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Customers: Fleeting transactions or long-term partners?

This post is the ninth in a series that will identify 10 different customer service advantages that have emerged from my analysis of customer satisfaction data. Maybe you have capitalized on one or more of these advantages in your own business? The ninth advantage is to see customers as partners.

A few years ago I left a book in my seat on a United Airlines flight. I’m sure it happens all the time and in most cases the books are never reunited with their owners because, let’s face it, they’re relatively cheap and easy to replace. I bet most passengers don’t even contact the airline’s lost and found department to determine the fate of their books.

Even so, there are occasions when there is a bit more motivation to recover the book. Perhaps it’s a rare book that’s no longer in print. Maybe it’s a business book and the reader scribbled lots of notes in the margins. Or, possibly, it was an autographed copy that the reader picked up at a conference or book signing.

In the case of my book, I had purchased it in New York City together with about two-dozen other books in a limited edition printing of Barnes & Noble Classics. So, even though the book was easily replaceable, finding this particular edition would take a bit more work.

So, the next day I called the United Airlines lost and found department at Denver International Airport and learned that no book had been recovered from my flight. The employee I spoke with didn’t seem too optimistic that I would ever reconnect with my lost book. As I hung up, I was already beginning to craft a letter to United’s customer service department in my head.

Now, before you lecture me on the fact that it’s my responsibility (not the airline’s) to keep tabs on my personal property, consider that:

  • I had upgraded on the flight in question and was seated in one of perhaps five or six occupied seats in first class. As we deplaned, we went out a door behind the first class cabin. This means that if the book was taken by a passenger, it would have been one of the handful of first class passengers who deplaned with me. Unlikely.
  • I recall setting the book down in my seat in order to assist another passenger with her luggage in the overhead compartment. The flight manifest clearly indicates who sat in seat 4B where I laid the book. By simply looking at the manifest, the book could have easily been traced back to me.
  • I have a habit of using boarding pass stubs as bookmarks. Since I was two-thirds of the way through the book, I bet I had a half-dozen stubs in it—each containing my name and frequent flyer number. By simply looking up my Mileage Plus account, the book could have easily been returned to me.

The tone of my letter to United Airlines was not one of avoiding my responsibility in maintaining possession of my belongings. I acknowledge my role here—really, I do. In my letter, I said that I viewed our relationship as a partnership. In a partnership, each party takes responsibility for the success of the relationship.

There are times, for instance, when I make allowances for the scheduling, staffing, or maintenance oversights of the airline. This usually results in a delayed or canceled flight. Sometimes the lapse involves the handling of my luggage and I have to wait in line to report my missing bag, complete paperwork, and then get by with the clothes on my back until my luggage finally arrives—assuming it does arrive…

These are examples of when I, the customer, make allowances for the service lapses of the airline. I’m not happy about the delays, cancellations, or mishandled luggage but I understand these are some of the unpleasant realities of frequent travel and continue flying United Airlines nonetheless.

Now consider United’s responsibility when partnering with its customers: Passengers should be able to trust that the airline will reciprocate and make allowances for customers who inadvertently leave behind books, cell phones, or other possessions. Customers shouldn’t have to accept that these items simply disappeared into a black hole—never to be seen again.

Although it’s clearly a lapse by the customer, the proper handling of lost and found items (whether found by a United Airlines employee or a contract employee whose job it is to clean the cabin) demonstrates the reciprocal nature of partnerships. The items should be catalogued and secured in the airline’s lost and found department and the airline should make every reasonable effort to reunite passengers with their belongings.

I pointed this out in a letter and United graciously responded with a sincere apology and a $50 AMEX Gift Cheque. In the end, United Airline’s customer service department did the best it could to remedy a situation that I honestly believe was avoidable.

Organizations that truly see customers as partners ask questions like:

  • “How does the premise of a customer-supplier partnership apply to our business?”
  • “What allowances do we ask—or even expect—our customers to make for our lapses in product or service quality?”
  • “In what ways can we reciprocate with our customers to demonstrate that we recognize that partnerships require the sincere efforts of both parties?”

By addressing questions like these in advance, organizations demonstrate that rather than viewing customer encounters as fleeting transactions, they see them as opportunities to foster long-term partnerships where each party takes responsibility for the success of the relationship.

In what ways have organizations treated you like a partner?

Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.
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