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Bad Service Incites Customer Revolt

by Alf Nucifora

This issue of bad customer service won't leave me in peace. Two reader e-mails that I received this week dramatically prove the point. The first was a copy of a cleverly drafted, 17-page, PowerPoint presentation ("Yours Is A Very Bad Hotel") detailing the abysmally poor service that a team of business travelers received as they were checking in at a Houston property of a prominent national hotel chain. To reprise briefly, our merry band of travelers arrived late for check in only to learn that their guaranteed rooms had been given away. Apparently, Mike, the night clerk, was rude and unhelpful as night clerks quite often are wont to be. In response, and with no other outlet for satisfaction or retribution, the complaining duo drafted a witty but powerful PowerPoint presentation outlining the events, lambasting the hotel chain, vowing never to return and requesting that anybody who receives the PowerPoint presentation pass it along to friends virally. In the rarified world of customer service consulting, TQM, Baldridge Awards, Six Sigma, etc., the PowerPoint presentation has become an underground hit… must-have, must-read. Tens of thousands have passed it on virally. Callers expressing outrage have besieged the Houston hotel and its national headquarters.

The PowerPoint presentation provides the mistreated and the impotent with a powerful means of venting and seeking revenge. Every traveler who has been similarly mishandled will nod in agreement upon viewing the presentation and proceed to pass it on with glee to friends and associates (just as I have done). When it's all over, the actions of one stupid, untrained and ill-suited-to-the-job night clerk will succeed in spreading a powerful negative message to hundreds of thousands of potential customers and, in the process, do irreparable damage to the hotel brand. Ah, the beauty of the Internet.

Another reader writes with undisguised anger of her manhandling at the airport by the security drones whose empathy for the traveler and awareness of the need for customer service is on a par with the best that Stalinist Russia had to offer. She talks of the rudeness, the barking of orders, the ordering off of shoes, the conscientious invasion of body by pat down, in open view, and the overall assault on dignity that $8 hour will buy you in today's marketplace. I can sympathize with the writer. I, too, have had bag contents strewn about for the world to view; ordered to take off my shoes, had tweezers and nail file loudly confiscated with the satisfaction that another threat to society has had his evil intentions thwarted by the just and vigilant, and bodily frisked with the seriousness and intensity that only of an FBI search could match.

The criticism and blame in both cases cannot be leveled solely at the "front counter" employee. They're only as good as they've been trained and motivated. With the exception of a couple of high-end groups, like the Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton Hotels and Leading Hotels of the World, most hotel chains still haven't mastered the elementary process of checking a guest in and out with speed, courtesy and a smile. They say they do, but they don't. And the failure can be traced to two primary causes… inadequate training and lack of an obsessive culture, which loudly proclaims, "the customer comes first."

This airport security fiasco will have to be addressed very quickly. Even though the government has responsibility for establishing the process and hiring the screeners, the airlines must step up to the plate and demand proper treatment for the air traveler on whom they rely. Even at $8 hour, security screeners, irrespective of race, color or creed, can be taught the fundamentals of politeness and customer empathy. Somebody has to take on the role of surrogate for the downtrodden air traveler and that somebody has to be the airlines. Up to this point, airlines have viewed their passengers (at least those not sitting in first class) as cattle to be moved from point A to B with the least bodily injury or psychological bruising. Like prisoners, in restraint, they were to be watered and fed the bare minimum to survive the trip. The airlines must be made to realize that their responsibility encompasses the total travel experience and that includes the time on the plane as well as the task of getting to it. My fondest hope would see the Disney Company take over airport security. Screeners with mouse ears would be a small price to pay for a friendly, speedy transaction.

The lesson for the marketer is a basic one…mess with the customer at your peril. Even as captive consumers, we'll find a way of striking back. We'll attack you virally, demonize your brand and withhold our dollars where we can. As marketers, you're left with two alternatives… drive a stake through our hearts (for that's the only action that will kill our festering need for revenge), or acknowledge the problem and fix it.

Want a copy of the infamous "You're A Very Bad Hotel" presentation? and I'll be happy to pass one on, virally of course.

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