Last week work beamed me to Chennai in Southern India, a city where I was born and had also spent a large part of my childhood. Work has taken me to Chennai often and I am usually booked at a hotel that is not far from where I lived as a kid. The hotel has a lot of nostalgia value for me, for, among other things, it has a swimming pool where I spent a few hours every evening through my high school days. It also happens to be right next to the first pool I ever stepped into and was coached. And so, though there were better hotel options for me, whenever I have travelled to the city over the last year or two, I haven’t really asked to be booked elsewhere.
Adding to this nostalgia was a fairly more recent experience from last year during one of my trips. I had called room service to place an order for dinner – and happened to pick a dish called Bisi Bele Hulianna, a rice based dish. It turned out to be a delightful meal. Ever since, I have had the dish at least once during my trips to Chennai.
So this time when I was in Chennai again, I was looking forward to some piping hot BBH. After few attempts of calling at 11.30pm after the kitchen closed, I called the next day at 10 pm to place my order.
You can imagine my disappointment when I heard the voice on the other end of the line say, “Sorry sir, that dish is available only till 8 pm”
And of course, I expressed irritation and told the voice what I was told the previous attempts and that I have also had the dish served on many occasions after 11 pm.
“Sorry sir” was the grim and rather indifferent response.
“But I have had this dish every time i have been here. I think it is excellent, and I really was looking forward to it” said I, with a hint of disappointment that I was unable to hide.
“Really sir? You liked it?
“Yes, very much”
“OK sir, I will make it for you”
“Are YOU the cook?!!”
“Thank you! I think you make incredible Bisi Bele Hulianna!!
“Thank you sir. Hope you are having a good time in Chennai, I will make this dish specially for you”
And that was it. I got my Bisi Bele Hulianna in 20 minutes, and it was as delectable as I have known it to be. In fact, it was brilliant. There is a kind of magic that is an effortlessly inevitable by-product of a cook who is happy cooking. As a customer I was delighted of course.
This whole episode reinforced two aspects of customer service we often overlook – the first is the human element behind what defines our experience as a customer. A certain ‘plus-factor’ exhibited by the service agent that goes beyond process and customer service work-flows – however well defined they were to start with. The second, the aspect I really want to point out here, is how as customers, though we seldom realize it, we have a role to play in bringing that plus-factor into our own experience. We often overlook this and turn judgmental and begin complaining and whining at the first sign of an ‘exception’
Like I wrote before, as process professionals, we tend to see much more beyond just that specific incident we are experiencing and are often inclined to be more critical of the underlying processes possibly because to us they seem to be short sighted and restricting agents rather than empowering them with that additional freedom required to resolve exceptions. But I liked this post in Chris Taylor’s column on PEX where he takes this point further saying that while the process is important and must come first, you need to then place over that a strong foundation on culture, friendliness and professionalism. Chris goes on to say that it really isn’t about being adaptive as much as setting the terms for customer engagement –
The key takeaway is that process management itself, in the many forms it can take, is foundational to layering on culture, friendliness and professionalism.
Great process management sets the terms for engaging the customer. It lets the agent know what boundary conditions look like and when to ‘punt’ to a supervisor or take action that might include handoffs and follow-ups.
And that really is an immutable necessity for any agent to convert a flustered, rattled and irate customer going through a bad experience (or maybe just a bad day) into a pleased, delighted and maybe even a more actively committed loyalist.
And to me, it is also an equally immutable call to us as customers to lighten up and help the agent help us. A little appreciation, a little understanding, a little empathy for the person on the other end of the line or across the counter goes a long way in making them as service professionals deliver better service to us. It is surely a key ingredient that brings out the ‘plus factor’. The way I inadvertently got my Bisi Bele Hulianna.
How can there be a high-five if two hands don’t come together? How can two parties experiencing an exception resolve it if they aren’t a team at some level?