Extraordinary customer service

This week I've been traveling and experiencing all kinds of levels of customer service and I've been wondering exactly what customer service is. What is it that I respond to and what makes the interaction between agent and customer a good one? One of the complicating factors is language. I have been with French, German, and Italian native speakers. If you haven't guessed, I am in Switzerland. I can understand French for the most part (lack of practice means I can barely speak it) but the other two languages I have only a hazy grasp of.

So I am delighted, and somewhat chagrined, when nearly all the people I'm in contact with are able to speak English and wondering if my own customer service is lacking because I don't speak their language. 90% of the interactions I am having are with hotel staff, café or restaurant staff, shop assistants, and bus drivers. The other 10% are with fellow guests, shoppers, and travelers.

What I'm expecting is a welcoming smile and/or greeting, and then the ability to process the transaction effectively and efficiently. And that seems to be the general definition of customer service – at least as far as consensus on the web definitions that come up on the first page of the enquiry. Although as one person pointed out they are generally from the organization's perspective rather than the customer's so they miss the one to one transaction in favor of things like 'allow your people to be extraordinary'.
I think that's fine and it made me laugh too. Here's my experience of a one to one transaction at the National Capital YMCA Fitness Center. But first a bit of background.

Until September this year each of the four changing rooms was staffed by a receptionist who greeted members – the regulars by name, handed them the locker keys remembering who liked which locker best, dealt with queries, and generally provided the friendly face of the YMCA, giving great customer service. Suddenly, the management team decided, without consulting the members or communicating the reasons for the decision, to withdraw receptionist staffing for each changing room.

This decision resulted in the main reception staff, with no increase in numbers of them, having to both check in members (as there's no automated swipe system), give out locker keys for four different changing areas, and handle member and prospective member queries.

This has infuriated the members many of whom have left because of this issue and the refusal of the management team to reinstate the previous system. The members who have stayed are wondering how to get the system back to as it was as there seems no adequate rationale for the new system – there was no reduction, in force for example.

Last week I went to the Y and witnessed extraordinary behavior. I got to the main reception and there was only one person on duty. I handed her my card to be swiped, and asked her for a locker key. She said 'I don't do keys, I just do the card swiping'. I asked her who did the keys. She said the person who did had just gone for a bathroom break. She didn't know how long he would be. I stood aside and watched the same exchange with three or so other people. All of us baffled as to why she couldn't reach down and hand us each a locker key, and frustrated by her repeated response 'I just swipe cards.'

Then a woman back in the line leapt forward completely furious and said 'I work here, and I can give out locker keys'. It turned out she was a staff member but not on duty and had come to work-out. She'd witnessed the receptionist refusing to hand out keys and took matters into her own hands. The receptionist's response "Good – you do that." So we have two forms of extraordinary behavior – the first a refusal to give adequate customer service and the second a leaping in to the rescue.

Think about this situation. There was no language barrier involved. In Switzerland I'm happy to accept that a rather surly 'Everything is closed' in response to the question in a gas station, 'Is there a café in the area?' is perfectly fine customer service.

But where there is no language barrier I do have an expectation that I should be viewed as valued customer and treated in a courteous and efficient manner with an effective transaction resulting from the interaction.

However, thinking about the Swiss experience and the YMCA experience led me away from my first reaction to the Y's receptionist which was to complain about her attitude. I wondered if there was some kind of hidden 'language' barrier or at least communications gap. Maybe the receptionist swiping the cards felt she'd be reprimanded by her supervisor if she did someone else's job. Maybe she didn't know (or care) that it was within her power to show some initiative; maybe she didn't know how the locker key system worked.

This got me wondering what it is about a real language barrier that makes one less quick to judge a perceived attitude or experience, and try to learn more about the situation, or be less judgmental than in a situation where one is assuming something. In one of the Swiss post offices I had to watch how people were getting counter service (by taking a number from a central point and then looking at a screen to see that number being 'called' to a particular service agent).

On a mental replay I wondered whether I, and others behind me in the queue, could have been more helpful to the receptionist – saying something affirming like 'I see you're on your own right now – that must make thing more difficult if people are expecting you to do the full range of jobs by yourself.' I recalled a quote I got from somewhere "Without hope and without fear may I be decent in my actions and kind to all people".

So the questions I'm now left with are: "Is one to one customer service actually a two-way interaction? If customers go in open minded and with a pleasant demeanor, treating the agent with respect and without expectation more likely to result in good customer service than going in with expectations of how a customer service agent 'should' behave?' How is customer service best designed in to an organization? What are your views?