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More Public Transit Embarrassment: 5 Reasons for the Latest Customer Service Failure

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Brian Cantor
11/30/2012

Full disclosure: this is not a groundbreaking commentary.

Public transit remains one of the most egregious customer service offenders, a particularly problematic reality given how important trains and buses are to American society. Entire lives bank on the efficacy of public transportation, yet the transit organizations operate with less concern for customers than the owner of a gumball machine with a proclivity for eating the occasional quarter.

Given the deep extent to which poor customer service is etched into the fabric of the public transportation system, it is unreasonable to expect transit organizations, even those who have read "The Blueprint for Horrific Customer Service," to suddenly epitomize customer-centricity. But systemic limitations aside, there is no reason why the actual customer service agents should act with such little regard for the customer.

They might not have the power to make subway systems understand the importance of arriving and departing on schedule, but they should at least be doing everything they can to assure no customer exits an interaction more dissatisfied than when he began.

The agent who handled my inquiry with the New York City subway system (the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA)) failed in that endeavor as well.

The issue

Most New Yorkers can relate to my issue—attempting to board the subway back to my apartment after the long Thanksgiving weekend, I received the dreaded "Please Swipe Again" message after scanning my Metro Card. Annoying, this is a commonality due to the poor-quality paper cards and poor-quality scanners, and it can usually be resolved with a second (or, worst case scenario, third), more careful swipe.

This time, however, my second, third, fourth and fifth swipes returned the same message. So did my tenth, eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth swipes. There was clearly something wrong with my card.

Though I did notice a very slight bend, I could not have imagined that bend to be the culprit. It was so slight that had it been on a baseball card, I would not have felt unethical eBaying the card as "mint condition." The more likely scenario was that the black strip had been demagnetized.

Either way—bend or demagnetization—I clearly needed a new card.

The MTA agent did not share my outlook. And though I recognize that she very likely believes she was doing her job properly, there were at least five reasons why her behavior was an affront to the notion of customer-centricity.

No courtesy

As my colleague David Lee noted, some agents have an uncanny ability to start customer conversations on the wrong foot. This woman was one of them.

As I approached her at the customer service window, I noticed that her face, which should have been forming a smile, was locked in a scowl. She was not happy for the opportunity to help me; she was dreading the unwanted complaint with which she was about to be burdened.

Her first words contained the same lack of courtesy. Even though the line was the smallest I have ever seen at a New York City subway station—and I was her customer—she was not going to waste time on pleasantries. No "how has your holiday been?" No "hope all is well; how may I help you!" Nothing to suggest any interest in actually engaging with the customer.

She, again, made it very clear that I, as a customer needing help, represented a nuisance.

Lesson for customer service agents: Your demeanor sets the tone. To create a pleasant interaction that improves, rather than destroys, the customer’s perception of the brand, you must use verbiage, gestures and/or inflections that welcome the customer into your graces. You must let the customer know that you will derive no satisfaction greater than that from assisting this customer.

No empathy

Seconds into my explanation, she cut me off to declare that she "sees the problem." My card was bent.

Though I would have appreciated a little bit more tact, if her impatience was going to result in a quick, easy resolution, I might have considered tolerating her attitude. Unfortunately, things went in a different direction.

I had at least a week remaining on my monthly unlimited card, which meant that every struggle to swipe through the gate represented value I was not receiving. A major reason for buying an unlimited card is to quickly move through the subway stations; if my card was not enabling me to do that, it was not delivering the service for which I paid.

To most rational people, this would be an obvious problem that needed resolution. This agent did not share that opinion.

With facial expressions that alternated between frustration and indifference, the agent seemed to wonder why I brought this to her attention. Apparently, expecting to receive the product for which one pays was not as universal a sentiment as I thought. She, aloud, wondered why I was not simply buying another Metro Card and trashing the one that still has value on it. The card was "mutilated," after all.

Even if her use of "mutilated" were not the exaggeration of the year—and my card was legitimately destroyed—would that make my issue any less of a problem? Would that give me back the value for the remaining time on my unlimited pass? Would that get me through the gates without a struggle?

Lesson for customer service agents: Your ability to empathize with customers is a prerequisite for successful interactions. Without understanding why the customer is suffering and why the situation needs to be rectified, you will never be able to successfully push for a resolution. You will never understand the imminence of the customer’s struggle and the importance of making it right. No matter how silly the customer’s request is, or how unaccountable you feel, you are not excused from acknowledging the personal importance the customer places on the issue.

No accountability

The agent likely believed she was mocking my situation (as if that is okay for a customer service representative anyway) by noting, "Do you think you’re the first person with a bent card?"

