Paul Tholen - pride really does count

PUBLISHED: 22:02 06 February 2012

Business columnist byline picture of Paul Tholen

Business columnist byline picture of Paul Tholen

Archant Norfolk Photographic / James Bass © 2011

I’ve just returned from a trip to the United States and was struck once again by the overall attitude towards customer service there and here. Regular readers of my EDP columns over the years will have probably had their fill of my bleating on about the enormous gap in customer care between North America and the UK. But, oddly enough, I’ll admit to being quite heartened by the experience of having my luggage misplaced on the way to Michigan. As that’s not a phrase you would normally hear from me in such circumstances, let me explain.

It all started at Norwich Airport before sunrise as passengers for the first flights of the day to Amsterdam and Aberdeen assembled for check-in. There were unexpected and slow-moving queues, and it was quickly explained to us by a harassed, yet calm and courteous member of staff that the computer system had failed and that check-ins were being accomplished manually. So members of the team reverted immediately to methods that probably hadn’t been practiced in years and patiently and pleasantly wrote out flight manifest information, boarding passes and luggage tags, including mine which was meant to get my bag from here to a small airport in central Michigan after three flights.

Not surprisingly, our flight to Amsterdam was delayed and, by the time we arrived in Holland, there was little time left for handlers to find luggage identified with hand-written tags and get it to the right aircraft. We have become so used to the efficiency that bar-coding provides that the system struggles a bit when they’re missing. At the gate for the Amsterdam to Detroit leg of the journey, very helpful and empathetic Schiphol staff had already been made aware of the likelihood of the luggage missing the flight and gave reassurance that they would do their utmost to resolve my problem as quickly as possible.

After clearing Customs in Detroit, it soon became apparent that my bag hadn’t made it and I was told to take it up with airport staff at the Tri-City Airport in Saginaw – my final destination. Tri-City’s a bit like Norwich – small and friendly in a rural sort of way and once the multi-tasking woman who saw passengers onto a departing plane had closed the concourse door, she trotted around to attend to my claim for the missing luggage. Within five minutes, she’d obtained all the information she needed from me, given me the relevant reference number and both toll-free telephone number and website for checking on the progress of my claim, told me how to obtain recompense for any necessary out of pocket expenses incurred overnight and assured me that the missing bag would be delivered to my host’s door the following morning. And it was – just like promised.

Customer service is about delivering the promise. But it’s about more than that, too. Done well, it’s also about delivering what students of the service sector describe as ‘enhancers’ – actions that have the potential to delight the customer. The enhancer for me occurred eight days later when I approached the check-in desk at Saginaw for my return flight only to see the same lady who had helped me with the claim process on my arrival. Before I even got to the desk, she greeted me by name, asked how my visit had gone and had boarding passes and luggage tags booked all the way through to Norwich (their computers were working...) in my hand within seconds. Whilst the process is fairly standard, the personal care with which it was handled made all the difference and encouraged me to provide glowing feedback to the airline concerned (it was Delta) when they surveyed me after my return.

Pride is a word used frequently by organisations who want to congratulate themselves for some achievement or other. To me, though, it stands for Personal Responsibility In Delivering Excellence and is what the players in my delayed luggage story all displayed. Each person who helped along the way made the potentially stressful and annoying situation much less bothersome and the personal touch at the end made the service experience a truly excellent one. In this context, pride really does count.

Paul Tholen is Managing Director of Visiontheme Business Mentoring.

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