Third-to-last

IMG_3607I mentioned here recently how my social media comment about an employee’s neck-rolling at another person buying gas at St. Christopher’s service station on Wrightson Road prompted a robust customer service response from management. What I hadn’t realised was that the prompt response I received on Facebook came from the company chairman himself. I shared the link to the earlier column with the station manager, lamenting that my plaudits were buried amid writing that was otherwise about so much gloom and violence.

It is the small things that matter in this country, they wrote back—the precise point the column was trying to make.

Screen Shot 2017-07-14 at 14.38.56 PMMy gas station experience isn’t the only example of redemptive customer attention I can easily recall. When I complained that an impatient stockyard employee at Doc’s Hardware in Diego Martin had called me a body part with the receiver still up, his manager refunded my order with its delivery. It’s a two way street, too. There’s the supervisor at bMobile West Mall who shepherded my full refund for a service that never worked, about whom I effused I effused in a casual conversation when a friend shared that he was working in administration at the company. She greeted me by name outside the North stand at Panorama prelims weeks afterward, introducing herself, and thanking me. A note had been placed in her file.

Nonetheless, I am still called do dramatic performances—like the one I described on the Port in May 2014—at service counters everywhere, and on telephone helplines. These usually include a reference to Trinidad and Tobago’s third-to-last ranking on the customer orientation scale of the most recent Global Competitiveness Index. You’ll find worse customer service only in Chad or Mauritania. Haiti had pushed us up to fourth-to-last place in the 2015-16 report, but dropped out of the Index last year. In 2014-15 we were ahead of six countries.

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Why don’t we care? And—as we turn to people-oriented sectors of the economy to increase that urgent goal of diversification— why isn’t this pitiful performance seizing as much attention as our 38th-placed global ranking on the World Happiness Report?

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There ought to be serious national technical studies with hard-hitting recommendations for improving customer service in T&T. Perhaps there are, buried on a shelf in Camille Robinson-Regis or Paula Gopee-Scoon’s office somewhere.

But I think much of the problem is about two really simple things. Ownership. And problem solving.

A huge aspect of our service delivery—something repeatedly echoed—is that systems just don’t work. And not just in the public sector. It’s also the huge cable company whose customer service team is unable to talk to its service dispatch team.

Another problem is sheer greed: the big supermarket that hides the unfit produce at the bottom of the shrinkwrapped pack.

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Some argue it’s our lack of empathy than enables the cavalier mistreatment we show others who aren’t our contacts. A lack of investment in each other. A satisfied customer who isn’t someone high-ranking is just not something we reward a worker for. On the contrary, they are there to enforce rules, protect assets, safeguard against the customers who are trying to get one over on us.

But we’re still moved to help the old lady or blind man who walks in—it provides us with an opportunity to be powerful by being of service. It’s the self-assertive customer, the one claiming more entitlement to service than her rank deserves, who needs to be taken down a peg or do by footdragging or rule enforcement.

For me, the first simple issue is ownership.

A clear legacy of plantation and past servitude is that in so much of our national worklife people simply warm their chairs or posts unhappily for as few hours as they can. There’s little focus on output or outcomes. Where there is, there’s little focus on quality. There’s little pride in work.

Screen Shot 2017-07-14 at 15.34.22 PMAnother key introit in my service counter and helpline performances, triggered when customer service reps correct my usage of “you” to reference their company—that it wasn’t them who did or said what I just asserted—is to remind them that the company asked them to answer the phone and deal with me, and therefore they are the company. CSR’s just don’t see themselves or their role as having anything to do with being part of a team or a product.

And this links directly to the second simple thing: Hardly anyone seems to see their job as delivering some solution to a problem, some satisfaction, some outcome to a customer. No one wants to troubleshoot. “I can’t” is so often the answer. “Well, dear, do find someone who can.” So, so often I want to lean forward and add, earnestly: “If you can do absolutely nothing for me, why is it that I have been sent to talk to you?”

It sometimes seems companies think the role of customer service is to investigate, then explain, why the company failed to deliver on its promise, and then to pause. No contrition, no redress.

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We have, unfortunately, picked up one North American customer service technique well—the “I’m sorry you feel that way” infuriation. No, I don’t “feel” that way. What I described is a reality, a breakdown, a failure. Not a feeling.

“It is the small things that matter.” A little ownership of job performance—a simple understanding of one’s role as to fix a problem, to render an outcome, to create a satisfied customer. These two small things might catapult us upward in customer orientation.

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