whether it is FMS or some other condition. Have patience and understanding even when it seems like a perfectly healthy person just took the handicap seat on the bus. If someone’s work or personality is different, seek to understand and consider they may be having a physical or emotional challenge you don’t yet know about. You owe it to your friends, colleagues and family.