The Amtrak train from New York’s Penn Station to 30th Street Philadelphia burped and lurched and suddenly screeched to a stop in Newark. As passengers wondered what happened, the conductor instructed everyone headed to Philadelphia to get off. He said the train had mechanical problems and we were to wait on the platform for the next train to Philadelphia.
Given it was evening rush hour, when the next train arrived; it was packed without a seat to be found. So like others, I stood for the following one and a half hours. Only, I was wearing high heels that quickly became uncomfortable as I was sandwiched in-between two bouncy rail cars standing shoulder to shoulder with two male strangers whose 24-hour deodorant was apparently on its 25th hour on this muggy summer evening. So, a little unsteady on my feet and staring to feel queasy, I held on hoping for the best.
I get it. Things happen. If not having a seat on a train is the worst that happens, I’m pretty lucky. But given I paid for a seat that I never sat in, I thought it was only right that I request a refund. So when back on steady ground, I called the 800 number I found at the bottom Amtrak’s website. After punching in numerous prompts, the recording informed me that I had a five minute wait but my call was very important to them. So I waited. And waited. And eventually, 33 minutes and 34 seconds later, I hung up.
Then I went back to the website to find the contact us button and hit send to request a refund. A few days later, Amtrak apologized and said they were disappointed there were not enough seats for everyone. Then they said they couldn’t provide a refund but would offer a transportation certificate that was good for one year and that my ‘patronage’ was very important to them.
Only there was a catch. In order to redeem the certificate, I had to call Amtrak’s customer relations department. Here we go again. Ten minutes, 20 minutes, 40 minutes, I was still on hold. Every now and again a recorded voice would assure me that my call was very important. 58 minutes and some seconds later, a real person finally picked up the phone and quickly issued my transportation credit.
But, there was another catch. When I wanted to actually book my next ticket, I had to call back yet again for an agent to book the ticket and apply the credit. So I did, holding on yet again until my so-called important call was answered and the issue was finally resolved.
In today’s time-challenged business environment, it seems as if no one really wants to talk to anyone voice to voice anymore. It’s easier and quicker to dash off an email, leave a voicemail or submit a form than have a real time-consuming conversation. But if you or your business promises people their call or inquiry is important, make sure your actions match your words. If not, what you’re really saying is their call is not that important at all. If it was, they would have already been connected to someone who could help them. And furthermore, your goal would have been to make things as easy as possible for them, not you.
For example, if the wait time is more than five minutes, offer alternative options for the best time for them to call you back or for you to call them. Make sure to follow through.
The same can be said for that annoying exasperating phone call to a credit-card company or bank. After spending five minutes punching in your card number, expiration date and other numeric necessities, when a real person picks up the phone, they ask you to repeat everything you’ve just entered into their system so what’s the point of entering all that information in the first place?
Then there are those automated voices that promise to direct you to the right department if you answer just a few simple questions. Only, like iPhone’s electronic assistant Siri, the voice recognition application doesn’t always understand what you said, asks you to repeat yourself two or three times and when you finally become so exasperated and keep pounding zero to speak to a human, the system frequently directs you to the wrong department.
While technology can improve efficiency, it can also minimize personal interaction which in turn makes us doubt the sincerity of companies and brands if their customer service departments and support systems appear insincere.
The fix is simple. Say what you mean and mean what you say. If you don’t mean it, then don’t say it.