Adventures in Customer service

Entertainment Tonight is generally useful as passive noise to pass the time before Jeopardy. However last week I came across a story that kind of struck a chord. It turns out that the comedienne Mo’nique had been thrown off an airline flight, and quite rudely to boot. While they were pontificating on what happened to Mo’nique’s spirit during all this, I guessed that this was probably a United Airlines flight. I honestly should have put money on it.

Whether Mo’nique was really rude to them notwithstanding, I honestly hope United gets what is coming to them.Sara and I ran across their brand of human cattle drive on our way back from California. Since we were going to San Francisco, then getting an international connector back to Vancouver, I thought we would go to the domestic flight desk. When we got there, it was a series of automated terminals with about 1 agent to about 3 terminals. We were supposed to check in with these terminals and have an agent hand us our boarding pass. The first thing that went wrong there was that the terminals had no "back" button, so I accidently only checked my own luggage while Sara’s didn’t go through. Once we were finished checking through, an agent came by and asked us for our passports. All we had were the Birth Certificates that got us into the country in the first place, so the agent said we couldn’t leave the country without our imaginary passports. Hilarity ensued.

We were told to get in line for the special services desk. When we got to the special services desk, an agent yelled at us to get into the international line-up. After a few minutes in that line we were moved back to the domestic desk. All this time we were freaking out, for we not only had to explain our engagement to our parents, but also how we were now stranded in a foreign country. The atmosphere in the line-up was beginning to resemble to fall of Saigon. Passengers were getting on cell phones trying to reschedule flights, an old man jumped the line, demanding that he be let on his flight home. The agent on duty just said "Simmer down", as if he was addressing a colicky toddler. Finally, we got to the international desk, and the agent took one look at our certificates and waved us on our way. And yes, we retrieved Sara’s luggage at the other end.

It seems like the stories surrounding these incidents seem to fault the workers as the companies involved scramble to protect their good names. Having worked in customer service, I’m afraid I have to call shenanigans on that. In these entry-level customer service jobs, there isn’t much room for discretion on the front-line. Scripts are used whenever possible, and if the company messes up, you’re basically left on your own to pick up the slack. I spoke to three different people during my experience at United, and I got the same "Don’t start with me" attitude. It’s an equation of corporate cost-cutting measures coupled with the apathy brought on by the notion that these people are replacable at a moment’s notice.

Coincidentally, I also got a taste of the other end of the spectrum on our journey. Air Canada can get all the government bail-outs it needs if it get me from point A to point B like that. You may have already heard about the fortuitous customs agent. The staff at Disneyland, of course, pulled out all the stops, and I didn’t even tell them that Sara and I were just engaged. The common theme here? Every one of those positions were Union staffed. Unionization may not be the best way for great customer service, but you feel the difference when people are doing their jobs from a place of security instead of a place of competition. How can a person be expected to do their job properly when what they really are doing is trying to hit their service metrics in time for their next performance review?