In reality, she was exposing how little the MTA cares about doing right by its customers.

If a business cares about its customers, it should never enable widespread product or service issues to linger. Once it started to receive some complaints about the quality of its swipe cards, it should have either addressed the issue with the product or at least figured out a more customer-centric means of resolving the issue.

Bragging about the shortcomings of its products, for the unintuitive purpose of shifting the blame to customers no less, is not a logical option.

More importantly, when it comes to customer service interactions, squabbling about culpability is an enormous waste of time. What truly matters is how both sides are going to come together to achieve an agreeable resolution. And more often than not, the power to do so lies disproportionately with the brand, meaning it must accept accountability for fixing the situation.

This agent was having none of that. Because she neither empathized with my situation nor took any blame for what went wrong, she was naturally not going to assume accountability for fixing it. As far as she was concerned, she was there to provide a venting board—not to actually resolve my issues. If I needed to get through the gate, my only option was to walk away from her and towards a ticket machine.

As the argument continued, she further refused accountability by noting that if I still had a problem, I could take it up with corporate customer service at a later time. They, she explained, are best equipped to handle issues with unlimited cards.

While perhaps true from an organizational standpoint, that reality did nothing to get me through the gate at this given moment. It did nothing to assure I was not being robbed of the money I spent on a broken card. She was in complete position to make it right—by giving me a new card of equivalent value or at least letting me walk through without swiping—and she refused. It, apparently, was not her problem.

Lesson for customer service agents: Your duty to the customer persists whether or not he "brought the issue on himself." He is still paying your business to deliver, and he will still hold it against your brand if you do not. When an issue is presented, the only reality you need to consider is that you and your organization are accountable for whatever outcome is reached.

No resolve

Simply put, if the agent is willing to let the conversation end without attaining a mutually-agreeable resolution, the agent has failed at customer service.

Here, she not only refused to consider realistic solutions to my issue but seemed to relish in her disregard for the outcome. She made up her mind that the card situation was my fault, decided that it was not within her job description to care, and ultimately refused to play her part in crafting a satisfactory experience.

Agents might not be able to give customers exactly what they want, but they should always strive to do so. They should always think critically—and collaboratively with other members of the organization—about ways to optimize the experience. Knowing I needed a way to immediately access the subway and continue receiving uninterrupted access for the duration of my plan, her only focus should have been on how to achieve those outcomes.

Why not offer me a weekly pass? Why not give me a card filled with whatever monetary value was remaining on my unlimited?

She never suggested any realistic option beyond buying a replacement card. And, no, telling me I can mail my card back to customer service and wait for them to send me a new one is not a realistic option—that does absolutely nothing to fix the actual situation.

Worst of all, she never seemed troubled by the fact that she could not help me. So conditioned to believe that customers are wrong and undeserving of support from brands, which is the exact opposite of reality, she mentally determined that I was the one being unreasonable. That I was the one crossing lines.

Lesson for customer service agents: Some customers legitimately want to share feedback, but at the end of the day, most are expressing complaints with the hope that some sort of resolution will be reached. When you left factors such as culpability and standard procedure distract you from that all-important objective, you cement your failure as a customer support representative.

No preservation

As the interaction progressed, it was clear there was not going to be a meeting of the minds between me and the agent. I had a very specific notion of what I deserved, and the agent was clinging to a vastly different notion of what I was owed.

Though the burden is on the brand to avoid this disconnect at all costs, it will conceivably happen in some service and sales situations. No matter how committed the two parties are to finding an agreeable resolution, the gap between their demands might simply be too wide.

Whether that should have been the case here is up for sizable debate. But assuming it were, the brand still should have confirmed that it appreciates my concern, appreciates my business and will do everything in its power to provide satisfaction down the road.

This agent did not. Instead of assuring I left as satisfied and happy as humanly possible, she was content to let me leave in a huff. As my words grew harsher in response to her frustration, her responses grew more vitriolic and dismissive. My causing a scene or losing respect for the MTA were not concerns; all that mattered is that she stand her ground and not bend to my complaint.

That she was unable to provide a resolution is disappointing enough. That she was unapologetic about it is insulting.

Lesson for customer service agents: Failure to reach a resolution is not a license to cut ties with a customer. It remains possible that the brand and customer will do business again—or at least consider doing business again—and the bridge should never be too damaged to sustain such a reconciliation. In the spirit of "preserving the territory," the agent must do everything in his power to end the interaction on an upbeat note, instilling confidence that future communications will be more productive.

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