My Experience of Customer Service at the London Olympics

I recently wrote about the Psychological Impact of the Olympic Games and argued that coverage of the Games should emphasize the world uniting in athletic competition as opposed to emphasizing scandals and complaints (such as the media frenzy that erupted about Team USA's uniforms being manufactured in China). The Olympic Games are a unique and inspirational event and this report on the customer service offered to spectators is in no way intended to take away from their meaning and significance. Articles began appearing in the British press months ago questioning London's ability to provide an excellent customer experience at the venues. As a result, my expectations about their customer service were not exceedingly high. I braced myself for long lines at security points and for stressed and harried staff.

I'm happy to report, I braced for naught.

Customer Service in the Olympic Park

As soon as we emerged from the train we were greeted by smiling and friendly volunteers. Their upbeat and positive presence and cheerful willingness to answer any questions made it easy to get to the Olympic Park and find our way once we were inside the park itself. Getting past the security points took all of five minutes and here too the security staff and volunteers were helpful and friendly.

The signage  around London made it easy to get to all the venues. The signage within the park was well placed and included estimates of the number of minutes it would take to reach each venue from the current locale. The food offerings were varied and the eating facilities and bathrooms were clean and regularly maintained. The shops were mobbed but you wouldn't know it from the calm and patient attitude of the staff who remained pleasant and helpful despite the capacity crowds. Even the checkout was efficient and pleasant. In short, every single employee and staff member I saw (and I saw dozens) was friendly, cheerful, and excited.

Customer Service in the Olympic Stadium

Impressed as I was so far, I knew the real test of customer service would come at the end of the sessions (we attended two, a day and night session) when eighty thousand people left the stadium and tens of thousands more exited the other venues around the park. The London Olympic team passed this test too with flying colors. The stadium emptied very quickly and volunteers lined the long route to the train, waving, smiling, and even singing and dancing at times. Their energy and friendliness was remarkable and did not waver.

All in all, Great Britain earns a gold medal for their Olympic customer service and the customer experience they provided. They put on a terrific and efficient Olympics and provided great customer service combined with a terrific customer experience. Along with their successful and impressive medal haul, they have much to be proud of.

Copyright 2012 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

The 5 Most Read Customer Service Articles of 2011

Five articles were read by more readers of this blog than any of the other thirty-something I posted in 2011. Following are the articles, their intros and my thoughts about why they might have been so popular. Also, my thoughts on why the least read article of the year was so…unread. Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments section. The Squeaky Wheel Blog’s Most Read Articles of 2011:

1. The Heavy Metal Price of Bad Customer Service

A few days ago I received an email from Mike, a Cisco customer who had a complaint about the company. His story started innocently enough—he purchased a router that did not work properly out of the box and called Cisco’s technical support hotline to complain. What followed was an unfortunate illustration of why having bad customer service procedures and neglecting the importance of open communication with customers can cost a company’s bottom line.

My Thoughts: This case study was mentioned in at least one high-level Cisco conference as well as a marketing Key Note Address. Mike (whom I’ve never met) wrote a great song, thousands of Youtube views and even a good response (eventually) from Cisco. It’s a happy story all around.

2. Learning Customer Service from the Visually Impaired

“You are about to enter a different kind of darkness—a darkness so pitch black, you will not be able to see a thing. Place your hands on the shoulders of the person in front of you. We will walk slowly. Ready? Now, follow me, I will show you to your table.” So began one of the most interesting and memorable dining experiences I’ve ever had.

My Thoughts: I’m in the dark about why this post did so well (Thank you, I’ll be here all week!). If I had to guess it was because the idea of dining in total darkness has very broad appeal.

3. My Letter to Tony Hsieh

I’ve heard numerous stories about CEOs who are reputed to read every email they receive and have generally taken such claims with a grain of salt (if not many, many grains). But a recent experience with Zappos customer service left a sufficient impression on me that I felt moved to chuck all skepticism aside and write a personal email to Tony Hsieh, Zappos CEO and author of Delivering Happiness. Here is the letter I wrote.

My Thoughts: Who knew that my efforts to get the CEO of Zappos to read my book would turn out to be so popular? Although to be honest, its popularity was probably due to the popularity of Tony Hsieh.

4. Does Your Company Know How to Apologize Correctly?

Most customer service representatives are trained to voice apologies when handling complaint calls but they are rarely trained to do so correctly.

My Thoughts: This post did so well it was even adopted as a White Paper by the good folks at Stella Service (.com). It still amazes me that companies regularly botch something as basic as an apology, but yet those that don’t are still exceedingly rare.

