Opinion: Weak links in the chain of good service

Good customer relations require supportive assistance from an entire network of co-workers and managers.

I have always liked Sam Cooke’s old hit song “Chain Gang.” It really comes in handy when talking about customer service.

Delivering good customer service requires that a front-line worker receive supportive assistance from an entire network of co-workers — in effect, a chain reaction of teamwork, one that is consistent from beginning to end. And when it comes to helping a customer, the chain of assistance is only as strong as its weakest link.

Just to prove that I’m not always bashing our competitor, British Airways, I’ll tell a consummate customer story that involves that other British airline.

An Executive Club passenger sitting aboard a jumbo jet about to leave London for New York suddenly realized he’d left his beloved leather coat in the airport lounge. He rushed to the front of the plane and asked if he had time to get it. “Sorry, sir, too late,” replied a member of the cabin crew. “But don’t worry. I’ll tell the ground crew, and they’ll have it sent to you.” He returned to his seat, convinced he’d never see his favourite coat again.

Seven and a half hours later, when the flight arrived at JFK, the passenger was amazed when an agent met him at the door of the aircraft and handed him his coat. They’d put it on a Concorde flight that had beaten his slower 747 across the Atlantic.

It’s true that the airline could have put the coat on a later flight and the customer would have been just as grateful when it arrived. But going the extra mile builds massive customer loyalty and brand-enhancing benefits. You can be sure that passenger talked up the airline for years, and now even the chairman of a rival company is telling the tale. How great is that?

Let’s look at another story, this time involving Virgin Atlantic. An Upper Class customer’s free limo failed to connect with him at his New York hotel. (It turned out the customer had been waiting at the wrong door.) He jumped in a cab to Newark airport, a fair distance from the city. Rush-hour traffic was bad; by the time he got to the airport, he was very angry, running late and panicking that he’d miss his flight.

The first Virgin agent he located immediately seized control of the situation. She calmed the fuming customer, apologizing profusely and assuring him that he would not miss his flight. From her own pocket, she refunded the taxi fare he had paid, then rushed the passenger through a staff lane and got him to the gate with 10 minutes to spare.

Truly a job well done. Like the leather jacket incident, it demonstrates how great customer service can convert a negative into a positive.

Now we come to the part of the story where the chain breaks. During the post-flight debriefing, the agent told her supervisor what had happened and asked to be repaid for the $70 cab fare. Rather than congratulating the agent on saving the day, he asked whether she’d gotten a receipt for the fare. When her answer was “There was no time for that,” he actually chastised her. He said, “No receipt, no reimbursement. You’d better take more care next time.”

Clearly, the supervisor was more concerned about rigid adherence to accounting practices than about employee initiative. While fiscal accountability is important, especially when an outlay of cash is involved, there will always be occasions when an asterisk needs to be marked on the balance sheet.

One thing was certain: any Virgin employees witnessing their supervisor’s scornful reaction to their colleague’s exemplary deed would be unlikely to display the same resourcefulness. Which means that the customer loses — and so does the entire company.

Happily, the story came to the airport manager’s attention and he quickly took steps to redress the imbalance between company procedures and customer service. He advised the finance team that he’d approved the cash shortfall, while the supervisor got a quick refresher on how important we at Virgin think it is to “catch people doing something right.”

Eventually I heard this story, and it truly impressed me. The next time I flew through Newark, I made a point of seeking out the agent who had made us proud. I remarked, “I don’t have a taxi receipt, so you probably can’t help me.” Her astonished smile said it all.

No company can train its front-end people to handle every situation, but you can strive to create an environment in which they feel at ease “doing as they would be done by.”

Good customer service on the shop floor begins at the very top. If your senior people don’t get it, even the strongest links further down the line can become compromised, as the story shows.

Finally, poor customer service can also be relished…if you experience it at the hands of a competitor. At such moments you might catch me humming another old favourite, Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools.”

Richard Branson is a philanthropist, entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group.