Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Customer Service Fiasco at Seattle City Light

Remember Lily Tomlin from the days when there was a monopoly on phone service? "We don't care. We don't have to. We're the phone company." Apparently, the same has been mostly true for at least one power company the past few days. The good news is that with a spotlight on the story, and enough public outrage, apparently Seattle City Light discovered they do have a heart after all - or at least found one they could borrow, under pressure from the mayor's office.

In what surely must have been a PR nightmare, a 13-yr-old boy who is well-known in his neighborhood for fundraising for good causes lost his cat up a 40-ft utility pole when it was chased by a dog. When KING aired the story in their news broadcast last night, I wasn't the only one shocked and bothered by the stupidity of SCL in claiming the cat could come down on its own from that high up a pole (as opposed to a tree), surrounded by buzzing electrical wires.

While plenty of trolls began advocating rocks and BB guns, there is something about the plight of an animal that finds itself in trouble through no fault of its own that tends to get people motivated to take action. Eventually SCL was talked down out of their own tree and apparently rescued Kitty from the pole. Hurray for angry customers.

Why do I bother to speak out about this in public? I regularly comment on customer service issues because it's not just about technology for me. It's technology AND interacting well with other human beings with an eye toward making the combination personally and professionally profitable whenever possible. In this instance, Seattle City Light shot themselves in the foot though with any luck, their efforts this morning may have redirected the shot so that they'll only have suffered a glancing blow.

Telling strangers motivated only by their own sense of justice to call in support of rescuing a cat on top of a utility pole that (as reported by one such caller) that the owner should have kept better watch on the cat is not good customer service. Some of these people were even in the neighborhood expected to be impacted by a brief power outage, were it to be necessary to rescue the cat and if they are willing to go dark for a bit, then that ought to have been a good indicator of public sentiment.

As a customer service agent with no power to actually change policy, what could these folks who were receiving phone calls have done? Tough call, but here's my best guess from the sidelines...

First, once you realize that you're dealing with more than one call, get more information and take the time to check out the story yourself. It should not be a surprise, even to people who don't care that much about cats, that this issue isn't going to just go away on its own.

Next, notify a supervisor immediately of the issue, just like you would report a power outage or any other big event that is likely to result in a lot of calls. Then begin collecting data on the calls and let each caller know that they are not alone in their outrage and that their comments are being collected and forwarded on for further review of the situation so that they truly feel heard and that some sort of action will result.

For those callers who tried to reach supervisors and were denied, my recommendation is the agents should have put them through. This is not the sort of thing you should try to deal with on your own. If the supervisor already on the line with another outraged caller, then say as much and ask if the individual would like to hold or to have their comments added to the others.

Ultimately, it may be necessary to point out that there is such an extensive response on the matter that supervisors can't talk to callers and take action but worded correctly, this should be taken as good news by the callers.

If they were really smart (and it's probably not too late for this), SCL would begin posting cat rescue updates on their website. I realize that might sound like poor resource management, but really it's not, when you consider the importance of call avoidance. Now that the cat is no longer up the pole without a way down, you don't really want to keep fielding more calls from irate pet lovers. Plus, if you have some good photos and a good story to talk about how you came to realize the situation was a much bigger deal than you originally figured it to be, yada yada yada, you might even be able to turn a PR nightmare into something else that makes you look a lot better.

Whether you're an employee (of any kind), a politician, or a power company, it's as much about perception as anything else. SCL has stopped the bleeding in that area but could really benefit from a blood transfusion now after the fact. Openly pointing out what they did right along with an appropriate amount of humility over what they did wrong will go a long way to improving their public image.

How do you recover from personal PR nightmares?