HARDWICK: Making decisions close to the customer

One of the biggest challenges for big business is establishing policies and procedures for employees who deal directly with customers. The best companies seem to have mastered the concept of “making decisions close to the customer.” My recent experiences with two well- known companies illustrate the challenges of how much authority an employee has when dealing with a customer.

The first experience involved an airline. This particular airline heavily advertises its feature of selling seat upgrades to customers. Seat upgrades are desirable as evidenced by a recent survey by the American Consumer Satisfaction Index. It revealed that passengers are least satisfied with seat comfort and the quality of in-flight services. It also revealed that of 63 industries surveyed, the airline industry’s consumer satisfaction index is near the bottom. In a recent USA Today article Claes Fornell, founder of the index, said that “only subscription TV and Internet service providers have lower levels of customer satisfaction.”

mmIn my case, I purchased what the airline refers to as an “economy upgrade” for $69 for a four-hour late night flight that I was taking. Passengers who sit in this upgrade section get a few more inches of legroom. When I boarded the plane I noticed that my row was no longer part of the upgrade section. This happened because the aircraft had been switched with another aircraft that had a slightly different configuration. No other seats were available. I was not happy, but I understood the situation. The flight attendant assured me that I would receive an automatic credit. I endured the flight, the passenger in the upgraded row in front of me fully reclining her seat my way for the entire flight.

The next day I checked my credit card account online and found that no credit had been “automatically posted.” I called the 800 number for the airline and waited 38 minutes to talk to someone who could barely speak English. As the saga continued, within the next few hours I was told the following:

“There are no refunds for that type upgrade;” “Here is the link to send a complaint to the airline;” “Here is the link to file a request for a refund;” and “I have submitted a request for refund.”

The last one also informed that it may take two billing cycles before it appeared on my credit card statement. So I now eagerly await two months before I find out if I get a refund. You can imagine what I think of this big business when its marketing message tells me that my business is important.

In all fairness, I am impressed with the level of service I often witness by gate agents and in- flight personnel of this airline.

My second experience could not have been more different – and more pleasant. Recently, I purchased a new Macbook Air at my local Apple store. The experience was as good as it gets. The employee was knowledgeable and service was faster than a drive-through restaurant. The next day I learned that Apple announced at its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) that the Macbook Air had been upgraded. Aw shucks. If I had waited only one more day I could have gotten the newer model for the same price.

I called the Apple customer service line. It was answered in less than a moment. Soon I was connected with Joanna — the airline people never told me their names — and told her my situation.

“I hate it when that happens,” she said, and then told me that I should return my computer to the local store for a full refund. She then said that she was sending me the new model immediately, and that there would be no shipping charge. She gave me her email address and telephone number in case I had any more problems.

It is no wonder that Apple is the epitome of customer service.

What these two incidents have in common is that a representative of a big business had an opportunity to make a decision at the time of customer contact. One experience was superb and created customer loyalty, while one was irritating and time-consuming. In the first case, it is inconceivable that the big business’s representative did not have the authority to make a $69 decision.

Big businesses have issues that small businesses do not have. One such issue, as illustrated here, is the development of policies and procedures to help the company’s representatives make decisions close to the customer, i.e. at the time of customer contact.

So how can big business better address this idea of making decisions closer to the customer? Policies and procedures must be clear and cover all possible scenarios. And companies can follow the advice of Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, by getting the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus.

BREAKING NEWS — As this column is being written I just received an email from the airline informing me that my refund request of $69 had been approved. It also let me know that it may take two billing cycles before it appears on my credit card account.

Phil Hardwick is coordinator of capacity development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government. Pease contact Hardwick at phil@philhardwick.com.

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