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Why Poor Customer Service is Poor Business

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Peter likes to say that good customer service is not about preventing things from going wrong, but about what you do to recover once things do go wrong. Our gadget expert Phil Baker recently took a trip to Hawaii where he had two contradictory customer service experiences:

Poor customer service is poor business. Poor customer service has caused huge problems for Dell while great customer service has been an important factor in Apple’s success. Good service seems like such a great opportunity for a company to make a positive impression, one that can be communicated far and wide over social network sites. But bad impressions will populate these sites even more rapidly.

While not exactly high tech, on a recent trip to Kauai with my family I had two customer experiences, one poor and the other superb. Here are the lessons I learned from both.

Needs Improvement
I’ve done lots of business with Avis for more than 20 years. This time, I rented a minivan for seven of us, including 5 and 8-year old boys. We put little mileage on the car during the six days we had it. When we returned it, an agent checked it over carefully and gave us a receipt saying all was good. Two months later I received a letter from Avis stating that my credit card was being charged $150 for excessive sand/dirt.

Now the car was sandy from the kids’ beach toys and sandy feet, and all of our sandals. This this is Hawaii, after all, and it’s all about going to the beach!

When I called their customer service in near disbelief, Avis said the car must be returned in the same condition as received, said they needed to detail the car, and that it was out of service for five days. They sent me photos and, from what I saw, the sand could have been vacuumed out in 10 or 15 minutes. Yes there was sand, but nothing out of the ordinary, and nothing they found notable when we returned the car.

After Peter Greenberg’s staff wrote a letter to Avis’ public relations department to get clarification, they received this response:

“In addition to having to vacuum the sand and other debris that is visible in the photos, Hawaii’s red dirt leaves stains which are not easily cleaned and which in this case required extra time to return the car to its original state of cleanliness. This vehicle had to be taken out of service and taken to adetailer to accomplish this which is why the fee was assessed.”

I asked customer service for some sort of compromise, suggesting I pay for a car wash, and noted that my annual rentals amount to more than $6000 a year. The agent refused to compromise, as did her supervisor.

Car key rentalSo they were about to lose all of my future business, all for the sake of $150. Ironically that $150 was being whittled away based on the time they spent on the phone with me and the time they would spend with American Express, who is supporting me in disputing the charge.

In one final attempt, I emailed the CEO and the VP Customer Service and related this experience. The latter responded, “As a valued customer and further review of your inquiry we will be removing the $150.00 charge.”

My question is “Why are none of your people in the lower levels interested in saving a customer?”

A Good Recovery

On the other hand, some companies do practice great customer service and one is Alaska Airlines. On this same trip, we booked our flight to Kauai out of Oakland, so we could fly with the rest of the family leaving from the Bay Area. But a few months before we were to leave, Alaska changed their return flight time to a much later hour that would cause us to miss our connecting flight to San Diego and the rest of my family to return much too late for their kids.

When we explained the problem, Alaska said that was their only return flight, but they would find all of us flights on other airlines. They routed my family through Maui to return earlier, and booked my wife and me on a return flight with one of their competitors, Hawaiian Airlines, via Honolulu to San Diego, with a connecting flight on the tiny Go Airline from Kauai to Honolulu.

But on the day of the flight, Go’s single plane had mechanical problems so we couldn’t get to Honolulu, and there were no other alternate flights available. (Fortunately we found a United Flight that we were able to take using mileage.)

I spoke to Alaska when I got home and they apologized, saying even though it wasn’t their airline, they’d work on getting us a refund on the non-refundable fares. Two weeks later a credit appeared on my credit card along with an email with two $150 certificates toward a future Alaska flight, apologizing for our inconvenience.

There’s no question that I will be loyal to Alaska and use them whenever possible. As for Avis, I’ll give them another chance, but the next time I go to Hawaii with my grandkids, I’ll be using Hertz!

For more information on customer service, check out:

By Phil Baker for Phil Baker has more than three decades of experience in consumer and computer technology product development and program management. Check out his blog at