Annals of commerce

Two examples of understanding how to do business so customers come back, and having staff right down to the dirty-fingernails level that also get it. My text for this sermon is Leon Leonwood Bean’s immortal prescription: “A sale is not completed until the customer has worn out the item and is still satisfied.”

I. My In-Sink-Erator hot water dispenser (this is a gadget mounted in and under the countertop that dispenses really hot water, hot enough to make tea) developed a leak from the tank after about a year.  Without the sales slip, and ready for a spat, I called  the toll-free number (i) printed on its label. I got (ii) a gracious CS agent, and told him the story, including the serial number, all wound up to rail about “who keeps sales slips for something like this?”
He said (iii) “the date of manufacture for that was about a year ago, and it has a two-year warranty, so let’s get you a new one.  We have two plans. In plan one, we’ll send a tech to your house to do the work, and we just need to make an appointment.”
Beginning to doubt that I would get to have my argument, but not looking forward to having to stay home for this, I said “what’s the other plan?”
(iv) “We have a do-it-yourself plan, where we send you a new unit and you install it. If you take this option, we’ll also send you a $25 Visa Card.”
“Do I have to send the old one back?”
(v) “No”

Five good decisions in a row, and (vi) this is an especially well-designed item (well, except for the leak), easy to install; it hangs on two screws and has three no-tool connections of three different sizes that cannot be mixed up, and an electrical plug.  The new water dispenser arrived in five days, the Visa card in three, and it took about 90 seconds to install.  I’m having a nice cup of hot tea now.  In-Sink-Erator, in case you forgot the brand name; they also make nice garbage disposalls.

II. On my way to Europe on United Airlines a couple of weeks ago, I spent 20,000 miles to upgrade from business to first class just to try it out. I have a lot of trouble using the miles I’ve accumulated, so this seemed pretty cheap. (It was quite a cushy, comfortable experience but in no way worth what they charge for it if you buy an actual ticket, especially as their new international business class seat is quite sleepable.) At some point I lost a keychain with a flash drive, nail clipper, key and something else deep in the machinery of the very mechanized seat, and two flight attendants and I, poking and peering, couldn’t see it from above or underneath after we arrived. I considered it gone forever. Nothing critical on the flash drive, so not the end of the world.
A day after I arrived, my daughter emailed me that an engineer from United had called, having found the keychain and browsed the flashdrive for contact information. He was quite concerned that I might need it for a presentation wherever I was going.
I called him back and told him when I was returning, and he was waiting for me at the gate with my keys five days later, tool belt, steel-toed shoes and all; I gave him a box of duty free chocolate and extensive thanks, he went off to work on another aircraft, and I’m telling this “United gets one right” story to you. I also sent United a note with his name; I hope they make a proper fuss about him.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

18 thoughts on “Annals of commerce”

  1. Try that United trick the next time you fly in the peanut gallery and let us know how it works out then.

  2. If I drop anything under a Y seat, I just look underneath and pick it up. But I read the guy who found my keys as someone who would try to return a flashdrive he found anywhere — cheap seats, city sidewalk, whatever.

  3. I believe they are the company established by the inventor of the garbage disposal.

  4. It hardly seems fair, given how extraordinarily nice United was to you (though with the extremely important caveat that Ohio Mom makes; I rather think you'd have been lucky to have your problems ignored sympathetically rather than callously if you were travelling in Cattle), but any mention of United's Customer Service must merit a link to United Breaks Guitars, the first of a three-song trilogy about how United broke his very expensive guitar before treating him to a long and soul-crushing claims-denial experience designed to ensure that as many people as possible give up before they can be refused. All three songs are good – but the postscript is from the Wikipedia article on the song:

    Since the incident, Carroll has been in great demand as a speaker on customer service. On one of his trips as a speaker, the aforementioned United Airlines lost his luggage.

  5. Except for the FAs helping me search inside the seat, United wasn't especially nice (or callous) to me. But they deserve credit for having at least one mechanic willing to go to a fair amount of trouble unbidden on a customer's behalf. He knew I was sitting in an F seat; would he have bothered if I were in steerage or business? I think yes, but I can't prove it.

    They did delay a bag once for two days, so I had to buy some clothes, and they paid half of what they cost, which seemed quite reasonable, with not much effort on my part.

    I'm not in any way a fan of United or any other airline's general customer service; it's extremely variable in affect and competence, and the mean is not very high. (For my sins, I'm Premier Executive and God help me, on a path to 1K this year, so I am probably not observing typical service quality.) I also think they generally suck at marketing and product differentiation, but that's for another post.

  6. Great brand, In-Sink-Erator, no question about that. Never had any trouble with my disposal, bought one supposedly rated to be able to grind ham bones into dust. The hot water dispenser packed it in after a year, but I didn't blame them; Water hard enough to scratch diamonds.

  7. Brett Bellmore says:

    "The hot water dispenser packed it in after a year, but I didn’t blame them; Water hard enough to scratch diamonds."

    You too? Except for the fact that Michigan isn't a great place for high-temp solar work, I could set up a solar-powered iron production operation with my water (running the distillation on natural gas would probably not pay for itself). One wash without a water softener turns whites yellow.

