Adrian Weckler: Real service needs human touch
Few of us are without a customer-support horror story. Ordinary people now have to battle unmanned email addresses, de-listed phone numbers and overworked, demoralised staff whenever they have a problem or query.
The difficulties seem to have multiplied in an age of resourcing cuts and computer automation.
The most recent Ireland Customer Experience Report - which measures over 150 high-profile Irish brands for customer support - found that cutting human resources from customer support often comes with heavy levels of user dissatisfaction.
Its top 10 customer support scores in Ireland went to entities that still have humans as a core response strategy. This list was led by companies such as Irish Credit Unions (1st), An Post (3rd), Peter Mark (6th), Aldi (8th) and Penneys (10th). Worse-performing companies included Ryanair (77th), Ulster Bank (83rd), Aviva (117th) and Liberty Insurance (145th).
I recently came across a pretty stark case.
It happened when I left my phone on an Aer Lingus plane. I realised my stupid mistake the moment I left Dublin Airport. One can hardly be more careless. So I expect no sympathy or expectation for the return of my phone.
Nevertheless, the process of trying to register it as a customer issue with the airline has been fascinating.
It has opened my eyes to how acute the hurdles we face are when dealing with hollowed-out systems where no one is responsible and almost no one is contactable.
In my case, this went so far as the airline telling me that it may take 45 working days (nine whole weeks) to respond to my customer-support email.
Before I outline the dismal experience I had, I should note that Aer Lingus generally scores fairly well in customer satisfaction surveys. It finished 28th (out of over 150 major Irish brands) last year, despite slipping seven places in 12 months. That's quite respectable and well ahead of rivals such as Ryanair.
But no such statistic seems relevant when you're told to wait 45 working days for a response to an email.
Within minutes of realising I'd left the phone behind, I went online to try to find an email address or a number to call on Aer Lingus' website. But there was nothing directly applicable. A 'lost property' section simply looped back to the general 'contact' page, with no specific numbers, email addresses or forms.
Desperate for some sort of contact, I looked for somewhere on the site to register a complaint but only found it through the help of Google (for anyone interested, it's buried under 'Legal' at the bottom of the page).
But when I filled in the form and hit enter, I got an error page. I started again from scratch on another type of computer with the same result.
Back to Google. One chat forum said to try emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. I remembered, too, that I have an airmiles account with its own email avenue. I tried both, pleading with whoever might receive them that they were my last resort.
Twenty-one days later, I've had no response or acknowledgement from either email address.
I then decided to try social media as Aer Lingus, like many retail companies, has an active Twitter account. I tweeted them a query but received no response. (Just prior to writing this column I received a response, asking me to send a 'DM' direct message. At the time of writing, I haven't received a reply to my DM.)
Having no luck with email, the website forms or social media, I decided to do what they didn't want me to do an to call. After being switched around several times, I spoke to a young lady who told me she couldn't see any recovered phone logged in 'the system'.
However, she said that sometimes items left on board are not logged into 'the system' and that the best option might be to turn up at the airport to see if it was there.
Because it's an expensive phone, I decided to do this.
A few days later, I returned to the airport, I was directed to a dark corridor to sit on a bench with three other people chasing up lost luggage. The bench was situated by a door into an office. Every 60 seconds or so, someone with a uniform or a clerk's outfit entered the office. But each one avoided our gaze.
A tall man sitting on the bench knocked on the office door, stuck his head in and asked whether we would be dealt with.
"We're all out here wondering what's going on," he told the five or six people inside the office.
An elderly clerk sitting at an office desk told him that they were all very busy and that they didn't know when we might be seen.
"That's all well and good but I've been waiting on my luggage for almost two weeks," my bench associate said. "Every time I try and see where it is, I'm told to email such and such an address or call such and such a number. But I never get a reply to the emails and the person I'm told to ring never knows anything about lost luggage."
Ushered back out into the corridor, he told me he was stuck wearing his nephew's clothes. "No one wants to deal with us," he said.
Another of the bench-sitters said that he was on holidays from Michigan with his family but that none of their luggage had arrived.
We all sat there for another hour. About 50 staff walked in and out of the office door. None of them spoke, most tried to avoid our gaze.
Eventually, the office door opened and a young security woman told us to enter. We went through a security machine and were led through another corridor and then out a side door which brought us to the main arrivals baggage area. At a counter, I was told that no phone matching my description was there.
"What I'd advise you to do is to call Aer Lingus or fill a form on aerlingus.com to log the query," said the lady behind the desk, apparently unaware of the futility of doing either.
Sunday Indo Business