Perfect Customer Service Simply Means "It's Being Fixed."

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You know what makes excellent customer service? Apart from listening, caring, and all the other things I talk about? What makes excellent customer service is a company culture that assures the customer knows the problem is being fixed. It doesn’t matter how, or what they’re doing to fix it, but simply “It’s being fixed.”

Exemplary customer service means “It’s being fixed, even when the problem was 100% the customer’s fault.”

Flying home from Vegas to EWR last night on UA1729, we landed and I walked off the plane. Time-check: 10:29pm., Finding my driver, I got into the car and took off my ScotteVest, which felt peculiarly light. I immediately realized why, and my heart stopped: I’d left my MacBook Air and my iPad in the seatback pocket in front of me on the plane. Time-check: 10:49.

You know that feeling of utter panic? That “Oh, crap, my life is in serious trouble?” That was me without my iPad and Air. Even though I back up religiously, and could wipe both machines remotely, this was NOT what I needed on day four of a 21-day business trip. I felt screwed.

I ran back to the terminal at full-speed. Of course, the TSA was closed, and the one person on duty told me I needed a gate-pass to go back to the gate. I ran downstairs to baggage services, where I frantically told the United employee behind the counter what happened. In my head, all I could think was “This was my fault, I’m a moron, and I’m never seeing my computer or iPad again.” 250,000 miles flown per year, and this is the first time I’ve EVER left anything on a plane.

She issued me a gate-pass, and I went back upstairs, through security, and ran to my plane, at gate 122. (I have no idea why every flight that comes into EWR needs to park at furthest possible gate from the entrance, but that’s neither here nor there. Well, actually, it’s there. Way over there. In the back.)

Of course, there was no one there, and the jetway door was locked tight. I had no idea what to do. I was seriously considering crying. I had a speech to give the next day, and was royally screwed. Time-Check: 11:01pm.

A “Mr. Shankman?” jolts me out of my fog of self-pity and stupidity. “Yes?” “Sir, I’m Cynthia Frank with United. I understand you left your laptop on the plane?” “Yes,” I said. “Along with my iPad.”

“Both of them?” She asked. I knew what she was rightfully thinking – “Wow, how are you smart enough to tackle air travel?” But she didn’t say it. Instead, she walked down the jetway to see if my items were still there. She came back a second later – “The plane is locked, sir, but stand by.” (I had no idea you could “lock” plane doors… I imagine some pilot with a Boeing Key-fob – “Beep beep! OK, let’s go!”)

She made a few calls, but no pilots were around to unlock the plane. This, I believe, is where a normal person would have given up. “Sir, you can call this 800-number in the morning and we’ll let you know if anyone finds it.” That, as anyone who has ever lost anything knows, is the kiss of death for your items. If Cynthia did that, it was a guarantee that someone else would have a new laptop and iPad for themselves by morning.

But Cynthia Frank at United didn’t give up. Quite the opposite.

She spotted some cleaners coming off the jetway across the terminal. She bolted full-speed to track them down. Turns out, they were the same cleaners who had been on my flight a half hour or so before. She came back a minute later smiling: “Sir, your laptop and iPad were picked up by the captain and brought to the office. The cleaning crew gave it to him. Let’s go get them.” Time Check: 11:14pm.

The flood of relief can’t even be described. As I sit here and write this from the laptop that I thought for sure was gone forever, I realize a few things:

a) I’ll tell this story forever, because United Airlines went out of their way to help a traveler who’d just made a bonehead move.

b) More importantly than just finding it, Cynthia Frank walked over to me, and she cared. She didn’t judge, she didn’t say “Oh, you’ll have to come back tomorrow.” She went above and beyond. By definition, one employee caused the entire corporation of United Airlines to go above and beyond. Why? Because I got my stuff back. I got my stuff back from United. Think of the alternative – “United didn’t even try to get my stuff back. I hate them.” That would have been standard fare, had Cynthia Frank given up. But she didn’t. And it paid off.

c) This is how companies need to think. Companies need to hire employees who shun the “It’s not my job” mentality, and who do whatever it takes to get the job done, whenever the job needs to be done. If that means working late, so be it. If that means coming in early, so be it. And if that means helping a guy who stupidly left his laptop on the plane because he was busy tweeting about the debates, so be it.

The author with his laptop and iPad, both of which he thought he lost forever

Customer Service has to mean “It’s Being Fixed.” That’s how you turn customers into fans for life, who will do your PR for you, and take your company to the next level.

I know United has been taking a beating since the merger with Continental. But I’m seeing more and more examples of them coming back. It would seem that slowly, CEO Jeff Smisek is really building this “culture” he’s so fond of talking about. I wouldn’t count United out just yet – Quite the opposite, I’d bet quite a bit of money on them.

It doesn’t matter how big your route system is, or how many new 787 Dreamliners you order. Airlines are in the service business, first and foremost. And guess what? So is your company, whatever it does. And whether that means helping someone find their seat, helping someone find their gate, or yes, helping an over-tired public speaker find his laptop, customer service has to come first. Continued stellar customer Service is what will take United back to the heights (no pun intended) they once had.

Your business is no different. Focus on customer service first, and everything else becomes easier. I knew a mechanic who was fixated on lubrication. Every part he serviced, every car he fixed, the key was in the lubrication. He’d sit for hours and make sure every rivet, screw, piston and joint was well lubricated. Why? He believed it didn’t matter how perfect the parts were, if they weren’t lubricated perfectly, the car would eventually fall apart. Same thing with your business. Customer Service has to be your lubrication. Work on stellar customer service, and everything else falls into place just that much easier.

Thoughts? Let me hear them below.

DISCLOSURE: I have no financial relationship with United, they don’t pay me. I’m a very frequent flier on United, but all my statements about them (both good and bad) are completely my own. They have no influence in what I post about them other than providing the service about which I write.

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