A few thoughts on customer service from the SOCAP convention

The Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals is holding its annual conference in Atlanta this week, and I was fortunate enough to be an invited speaker. I shared my thoughts about travel and customer service with a select group of SOCAP members from the travel industry yesterday.

I met a lot of people who I’ve dealt with by phone or email for the first time yesterday. Folks like Anne Munoz, the senior director of customer care at Continental Airlines, and Cindy Waisganis, the manager of business systems and reporting for United Airlines’ customer relations department.

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It was a polite exchange and the discussion afterwards was spirited but productive. I could tell that despite all the recent cutbacks at travel companies — and especially within the customer service departments — that many companies still cared about their customers.

I didn’t find that surprising so much as I did reassuring. It felt as if we were on the same team.

One of the most fascinating discussions revolved around the question of how much a customer is really worth.

Valuing customers is often as much of an art as it is a science. When someone makes an unreasonable demand of a company, how do you decide whether to tell them to take a hike, or cave in?

If it’s an elite customer, do you just give that person what he or she wants? What about the tourists? If you can’t value them by evaluating their elite status, are they worthless to you, as a company?

The takeaway to you, the consumer, is that there’s a group of hard-working people on the other side of the phone line. They care that you have a good trip. They care that you’re happy. They care that you’ll come back again.

After all, this is the hospitality business, right?

The bad news is that these departments are hamstrung by higher-ups who often pressure them to control costs and say “no” more often. They are told to focus only on the “valuable” customers and let the others go elsewhere. And I know that deep down, these customer service managers feel that’s not the job they signed up for.

I’m working on a project this summer that will be a truly collaborative effort to funnel customer service queries to the right person within a company. No, I’m not going to call it “no customer left behind” — but I could. I’ll have more on that soon.

Thanks, SOCAP, for caring enough to invite me to your conference.