  8. Michael, I love your examples; it makes me regret again not writing in to praise a Northwest gate guy back in the mid-90's who handled an evening in Indianapolis with a broken plane (deal with four gates' normal operations, while rescheduling ~100 passengers).

  9. It's good to hear stories about good service. My small business was built on 'no two ways about it service' and no matter how much trouble or expense the payback in custumer loyalty and confidence was unquestionable. When in doubt, bend over backwards for your custumers. It's not only good business but it feels good too!

    Warren Terra: Thanks for that link. United Breaks Guitars is one of the funniest music videos I've ever seen. Good song too. And I got links to the sequals.

  10. The In-Sink-Erator story is an example of customer service, something that is way too often missing in customer service departments. I have worked in customer service for several companies, most recently performing technical support for a cell phone service provider and then for a satellite television company. The emphasis was always : be nice, give irate customers something to appease them, and get rid of them. There was no incentive to actually solve problems, and saving customers, while it makes the company money, takes too much time.

  11. "You too? Except for the fact that Michigan isn’t a great place for high-temp solar work, I could set up a solar-powered iron production operation with my water (running the distillation on natural gas would probably not pay for itself). One wash without a water softener turns whites yellow."

    Heh, we had to pull the jet on our well every couple of years, to chip off hematite iron ore that built up on it, constricting the flow. Never had to worry about an iron deficiency as long as I was drinking that, for sure.

  12. Most businessmen are emotionally consumed with the conviction that their employees and their customers are thieves. It is nice to find an exception, but they are rare. On the other hand, browsing your thumb drive was not acceptable.

  13. Ohio Mom,

    Try that United trick the next time you fly in the peanut gallery and let us know how it works out then.

    I actually doubt that would matter. I think what happened was more the work of a conscientious employee than it was the result of some sort of airline policy. It was luck that this particular engineer was willing to go out of his way to be helpful, rather than just throw the keychain away.

    Customer service in general seems to be something of a crapshoot, but with worse odds than you get in a casino. Sometimes you struggle to even make your problem understood, and sometimes you get someone who figures it out and fixes it easily. There is wild variation. Recently I wanted to make some airline reservations for an only-slightly complex itinerary. (I wanted to stop over in my connection city – something clearly allowed in the fare rules). The online system wouldn't let me do it, and several agents seemed baffled by either the request or the computer system. After probably eight to ten hours of holding and talking and dealing with the website I finally was transferred to an agent who knew what she was doing and made the reservations in a matter of minutes. I did send an effusive email, suggesting she be made president of the company.

    As an added note, I had to renew my car registration about a week ago. For all the imagined horrors of DMV's nationwide, it took about three minutes online. Thinking about the two experiences I was moved to reflect on the knee-jerk comparisons between private and government efficiency.

  14. The cynic in me worries that some companies will then punish the employee for taking too much time/ exceeding the allowed parameters of customer service. I know when someone has really gone out of their way for me, it can actually have cost the company money. Sorry to cast such rain on the parade.

    Companies that have tried exceptionally hard for me, and so I would recommend their services:

    – UPS in New York, big sorting plant on the west side (near the Javits Center?). Staff could not have been more helpful in helping me with postal machine (which I could not understand– in Dungeons & Dragons I rolled 3, 00 (extremely low) percentile on facility with machines). Then, delivering to a rural address in Ontario, the driver could not have been more helpful.

    UPS in UK– despatcher talked me through (me enraged and unruly) a redirect which went very smoothly. I had to calm down and apologize for my behaviour.

    – Fellowes (paper shredder) – I had screwed the thing up (you mean, there is an instruction manual, and you are supposed to oil it? Why, I'd have to read the manual — see D&D machine dexterity above). It was 12 months old, still inside warranty, and they just shipped me a new one

    – HP multifunction printer — started to misbehave, they just shipped spouse a new one. Of course, the question of how to dispose then comes up, and THAT is not an easy one (EU waste disposal rules being what they are).

    – British Airways in Delhi – the same security guard has to stamp your luggage ticket and your personal one (the queues are 50' apart). If he does not, you are not allowed on the plane. Nice little woman in a Sari comes out from BA desk and begs security guard to stamp it. Like all things official in India (and the complete opposite of private sector) he does not give a damn but finally relents to her pleading. I escape the Hell that is Delhi airport.

    – I should add the McDonald's employee in the centre of London's financial district, who served me breakfast at 6.30am before a major presentation, when they had not officially opened

  15. Bernard

    I think the key is that the performance metrics on most jobs now actively disincentivize customer service. People are (banks, phone ocmpanies etc.) either incentivized to sell you more services, or they are on such tight schedules that the delay of helping you puts them further behind.

    You can tell undermanned organizations because people do things like just put down the phone on you if the query is too difficult, or emails are not answered, etc.

    I am having quite an entertaining time with Netgear whilst they refuse to upgrade the firmware for ADSL2. They keep sending me to a website where the patches don't exist in downloadable form. Roll on the Bangalore call centre!

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