Customer Service —by Jinny Batterson
During a recent extended trip, I had chances to experience both good and bad customer service—not the everyday gauntlet of exasperating telephone answer services mechanically mouthing “press 1/press 2…”—but live, in-person encounters. Because my husband and I chose not to rent cars in left-driving New Zealand and Australia, we had lots of exposure to busses, shuttle vans, trains, taxis, and ferries. Some of the drivers went well beyond the norm in pointing out landmarks and historic sites. Others seemed to think just getting us from Point A to Point B was enough—given the terrain and infrastructure, sometimes it was. Whatever our earthbound travails, some of our best and worst travel experiences occurred at airline ticket counters.
Several months in advance of this “bucket list” trip, my husband had pre-booked almost all our airline flights. Near our trip’s end, we planned to spend time with an Australian friend whom we hadn’t seen in years. Trying to coordinate our respective schedules, we learned that he had a prearranged trip that would limit our visiting time to three days.
We arrived so early for our four hour international flight to his city that the check-in counter for our airline was not even open yet. We got an unhurried breakfast, then noticed that a substantial line was forming for our airline’s ticketing counters. Figuring that the line-standers might know more that we did, we joined the queue. Nearly two hours later, we finally reached one of three available ticket agents. We presented our paperwork and passports to get our boarding passes. The agent did not make eye contact. He seemed somewhat flustered as he searched his computerized databases for our records. Then he checked a set of printed sheets. Finally, he spoke.
“I’m sorry, but you are not listed anywhere. Are you sure you have a reservation?”
Exercising restraint, my husband politely asked to see the printed sheets.
“Here,” he then pointed for the clerk, “both our names. James and Jinny Batterson.”
The clerk retrieved the sheet, checked his computer screen again, then explained, just barely audibly, ”We had to change planes for that flight. You should have gotten an email. There is no longer enough room for you, so we’ve rebooked you on different flights. You should reach your destination late this evening.”
“Would you please print our revised boarding passes, then?” My husband’s sense of restraint was fraying.
“I’m sorry,” responded the clerk, “but the first leg of your flight is now a domestic one, so you’ll have to go to the domestic terminal to arrange for boarding passes. There’s a free shuttle bus stop just outside the door to your left.”
The passenger behind us intervened. “That shuttle doesn’t run very often. You’d likely do better walking the fifteen minutes or so it will take you to get to the domestic terminal.”
We went outside and walked through the rain to the domestic terminal, where we joined another line. Turned out, our connecting domestic flight was late and also overbooked. No chance to reach Australia until at least the next day. About 6 that evening, we got to the head of the line at the sole customer service desk. The clerk there offered us the choice of either an indirect flight the following evening, or a refund of our ticket price. We accepted the refund offer, deciding to risk finding an earlier alternative flight to give us at least a little time with our friend. Luckily, we found a different airline with a direct flight the next morning.
Our reunion with our friend, though shortened, was wonderful. We then spent several days exploring parts of eastern Australia on our own before our set of flights home—across the Pacific, then across the U.S. on a domestic American carrier to our home airport on the east coast. Arriving at the international terminal in Sydney, we had about two and a half hours to get our boarding passes, clear customs and security, and make it to the plane. When the airline’s ticket counters opened, we were about twentieth in line. With ten or so ticket agents serving economy class customers, we got to an available agent in about five minutes. As soon as she saw our paperwork, she alerted a supervisor, who sent us straight to the customer service desk.
Our hearts sank. Not again! At least the line at the service desk was not long.
“What can I do for you?” the customer service rep asked, smiling at the two of us.
“There seems to be a problem with some of our ticketing,” my husband explained.
“Oh, yes, ‘Batterson,’” the clerk said, looking at the reservation sheet Jim had handed him. “I was looking over your files just before we opened. You’re one of several cases today in which our American partner airline has issued seat assignments, but not yet created boarding passes. If you’ll wait for just a few minutes, I’ll see what I can do to straighten the problem out.”
It took only about ten minutes before the clerk motioned us back, explained that he’d been in email contact with the U.S. airline, then handed us boarding passes and seat assignments for both our international and domestic U.S. flights and sent us on our way.
Now that I’m back home, I’ve gotten sufficiently re-accustomed to the impersonal features of most American customer service that an exception is noteworthy. I belong to a monthly book club that features North Carolina authors. About ten days before this month’s meeting, I realized I did not yet have a copy of this month’s book. Neither did my local library, so I contacted my favorite independent bookshop to see if they stocked the book I needed. Unfortunately, they were temporarily out, but said they could order it quickly and have it available for pick-up at their recently relocated store.
Placing the order online, I mentioned in the comments section that I lived across town from their new location, had limited transportation, and needed the book as soon as practical. Within hours I got an email response from their ordering clerk, saying that the book would arrive at their store within one to five days. Additionally, she offered to drop off the book at my doorstep on her way home from work once it arrived—she lived not far from me. I enthusiastically accepted her offer. As she handed me the book, I thanked her. She replied, “No problem,” then scooted back to her little car and drove off.
I’ve heard it said that no one values good customer service any more, and that, anyway, such service no longer exists. I know differently.