“service with a smile”

Having both worked in service-oriented jobs for many years, with my husband still in the business, we agree that customer service is a “dying art.” Shopping on the Internet has made it more convenient for consumers to surf the global market for all their needs. An appealing product, savvy marketing and a credit card completes the transaction. There’s no need to interface with a flesh-and-blood person. After all, Google can answer any of your questions. And if you’ve got a hankering for “warm and fuzzy,” click on “smiley face” or download your choice of YouTube videos, to get your endorphins moving.  

Businesses grew by leaps and bounds when consumers had quantities of disposable income. Customer service was unnecessary, so it became a thing of the past. A few retailers, like some purveyors of travel and TV’s QVC, continued their traditional practice of being solicitous towards customers. But some, like E-Bay, Amazon.com, Craig’s List, department stores, supermarkets, drugstores, fast-food chains, medical practitioners and airlines, may have opted to minimize service in favor of quick turnover, with a “get ’em in, get ’em out,” attitude.

With the downturn in the economy, companies are scrambling to win back customers who have fewer dollars to spend. Customer service may be on the rise again. I hope so. It doesn’t cost businesses more to have employees smile, offer a warm greeting, listen with patience, offer options for resolution, and express appreciation for ongoing patronage. However, a company may want to invest in customer service training. Even employees with impeccable manners and the greatest intentions, will meet their match in irate persons. I know, I’ve sat on both sides of the desk.

In my mid-20’s I worked as a customer service agent for the Hawaii Medical Service Association in Honolulu. It represents Blue Cross/Blue Shield in the islands. I had extensive training in the technical aspects of HMSA’s policies so that I could answer policyholder questions. I did so in person, and on the phone. I enjoyed helping people, especially when I could clarify or demystify the finer points of their coverage. Receiving their thanks, and seeing their smiles when they turned to leave, was extremely gratifying. Of course, there were some who were disgruntled with what I had to say. And there were a few who insisted upon speaking with my supervisor, hoping his response would be different. Sometimes a review was scheduled, but often his answer confirmed mine. One particular encounter left me “shaking” in my muumuu (long, Hawaiian dress).

A gentleman from the island of Molokai had called, unhappy with a bill payment. I think it was a hospital claim, probably of a sizeable amount. I explained how the insurance carrier had determined his coverage. Unhappy with the information, I can only imagine how the man’s eyes bulged, his belly heaved, and how difficult it might have been to breathe, as he screamed profanities through the telephone. The tirade continued when I handed the call over to my boss. We were mistaken to think we’d heard the last of the policyholder. Not long after, the huge Hawaiian man  arrived at our offices, having made the flight specifically to address us in person. I gladly introduced him to my supervisor, who withdrew to the privacy of his office, with the angry islander in tow. I think someone from upper management eventually joined the conversation, but I don’t remember the outcome. Needless to say, the experience left me wary.

It’s been awhile since I’ve been the irate customer. However I’ve certainly done my fair share of yelling, I’m sorry to say. But it’s always been when I felt inconsequential, the company having already snagged my business. There was the time we’d refinanced with a bank at a low-interest rate. Because the appraiser hadn’t submitted his report on time, our rate was due to be increased. Not until I spoke with the President’s secretary, shedding tears of frustration, did she resolve the matter in our favor. 

When my 19-year-old daughter’s VISA bill showed an annual $85 fee for fraud protection on a credit limit of $500, I went ballistic! If she didn’t pay the fee, she’d be slapped with a finance charge. And if that kept up, she’d reach her allowed max in no time.  It was ludicrous that a billion dollar corporation would take advantage of a teenager. Unfamiliar with marketing schemes, my daughter thought VISA’s $2 rebate check was a reward for opening a bank account. Cashing the check actually signed her up for credit card protection, as indicated on the back, in fine print. My nonstop tirade failed to move the customer rep until I asked how she’d feel if her teenager had been scammed. The rep agreed to remove the fee, without requesting repayment of the rebate.

Purchasing a used sofa back table in Atlanta for $300, I agreed to pay the dealer another $265 to ship it to my home in Washington state. He shipped with a small, regional carrier because of its comparatively low-cost. When the merchandise arrived in Tacoma, my husband was told that the price had escalated to $600. In speaking with the seller, I learned that the price change had occurred within the shipper’s bureaucracy. The clerk with whom the transaction originated, wrote up the piece as a “sofa bed,” not a “sofa back table.” Sight unseen, the receiving office modified the price accordingly. When we asked that they open the crate to verify that it was a table, not a sofa bed, we were aghast when the amount shot up to $800+. No reason was given, but I surmised the decision was made that the piece was an antique. If I refused to pay the exorbitant price to retrieve my belonging, it could be sold locally for a hefty sum. After phone calls to 3 different offices, I was directed to the company’s corporate offices in Alabama. I wrote a letter describing, in great detail, the events leading up to my outrage. I addressed it to the President of the freight company, copying the President of its parent company, and express mailed both. It was sent on a Saturday, and I followed up with a call on Tuesday. Long story short, the Tacoma branch delivered the table to my husband for the originally quoted price of $261. That didn’t include door-to-door transportation, but it did in my case.

Who wants the grief that accompanies confrontation? Not me, that’s for certain. I’d just as soon turn my back, leaving it to those with hardier constitutions. But as I’ve indicated in my earlier posting, “put a ‘face’ on the ‘unknown,’ ” sometimes I’m integrity gone amuck! As with most people, there’s a “line” which when crossed, Mr. Jekyl steps in for Dr. Hyde. At that point, I become “warrior mom,” battling until my opponent is “face down,” eating dust from under my high-heeled stiletto, specifically removed from moth balls for the occasion. 

