When Rules MUST Be Broken

When Rules MUST Be Broken

Today’s technology is amazing. We control a special rover on Mars remotely from our planet, and can fly to the other side of the earth within 24 hours,(that’s Hawaii, if you are interested.) Devices capable of millions of calculations per second are strapped to our wrists, and 3-D printing means that we can “print” various prototype models, food and even a whole house in a very brief time period. I’m looking forward to buying my first self-driving car just as I retire, and I can pop a whole packed meal into my microwave to eat two minutes from now. (Well, maybe not everything about the new world of technology is that amazing.)

But, with all our incredible advancements, there are still some businesses that seem to have been left in the Dark Ages.

For example, it seems impossible for me to get a replacement credit card in less than around eight to ten days. Where’s the customer service in that?

I was sitting at a coffee shop at the end of a meeting with a client, and as I handed over my card to the waitress, she said it had been declined. I knew it wasn’t because there wasn’t any cash, so I was a bit worried about fraud, but, now embarrassed, I took out some cash and paid with that. In my mind I just knew what my business companion must have been thinking.

Before the bank even had a chance to text me about this personal rejection, I immediately called the number on the back of my card to find out if I should be in a desperate panic – or just mildly stressed.

A few minutes later the pleasant young man gave me a rather generic answer: “Mr. Kalliatakis, I’m afraid that your card has been blocked, and for your protection we will need to send you another one.”

I asked him to be more specific, but he muttered something incomprehensible, and then brightly reassured me that there would be no additional cost to me for a new card. I asked about the last few transactions, hoping that there wasn’t any cash stolen, but nothing untoward seemed to have occurred.

It was then that I realised two things: First, it wasn’t my fault, and second, they had screwed-up something – something that was awkward for them to admit, and which come hell or high water, I’d never get to the bottom of. So now my card was cancelled and I’d have to wait for a new one.

I was, however, more relieved and grateful that it wasn’t going to be a fight to prove theft from my account – until he said it would take five to seven working days to get this sorted.

I couldn’t believe it!

How difficult can it really be, after all? How complicated is the process of issuing a duplicate credit card to a customer who, because of a mistake the bank had obviously made, now had to be inconvenienced? And, even more irritating, using words like “to safeguard your account,” and “for your protection” is clearly a way of deflecting the blame by confusing the customer.

Call me naïve, but I really think that there’s a death of common sense here. I know that there need to be rules and processes to take care of issues like this, but a sense of urgency and the ability to bypass the bureaucracy seems called for here. Clearly, they didn’t have my best interests at heart in this sorry saga.

Another industry that seems to thrive on making customers’ lives frustrating is air travel. Many people in my industry – consulting and training in the world of marketing, sales and customer care – travel a lot, and therefore there are an extravagant number of stories and case studies that are written about travelling – and flying in particular.

Most of them are negative.

We don’t write about air travel to show off about how glamorous our work is. (On the contrary, I have now come to the point where, after 30 years in the consulting business, I just dread the thought of flying.) But flying is just another category of transport: my car takes me to clients and events near where I live, and airplanes take me to clients and events that are further away or even on the other side of the world.

But when we write about our experiences of flying it is because air travel (including using airports,) is usually a highly-stressful event – even when experiences go reasonably smoothly.

In this astonishing world where engineers have designed and built the most intricate of machines and created the miracle of jet travel, where clever programmers have crafted beautiful websites and written detailed software that is the envy of many other industries, I have to conclude that airlines and airports are led and operated by staggeringly stupid people.

Even airlines which boast about great customer care have a knack of screwing things up for passengers. One of the most successful and reputable is Emirates, based in the global hub-and-spoke of air travel at Dubai in the U.A.E. They fly to almost 150 cities in 80 countries, with 3300 flights every week. They employ about 39000 staff, own 234 aircraft, (which is set to double to more than 500 in the next few years,) and are incredibly financially successful, with revenues of $24 billion (US) and profits around $1.4 billion (US).

