This morning I had the opportunity to wait for a barber shop to open, only to have a roommate get a text update about the barber shop being open only in the afternoon, after my scheduled interview, so that I had to go somewhere else. Waiting around gave me the opportunity to think about how I feel about the subject of customer service in general, as well as the role of technology in potentially improving the customer experience. In general, I tend to be a moderately anxious person, but I have tended to use waiting as an opportunity to think and ponder, and that is often a good thing.
As someone who has often gone to restaurants alone, I am used to receiving very poor customer service as a result. Often, though, I use slow customer service to my advantage. I bring books to read , and expect to spend plenty of time there, so I am untroubled by it. When I was an undergraduate at USC, there was a Denny’s just outside of campus that I would go to when I had several hours to kill for studying, and when I wanted food (something that could not be found at the Philosophy library, another favorite studying spot for its quietness) and was okay filling my own drinks. That particular Denny’s, among others (including one in Eustis, Florida, that some friends of mine were familiar with) had been sued for racism for poor customer service. I could have been a witness for the defense in saying that they were not racist; they served everyone slowly. But Denny’s preferred to admit racism, which they were not guilty of, rather than admit their customer service was as poor as it really was. I used the poor customer service of Denny’s to my advantage, since I expected it and was able to deal with it. If I wanted food in a hurry, I went elsewhere.
At times, though, poor customer service in restaurants has been a big problem. As a teenager I went to the Feast of Tabernacles two years in a row in Niagara Falls, staying in Canada at the Continental Inn on Lundy’s Lane (scene of a famous battle where one of my favorite all-time generals, Winfield Scott, played a prominent role as a young man). While eating at the restaurant of my own hotel by myself as a thirteen year old, I received extremely poor customer service, including long waiting times and flat soda (an unpardonable offense to a thirteen year old boy). After the meal was done I wanted to send the restaurant staff a message, so I gave them a $0.27 tip, so that they knew I did not forget to tip them, but that they did not deserve any better after having made me wait 40 minutes to give my order. That is not acceptable; on a morning where I had plenty of time to get ready I ended up having to hurry to church because of how slow the hotel restaurant staff was at receiving and preparing my order. And I have not forgotten that poor customer service to this day.
What is so hard about customer service? I am aware that customers are often fairly demanding, but what is so difficult about smiling and being friendly to others? Today, for example, while I was getting my pre-interview haircut at another place than the one originally planned, my roommate went to a T-Mobile store to get a charger for an AT&T phone. He did that because T-Mobile had a better product, but the staff was extremely unfriendly about it. A customer is a customer; take their money with a smile and make them happy to shop at your store even if they are not part of your plan. Why alienate a potential future customer simply because they are not a present customer? Does no one think about the long-term anymore, or believe that treating others with friendliness is a necessary element of customer service? It’s not that complicated, people.
While sitting in the store waiting for my haircut, I also noticed that this particular store had a free app that showed wait times and allowed people to make appointments on their smart phones. Even though I do not (yet) have a smart phone, I think this is a smart idea. It is also an idea that would make sense in a lot of other businesses. For example, it would make obvious sense for restaurants to have apps (some restaurants, like Chili’s, have already started this) where customers can order their food ahead of time. For time-crunched people in a hurry, this offers a massive convenience. It also makes sense for companies like grocery stores, where people like myself often have regular items that we purchase, having an app that would allow us to pre-order these items and pick them up, perhaps with a small convenience fee and a restocking fee of 10% if those items are not picked up in a couple of hours. The app would be linked to real-time inventory for the store, and would allow time-specific data on purchasing patterns, as well as provide saved customer invitation on customer priorities, allowing a grocery store to give customer-specific recommendations for other items (a la Amazon) and to tailor specials and online advertising for items that a customer is already looking for. This seems like a no-brainer.
I am not the only person greatly intrigued by these possibilities. This morning, as I was browsing online for music charts , I saw a rather thoughtful and stats-based article from one of the music sites where I am subscribed that showed the desire of a certain strand of customers for more targeted news and information from their trusted radio stations, showing ways that radio stations (and their market-minded owners) can increase their profitability in an age of greater fragmentation among media by expanding their reach into more segments. It is rather remarkable the direction one’s thoughts takes when it comes to issues of customer service and making our technology serve our own interests. When the interests of companies and their customers converge, one cannot doubt that solutions will soon come to meet both of those interests, for profit and convenience. I’m in no hurry–those solutions will come quickly enough.