In my travel experiences from one end of the country to the other, southerners and Hawaiians exude genuine warmth and hospitality. The tellers at my mother-in-law’s bank welcome her with sunny smiles, and assist patiently with any questions she may raise. I find Southern wait staff gracious in their greetings, and their drawls hold my attention as they enticingly describe the “specials of the day.” What both ethnicities share is a slower paced lifestyle. That seems to translate to great customer service. Of course, as with anything else, there are exceptions to the rule. But I enjoy spending time in those locales, where “getting to know you” and “service with a smile” are more than fanciful sayings. They’re a way of life. 

for amazing customer service, huge hugs…hugmamma.

o’donnell, Palin harbinger?

Christine O’Donnell, the Tea Party’s latest winning candidate for political office is touted as a Sarah Palin look-a-like. Though the resemblance is not exact, it’s pretty close, brunette, attractive, broad smile, friendly demeanor, seemingly approachable, self-described reps for soccer moms around the country. I’m not a teetotaler or a Republican, I usually vote Democrat. But being a woman, I am intrigued by this latest brand of female politician. What member of our gender wouldn’t be. After all, Palin and O’Donnell claim to represent us ordinary people. While my inclination is more toward women like Hilary Clinton and Michelle Obama because of their experiences and views, sitting down to coffee with these two wouldn’t feel natural or comfortable, but neither would I feel comfortable sipping tea with O’Donnell or Palin. 

What I find interesting about the recent turn of political events is how it might affect Palin’s decision to run for president. At coffee one day some time ago, one of the ladies from exercise class pooh-poohed the idea that Palin would ever be considered a serious candidate. I wasn’t so sure; I’m still not. While she may not answer questions in the manner to which we are accustomed, she connects with ordinary people who probably can’t offer glib answers either. I know. I may have a gift for writing, but I can get tongue-tied when speaking, especially when defending an opinion.

My thoughts are that Palin may be using these next couple of years to build a grass-roots political base, from which she’ll launch her candidacy. The Tea Party may be at the forefront of this reality. Obama’s election was probably the catalyst for this seismic political shift to the other extreme. Just as a black, Democratic president captured the imagination of millions, appealing to the emotions of many who cast votes in his favor; Palin is finding fans among those disenchanted with Obama’s perceived expansion of big government. Conservatives underestimated the possibility of a black president; opponents may be too quick in dismissing Palin as a serious contender.

The recent Vanity Fair issue chronicles a behind-the-scenes look, “Sarah Palin, Smears, Lies, and Big Speaking Fees: Inside Sarah Palin, Inc.” by Michael Joseph Gross. In a 40 minute speech in Independence, Missouri, Palin’s unfettered language connected with the audience. “They talk down to us. Especially here in the heartland. Oh, man. They think that, if we were just smart enough, we’d be able to understand their policies. And I so want to tell ’em, and I do tell ’em, Oh, we’re plenty smart, oh yeah–we know what’s goin’ on. And we don’t like what’s goin’ on. And we’re not gonna let them tell us to sit down and shut up.”  Voicing her views as though speaking for them, her listeners “believe she is just like them, and this conviction seems to satisfy their curiosity about the objective facts of her life.” Among others interviewed by journalist Gross was Colleen Cottle, “matriarch of one of Wasilla’s oldest families, and who served on the city council when Palin was mayor. She says she and her husband, Rodney, will pay a price for speaking candidly about Palin. Their son is one of Todd Palin’s best friends. ‘But it is time for people to start telling the truth,’ Colleen says. She describes the frustrations of trying to do city business with a mayor who had no attention span–with Sarah it was always ‘What’s the flavor of the day?’; who was unable to take part meaningfully in conversations about budgets because she ‘does not understand math or accounting–she only knows buzzwords, like ‘balanced budget’; and who clocked out after four hours on most days, delegating her duties to an aide–‘but he’ll never talk to you, because he has a state job and doesn’t want to lose it.’ This type of conversation is repeated so often that Wasilla starts to feel like something from The Twilight Zone or a Shirley Jackson short story–a place populated entirely by abuse survivors.” 

In years past when I was frustrated with how men governed, I’d share my feeling that moms should be in charge. For centuries we have been the primary caretakers, instilling our children with values. But they are not only future citizens, they are literally of our flesh, making their lives more cherished than our own. I surmised that mothers would wield power in the best interests of families, where I felt men reveled in having  power, period. Palin may have altered my thinking.

“Why are you pretending to be something you’re not? That is the question so many Alaskans have asked this year as they’ve watched Sarah Palin travel the nation. According to almost everyone who has ever known her, including those who have seen the darkest of her dark side, Sarah Palin has a great gift for making people feel good about themselves. Her knack for remembering names and faces and the details of her interactions with people–and for seeming to be present to the person in front of her–constitute an extraordinary power of engagement. Now she is using that power in a fundamentally different way. In part she is using it in the service of her own ambitions. …Those who once felt close to Palin have followed her public transformation with a confused range of emotions. The common denominator is sadness. ‘People who loved Sarah Palin are disappointed,’ said one woman in Wasilla, ‘because they found out that Sarah Palin loves Sarah Palin most of all.’ ”

I’ve decided that the best candidate is not determined by gender, but by what I feel he or she can do to improve the plight of our country. I’m sure everyone feels the same way, and so we’ll all vote according to our individual consciences, which is as it should be. But I still wonder what Palin will do in 2012, and if she’ll be a force with which to be reckoned.

tea party wins, foretelling the future?…hugmamma.