Friday, November 25, 2011

Extreme Customer Service

I hope that everyone had a happy Thanksgiving.

The season of celebration and bustle that marks the arrival of high holy days for numerous religious denominations is upon us once again. I'm remembering more and more about how much Pittsburghers, like so many others across the country, are largely creatures of habit; Thanksgiving means family, turkey, and football, and with it the associated travel across the region or the nation.

The roads were not as busy with rush hour traffic on the way home from work Wednesday afternoon, but there was sufficient congestion caused by what seemed to be drivers appearing to be unfamiliar with the nuances of navigating the Pittsburgh area in a vehicle.

As those of us from this area know, finding your way through the Burgh can be as much an intuitive exercise as it is a cognitive one. These factors often confound the cool, electronic mind of the GPS receiver, and those wide-eyed, weary travelers who depend upon it.

That being said, be careful out there this weekend. Many of you will most likely be planning on attending services at the many temples of what I like to call The First Church of My Stuff.

In recent years the high priests and priestesses of the retail industry have elected to begin their convocation of cash earlier and earlier on their highest of holy days, Black Friday. Unfortunately, many of them ran out of zero-dark-thirty time to be the first to offer that bauble or gadget at a ridiculously low price.

As a result, some businesses are commencing their annual assault on the debit and credit accounts of consumers on Thanksgiving Day itself. Perhaps retailers are betting that the warm, fuzzy, comfortable feeling generated by the combination of l-trytophan and carbohydrates will help to set aside any trepidation about spending too much.

Caught in the middle of this morass of humanity are those who ply the retail trade - myself included - and those who are charged with answering requests for emergency assistance on holidays and every other day - hey, that's me too.

I'm working as a Cashier this weekend. Over the course of 2 years in 'big box' retail, I've been formulating some general rules based on my individual experiences, which those handling checkout duties can use to help them deal with the everyday realities of the profession:

Murphy's Laws of Retail Cashiering

1. The customer approaching your register will have their cell phone ring as they arrive, and will endeavor to carry on two independent conversations simultaneously.

2. The most time-consuming, complex, and/or tedious transaction will occur approximately 2 minutes before the end of your shift.
  • A corollary to Rule 2- The customer involved with that transaction will have many questions, asked in an English that is for them a second language - a distant second.
3. The majority of legible UPC barcodes will be presented to you at an angle of between 180 and 359 degrees from the location of your scanning device. The remainder will be illegible or not in the SKU database.

4. The smallest items in a cart to be unloaded and scanned will be scattered randomly, and located underneath several sheets of cement board, plywood, drywall, or a combination of similarly sized and weighted goods.

Despite these challenges, in order to be successful in serving the customer you have to be prepared to calmly deal with all of these situations, and the numerous other complications that arise with the job. I've managed to deal with this kind of stress by remembering a few things:
  • Each customer gets as much time and attention as they need - one at a time.
  • The customer is not always right, but the customer is always the customer.
  • It's not about life and death here. It's about stuff, plain and simple.

Of course, in my other job the last of these tenets doesn't apply. It can be about life and death - in many circumstances. There is one rule I know that applies very well:

Murphy's Law of Random Synchronicity
Emergency calls will randomly come in all at once.

I won't get into the debate about when to call 9-1-1 - the news media seems to have a handle on that - but there are some things that citizens can do to help 9-1-1 operators provide access to critical services as quickly as possible:
  • First and foremost, know where you are. There are 130 municipalities in Allegheny County. A post office does not count in most cases - places like Wexford, Gibsonia, and Allison Park exist only in terms of where to send the mail.
    The Sewickley zip code (15143) is used in all or part of the following municipalities:
    Sewickley, Edgeworth, Glen Osborne, Sewickley Heights, Aleppo Township, Glenfield, Haysville, Sewickley Hills, Leet Township, Bell Acres, Franklin Park, and Ohio Township.
    Depending upon where you are and the services you need, there are six different places that could be involved in the process of delivering those services. The more you know and can provide to a call taker, the quicker they can be mobilized.
    Technology only goes so far, especially when using a wireless phone, or phone service that uses Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), such as Vonage or Magic Jack.
    If you're on the road, know which road you're on. Try to remain cognizant of the last exit, mile marker, or intersection. Take note of businesses or other landmarks. If you have a GPS unit, know how to obtain your Latitude and Longitude from it.
  • Stay calm and speak clearly.
  • Be sure to listen carefully and answer all of the call taker’s questions to the best of your ability.
  • Do not hang up until the 9-1-1 call taker has obtained all of the information that is needed.
Customer service in 9-1-1 also differs from the retail environment in that the greatest impediment to effective service delivery can often be the customers themselves. As a public safety communications professional, I have attempted, succeeded greatly, and at times failed to address these challenges to the satisfaction of customers, both internal and external.

I mention this because relationships with internal customers - co-workers, field personnel, and managers - are at least as important as the essential interaction with those external customers in need of services. That's a common challenge with any workplace, but even more so with the critical nature of public safety operations.

As the perceived demands of the holiday season begin to intrude upon us, I'm looking forward to remembering what this season really represents, along with the rigors of mastering an old job in a new setting, and hoping for success on the multiple fronts I've mentioned above. Above all of this is my wife and family, both here and across the country. Is it any wonder why the holidays carry with them more stress than joy for a lot of us?

Enjoy the weekend and the season ahead.

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