Travel professionals: stop going the extra mile

It sounds counterintuitive, right? Normally, customers expect that extra effort, and we complain constantly that we don’t get it enough. What we sometimes don’t understand, though, is that the extra effort is at the root of many of the customer service problems we encounter. Going the extra mile at the wrong time can be a disaster.

I remember a case presented at a conference I attended back in 1999 (yeah, it made an impression), when I was a consultant in the hotel industry. Some customer service guru was teaching us how to better serve our clients – which was pretty important, since our clients, the hotels, were in the service business. She discussed with us a bank teller who spent extra time with a customer – going that extra mile” – even though there was a long line waiting. The guru couldn’t summon enough praise for this teller. Even though everybody else was waiting, this teller put forth more than was necessary to make a customer happy.

Almost as soon as the story was over, people in different parts of the audience barked almost in unison, “What about everyone else?” The service aficionado spent several minutes ducking and dodging as a growing number of attendees hurled the lines of “I’d be pissed,” “That’s not good service!” and “Do you really believe that stuff?” She eventually recovered and finished her session, but the discussion at the bar that night was all about whether to please the one at the expense of the many.

Just about everyone has seen this problem from the three perspectives involved. I know I’ve had to serve the idiot, wait in line behind the idiot … and, of course, been the idiot. The last time I was the cause, I inadvertently looked over my shoulder and noticed the line behind me. Immediately, it dawned on me. The person helping me – because of my stupidity – was screwing everybody else.

That’s what prompted me to dig into this issue. I realized that, on occasion, going the extra mile for one customer can alienate many others.

If you’re on the service side of the desk, instead of rushing to help, consider the following criteria before committing plenty of time:

1. Is the problem legitimate?
If the customer/passenger has been wronged somehow, do everything it takes to fix the problem. If this isn’t the case, go to #2.

2. Can the situation reasonably be resolved?
A problem with no solution isn’t worth everyone else’s time. At some point, the madness has to stop.

3. What was the customer’s role in all this?
Is this a situation of the customer’s own creation (e.g., late for a flight)? If so, take this into account. Personal responsibility should be considered.

Speaking of personal responsibility, we have some obligations as customers, too.

1. Admit when you screw up
Don’t try to shift the blame and extract the best outcome reasonably possible. Confess, make it as easy and fast as possible to remedy the problem (that you created) and accept whatever alternative can be supplied.

2. Know when it’s time to quit
Don’t push for the answer you want when it’s clear you won’t get it. When defeat is obvious, move on.

3. Use other resources
Complaining at the airport, for example, is a waste of time after a while. Instead, call customer service, write a letter to the CEO (they are read) or turn to social media. Facebook, Twitter and blogs can be great ways to spread the word. Many companies monitor these environments, and the good ones will respond quickly (props to OGIO and Babies “R” Us).

We all love the thought of doing everything possible to help a customer, but sometimes, it just doesn’t make sense. “Reasonable” can do a lot to keep the lines moving and make everyone much, much happier. The best customer service, from time to time, is as little as possible.

[Photo by Larry Myers via Flickr]