5. The Psychology of Customer Loyalty

Loyal customers are those who feel a strongly held commitment to re-buy or re-patronize a specific product, service or company. They are considered a company’s biggest asset as besides providing repeat business, loyal customers spread positive word of mouth that can be up to twenty times more powerful than regular advertising.

My Thoughts: Here again, it’s shocking how often C level management in large companies ignore basic information about customer loyalty, especially as it pertains to complaint handling.

Least Read Article of 2011:

My Session in the Recording Studio

Last weekend I spent 14 hours in a recording studio taping the audio-book for The Squeaky Wheel. It was my first visit to a recording studio of any kind and as might be expected I was nervous. “You’ll be recording in that booth,” the director said, pointing toward a glass window through which I could make out a broom-closet sized room with a small desk, chair and a microphone. “Won’t the back-up singers feel cramped in there?” I asked jokingly. The director didn’t respond. I turned and saw she already had her earphones on and was busy flipping switches. I decided to ditch my ‘Let’s take it once more from the chorus!” joke I was saving for later.

My Thoughts: Okay, I thought my description of recording the audio version of The Squeaky Wheel was both funny and charming. Readers apparently did not. Most people hope to learn something new when they read a blog and yes, it’s possible my struggle not to burp after taking a lunch break was not sufficiently informative.

Please visit again as there are many more articles to come in 2012!

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

New Study Reveals White Lies about Customer Dissatisfactions Cost Us Money

The squeaky wheel may get the grease but most of us make informed decisions about when to complain about minor customer service infractions and when to muffle our squeaks. A new study now indicates that when consumers tell white lies about customer service dissatisfactions, it often ends up costing them money. Researches Jennifer Argo and Baba Shiv wanted to examine what happens when we tell white lies to gloss over the minor dissatisfactions we encounter as consumers. Although it might seem as though no harm could come from telling a waiter our meal is fine when we don’t love it, or telling a hairdresser we like our new do when in fact we’re not thrilled with it, Argo and Shiv discovered that such is not the case.

One of the places they conducted their research was in restaurants where they surveyed both diners and servers. They found that 85% of diners admitted to telling white lies when their dining experiences were unsatisfactory (i.e., claiming all was well when it wasn’t). However the real interesting finding was that diners who told white lies to cover up their dissatisfactions were then likely to leave bigger tips than those who did not.

Why would diners who were less satisfied with their meals and who lied to their server about it leave an even bigger tip as a result? The researchers propose that cognitive dissonance was at play. Cognitive dissonance refers to situations in which our actions do not match our beliefs, creating a state of psychological and emotional discomfort. We tend to resolve cognitive dissonance by making efforts to align our actions with our beliefs by tinkering with one of them (either the action or the belief). Cognitive dissonance tends to operate unconsciously and not in a premeditated manner.

As to the current study, we all have an acceptable range of dishonesty. When our white lies fall outside that range it can trigger cognitive dissonance as we feel uncomfortable about our dishonesty. We might then try to reduce our cognitive dissonance by engaging in behaviors that actually favor the wrongdoer (as by doing so we ‘make up’ for our dishonesty). As a result, we not only tell the waiter our steak is delicious and then spit it out into our napkin as soon as their back is turned, we then tip them even more for our regurgitation.

Interestingly, 95% of the servers in the study indicated they knew when customers were lying about such things (i.e., saying the food was satisfactory when it wasn’t) and 100% of the servers (none of whom were trained psychologists) believed such lies translated into bigger tips.

In my book The Squeaky Wheel I discuss many instances and give numerous examples of the negative psychological, relationship and financial consequences we encounter by being ineffective complainers. Here is one more to add to that list—we pay more in tips when we fail to speak up about an unsatisfactory dining experience.

As readers of The Squeaky Wheel can attest, learning effective complaining skills benefits us as consumers (financially), benefits us psychologically and emotionally, and benefits our personal and workplace relationships. It also helps reduce our cognitive dissonance in situations of consumer dissatisfaction.

Of course, we could just keep spitting out our steaks into our napkins...

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Reference: Argo, J. & Shiv, B. Are White Lies as Innocuous as We Think? Journal of Consumer Research. April 2012 Vol. 38

Taco Bell and Complaints Gone Wild

This week a Taco Bell customer called to complain about not getting enough meat in his XL Chalupas. Taco Bell manager Cynthia Thompson apologized that the business was about to close for the night. The customer spat out racial expletives and threated to ‘redecorate the place’. He then drove back to the Taco Bell and proceeded to fire-bomb the drive-thru. No one was hurt. Last month Jeremy Combs, another Taco Bell customer, brandished a shotgun at a different Taco Bell drive-thru to protest the server neglecting to provide him with hot sauce.