The brand is world famous, they own stadiums and sports teams, and compared to many other really dismal airlines like South African Airways, their customer service and customer experiences have a superior reputation.

In my view, I am a good and loyal Emirates customer, flying overseas three to six times a year to other destinations via the UAE, (mainly because my brother lives in Dubai and I use every possible opportunity I can to visit him and the family.)

But from their perspective they probably see me as one of the “rats and mice,” hidden amongst the 52 million passengers that flew on the airline in 2015/16. Truth be told, I don’t think they even know that I exist!

So, checking-in at London Heathrow recently at the end of a tiring 10-day trip, and knowing that my baggage was way under the 30 kilogram limit allowed, I dared to ask for a special favour. I had one suitcase and my briefcase, but I had also purchased my sons and my wife some bulky toys and gifts. I desperately wanted to take these with me in my carry-on luggage into the passenger cabin.

As an old-fashioned and courteous customer (who believes you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,) I asked the young lady at the check-in desk if she could please do me a special favour by allowing me to take the bulky gifts on board with my briefcase.

The answer was “No!” I turned on the charm and begged, explaining who I was and waving my loyalty card about. Same answer, and I gently asked if the supervisor could perhaps intervene to help me.

He was even more emphatically negative. He threw out the “Rules is rules” defence, and was indifferent – no, he was absurdly stubborn – to my needs, even though I explained that my final destination was Johannesburg, South Africa where we have an infamous reputation for stealing desirable stuff from passenger’s suitcases.

He folded his arms and gave me a glazed and bored look.

Now, if this policy was applied consistently to all passengers, I wouldn’t mind too much, but as soon as I eventually boarded the plane, naturally disappointed and also quite worried, I saw literally dozens of people with two and even three really large luggage bags – over and above the copious shopping bags from the duty-free shops at Heathrow!

The hypocrisy of it all made me miserable for the next sixteen hours, and added to the stress I already felt about the possible disappearance of my family’s presents.

It confirmed that airlines are run by really reckless policies, and witless, humourless, and inlexible people. From three to six flights via U.A.E. every year, they will be lucky to see me more regularly than my occasional visits to my family.

(By the way, there was one positive highlight to my experience – orchestrated not by the Emirates staff, but by one of the security staff at Heathrow, of all people.

I managed to fit a small remote-controlled drone into my hand luggage since it just fitted into my briefcase. As I made my way through the security counter, and my luggage passed through the X-Ray machine on it’s conveyor belt, he asked me to please open my briefcase, with a most grave and serious look on his face. I assumed that it must have been my laser pointer, which has set off “alarms” in the past, and took it out straight away.

He saw the drone and the remote, took them into his hands, looked me straight in the eye, and said: “I’m sorry, sir, I’m going to have to confiscate this.”

My heart dropped to the floor! Oh, no! The one present that my son was most looking forward to, the most expensive of all the gifts, and now it was supposed to be illegal. I just couldn’t believe my bad luck on that day.

I stammered and mumbled, and I apologised, telling him I didn’t know. Somewhere in my pathetic jabbering I asked him why this was such a big problem. He played with me for a few more seconds as I became progressively more distressed, and then, with a twinkle in his eye and a hint of a smile he said: “Sir, I’m going to have to confiscate this because I want it!”

I nearly collapsed in a pile of blubbering relief. He had used his sense of English humour to defuse the stress of the security search.)

What rules and policies does your business enforce that create frustration for your customers? And what can you do to alleviate the stress felt by your customers when they have to endure the pain and hardship – and the sheer effort – of dealing with your business?

(A short post-script to my sorry tale with Emirates Airlines: I’m sure that this wasn’t done on purpose by a vengeful supervisor and/or employee, but even though my flight back from London to Johannesburg was on 29 February 2016, my loyalty miles for a long round trip journey from Johannesburg to Dubai to London, and all the way back again have still not been credited. Now I’m upset and I feel ripped off too! Doesn’t make for good customer loyalty.)


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