Flying the Not-So-Friendly Skies

by | Feb 25, 2013 | Travel and Dining, Weekly Column | 2 comments

AirplaneCloudsWhat matters most when you’re choosing the stores or service providers you want to do business with? Ask several people that question and you’ll get a variety of answers. One common factor, though, will probably be customer service.

It seems to make no sense, then, that I have recently switched from an airline that provides excellent customer service to one that doesn’t.

I travel frequently on business, almost always by air. I also live in Rapid City, South Dakota, which is not exactly a major transportation hub, so my airline choices are limited. For years I’ve flown Delta (Northwest). Their representatives are friendly and accommodating. The company also offers several services that make travel easier.

Two of these perks are early boarding and a dedicated phone line for frequent fliers. The early boarding makes life easier for people like me who carry on their luggage. If a flight is cancelled or delayed, the quick access through the dedicated phone line can make the difference between getting on a different plane today and not finding an open seat until tomorrow.

The downside with Delta has been slightly higher prices and more challenging schedules than United, the other major airline serving Rapid City.

Recently, as I was planning my travel for the next few months, I did a direct comparison. This research showed I could save about ten percent on travel costs by switching to United. Even more important, United’s superior scheduling would allow me to spend more time in the office and with my family.

The decision should have been a no-brainer. Yet it wasn’t. As I interacted with a number of employees from both airlines, those from Delta were consistently pleasant and helpful. Those from United were almost uniformly rude and unaccommodating. I found myself wondering, if this was how they treated prospective customers, how did they treat customers they already had?

I finally decided to switch, but with reluctance. It just felt wrong to reward the company with the worst customer service.

Yet what finally drove my decision was the realization that customer service has two essential components. One is giving customers what they want. This includes courtesy, friendliness, respect, and acknowledgement. The other is giving customers what they need. This usually boils down to providing the product or service that best meets their requirements at the best price. Because United’s lower prices and better schedules offered more of what I needed, I reluctantly decided to give up the better service that I wanted.

The best companies, of course, offer both. Ideally, those are the companies we are able to give our business to.

But as potential customers, it’s important to pay attention to both these aspects of customer service. Sometimes good service matters most, even if it costs more. This is one reason some locally-owned businesses can compete successfully against retail giants.

Sometimes price or convenience is the deciding factor. You may be perfectly happy getting your prescriptions from an impersonal chain store if it saves you a couple of hundred dollars a month.

Once in a while, the warmth that appears to be good service is just a mask hiding incompetence or even fraud. Con artists, after all, are some of the superficially friendliest people you’d ever want to meet.

Am I suggesting courtesy and customer service don’t matter? Absolutely not. If we receive bad service, we should speak up. And whenever possible, we should give our business to companies who value us enough to treat us well.

But sometimes we can’t get what we want. Sometimes the best decision is to settle for getting what we need.

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