In March of this year, a Texas Taco Bell Customer went on a violent rampage when discovering the price of Beefy Crunch Burritos had risen by fifty cents, firing an assualt rifle at the employees.

Last year three men were shot outside a Taco Bell in Chicago, although in this case the cause of the shooting was apparently unrelated to either Chalupas or hot sauce.

Senior editorial producer for Ted Berg reported seeing Taco Bell rage first hand when he was waiting at the drive through to collect his own meal. His account does provide some insight into the mindset of Taco Bell customers.

“Two cars in front of me, a black Jetta lingered at the pick-up window for what felt like an astonishingly long time — time of course being relative, with no minutes ever lasting longer than those spent anticipating burritos. In front of me, a man in a green Explorer waited patiently until, for whatever reason, the man in the blue Mazda Tribute right behind me — who had passed the menu board but not yet paid — started honking.

Green Explorer-guy got out of his car, walked right past mine, and started slamming his hands on the windshield of the Tribute, yelling, “Give some respect! Give some respect!” It was terrifying and baffling. Respect for whom? The overworked Taco Bell employees? Black Jetta? The sanctity of the drive-thru experience? He didn’t say…”

After reading these accounts, I too felt terrified and baffled.

Not being a Taco Bell customer myself, I am left with 5 burning questions:

1. Why do so many Taco Bell customers go absolutely bonkers when running into problems with their food orders?

2. What about Taco Bell’s food makes it so appealing to people with an obviously impaired ability to tolerate frustration?

3. Do Taco Bell employees get danger pay?

4. Has Taco Bell considered recruiting Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to manage their drive thru establishments?

5. What the hell is a Chalupa?

Please feel free to offer any insights you might have in the comments section below

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Learning Customer Service from the Visually Impaired

“You are about to enter a different kind of darkness—a darkness so pitch black, you will not be able to see a thing. Place your hands on the shoulders of the person in front of you. We will walk slowly. Ready? Now, follow me, I will show you to your table.” So began one of the most interesting and memorable dining experiences I’ve ever had. All the waiters in the Jaffa Blackout Restaurant are visually impaired. The pitch black conditions I experienced for a few hours, the inability to see even my own finger in front of my face (I tried wagging my finger and smacked myself on the nose), was no novelty for our waitress but a basic fact of daily life. Indeed, the Blackout Restaurant has dual purposes.

Removing our sense of sight heightens our senses of taste, touch, and smell and it allows us to experience food in an entirely different way. But more importantly, the total darkness allows us to experience for a short while, what it is like to be totally blind. The experience gives diners empathy for the visually impaired as well as surprising insight about how they feel and think.

Other “eating in the dark” experiences use blindfolds and low lighting, which is drastically different than the experience of complete darkness. Some have non-visually impaired waiters who use infrared goggles to navigate their way around. Both those options might focus the diner on the non-visual aspects of their meal but they offer little in the way of empathy and insight.

What made my experience at the Jaffa Blackout Restaurant even more personally educational was that several things went wrong during the meal; a circumstance that brought attention to another element of this unique dining experience—the amazing service.

After being seated we were told there was a pitcher of water at the far end of the table. We each had an empty glass. But how to know when to stop pouring before water spills over the top? I had the brilliant idea of putting my finger in the glass as I poured so I could stop once the water touched my fingertip. I proudly announced my solution to the waitress. “Um…actually it’s easier to just pour half a glass.” She was polite enough not to mention it was more sanitary as well, but I got the message.

One of my companions immediately tried the “half glass” technique which would have worked better had she remembered to make sure the pitcher made contact with the glass. As it was, she promptly poured a half-glass of water right onto the table. Our waitress was hovering nearby and was over with towels and a fresh pitcher of water before we knew it.

Another unique aspect of the service was that everything has to be communicated to diners in far more detail than usual. “Please sit back, I will be serving from your right. I’m placing a medium sized plate in front of you. Don’t worry about food ending up on the table, it will. We clean the table between each course. If you drop a knife or fork, don’t try to find them on the floor, just let me know and we’ll bring you another.”

Between the four people in my party, we dropped knives and forks three times (sleeves can brush a utensil off the table rather easily—and yes, we eventually did roll up our sleeves). Although we felt a little abashed by our multiple utensil droppings, our waitress convincingly conveyed true reassurance when saying, “It’s really no problem, it happens all the time,” by using an especially sweet tone of voice (as she could not rely on facial expressions).

We also realized we would have to pay close attention when we put down a utensil or a glass so we remembered where we placed it. ‘Fishing around’ for such things invites drops or spills. It had not occurred to me that being unable to see required from the person a substantial use of short-term spatial memory. It was a fascinating insight into the kinds of basic challenges visually impaired people contend with.

Our waitress checked in on us repeatedly to see if we needed anything or if anyone needed to be escorted outside for a restroom break (thankfully, the restroom had dim light—some spills diners can do without). When I asked to visit the restroom a waiter who was still training was assigned to lead me out. I put my hands on his shoulders. He took a few steps and hesitated. He turned and bumped into a table. He turned again, took two steps and bumped into another one.

“I’m so very sorry but I think I’m a little lost,” he admitted. He rang a little bell (every waiter carries one with them). Moments later our waitress joined us and guided us out. The waiter-in-training apologized to me again and promptly promised to send a round of drinks to the table.

The last mishap was that our deserts were delayed. Interestingly enough, we had no idea that was the case. No watches are allowed in the restaurant (they can emit light) and people typically lose sense of time in complete darkness. Our waitress came over and told us the time, “The kitchen is a little delayed tonight. If you have to leave to get back home to a babysitter or something, we can pack your deserts for you and of course, we won’t charge you for them.” Happily, we were able to stay and enjoy our deserts and the experience in its entirety.

I left the Blackout Restaurant feeling schooled in many ways. I had expanded my understanding and appreciation for the tactile and multi-sensory experience good food can and should provide. I had gained numerous insights into the challenges the visually impaired face on a daily basis as well as empathy for how disciplined and focused they must be when performing simple tasks others take for granted.

But most importantly, our waitress made us feel cared in a profound way the likes of which we had not encountered in any other dining experience. Her command of the environment and outstanding communication skills allowed her to assume a role greater than mere waitress--for a few hours she was our leader and guide. The Blackout Restaurant was the last place I expected to learn about leadership or customer service and the lesson—was truly an eye-opener.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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Why Customer Service at Harry Potter World's Three Broomsticks Lacks Magic

Does Your Company Know How to Apologize Effectively?

Finding Customer Service Solutions within Customer Complaints

Why Customer Service at Harry Potter World's The Three Broomsticks Lacks Magic

Several months ago I visited The Three Broomsticks, a cafeteria style eatery in Harry Potter World in Orlando’s Universal Islands of Adventure. After waiting in long lines, customers reach the food distributors, most of whom were scowling in general annoyance and impatience as they handed over trays of Cornish pasties and Butterbeer. The cafeteria workers’ lack of customer service skills, especially compared to the other park employees was huge. The next day, at another Orlando theme park, I witnessed cafeteria workers radiate exasperation as they distributed burgers and pasta to an admittedly indecisive group of customers (“I’ll have the hamburger. No wait, I’ll have the pasta instead. Does that come with fries...I can’t do that? Then, I’ll take the burger, you said that does come with fries right?”).

Interestingly, the customers at both theme parks seemed oblivious to the servers’ nasty attitude.

For comparison, I also dined in several theme park restaurants where the waiters were always extremely friendly. Indeed, if any of them had been sullen and impatient, I would have found it offensive and complained, as would many restaurant goers. In other words, while we all expect decent service in restaurants, apparently in cafeterias—anything goes.

And yet, from the customer’s point of view, waiters and cafeteria workers have more in common than not. In both cases we ask them questions about the menu, tell them what we want to eat, and wait for them to give us our food. The only difference is the location of the transaction (a counter as opposed to tableside) and the mechanism of food delivery—in cafeterias we bring our trays to our tables rather than a waiter doing so for us.

So, why we are so accepting of poor customer service in cafeterias? Why is our consumer psychology such that we’ve given cafeteria workers a pass on customer service?

Have our collective experiences in middle and high school cafeterias left us emotionally scarred? Seeing as we’re unable to set reasonable expectations when faced with food technicians wearing hairnets, it’s certainly possible. Maybe being separated by a counter creates some kind of imaginary privacy shield in our minds that renders scowls inoffensive. Perhaps we take the self-service aspect of cafeterias too literally and expect customer service to be self-served as well.

In The Squeaky Wheel, I explain how our complaining psychology is often characterized by a learned helplessness that renders us unlikely to speak up when dissatisfied. But our acceptance of poor customer service in cafeterias is not an artifact of learned helplessness it is a consequence of unjustifiably low expectations on our part. The good news is where we place our expectations is up to us, it is in our conscious control.

If we expected better customer service in cafeterias, more of us would complain when someone in a hairnet scowled at us with impatience from across the counter. And if more of us complained to cafeteria management, cafeterias would have fewer impatient scowlers serving us food.

Those who have yet to visit Harry Potter World will have to take this on faith, but trust me, the flavor profiles of Cornish pasties and Butterbeer could only be significantly improved—if they were served with a smile.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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