Tuesday, February 17, 2009

When a Major Delay = Fabulous Service

Have I told you my Hertz story yet? No? Then you might not believe it's possible to equate a 3-hour delay in a car rental with the most excellent customer service on the face of the planet but I'll swear till my dying day that it's true.

Although I've told this customer service story lots of times to anyone who will listen - that's what people do when they are ecstatic, incredulous even, over the amazing service they've received - it's been a while since I've shared the whole thing and I haven't mentioned it here. It's time I fixed that.

I was reminded of my Hertz experience twice in as many weeks when members of my LinkedIn network asked related questions about service - what constitutes 5-Star Service and a request for examples of Moments of Truth in Service. Although my answers differed slightly in focus, both brought to mind the vacation that almost wasn't.

First, it helps to know how much this mini-vacation meant to me. While everyone else recently has been ridiculing the passenger who missed her flight, I have some ideas how she might have reached that state of collapse. There but for fortune...

In my case nearly ten years ago, our company had gone through yet another in a series of sizable layoffs a couple of weeks earlier. I hadn't had to let go many people myself, but this was one of the few times the line managers had not had much input into the process and that lack of involvement had resulted in some mistakes that made things messier.

Much of that didn't impact me directly but layoffs are never an enjoyable aspect of a manager's job and this was still even more emotional than normal. Helping people cope - on my team and others - and mitigating the hit on productivity was taking its toll.

Then there was the house that we were supposed to be building. The time that wasn't already spent on coaching employees or caring for a 3-yr-old all went to packing up moving boxes so we could tear down our existing home to the dirt. The packing up was happening but uncertainty and delays over the tearing down part meant we had to cancel our midwest baseball stadium tour. After having enjoyed our northeast baseball stadium tour so much the year before, this was a major league disappointment.

In the midst of it all, Tall Person learned of a family wedding and decided it would be important for him to attend. A weekend alone with a toddler for me when I was already feeling stretched - how fun. I started to feel envious of my sister's planned trip to Telluride that same weekend with her infant son.

When my father caught on, he quickly suggested that I fly into Salt Lake City with Small Person. It would be a bit of a drive from there, but certainly manageable. We'd spend a long weekend together as a sort of mini-family reunion. It gave me something to look forward to and I kept myself focused on that ray of hope the way I've focused at other times on the finish line of a long and brutal race.

When departure day arrived, Tall Person drove us to the airport, then went to work for a few hours before leaving for the airport himself. The flight itself was non-eventful, but when I went to the car rental, Hertz had not yet installed the car seat I'd requested. The attendants wrestled with the installation while the agent stood there with my paperwork and driver's license, waiting to hand it over to me when the car was ready.

Still they struggled with the carseat, so being more experienced with that operation, I jumped in to help. The agent tried to stay out of the way and idly looked over the paperwork in his hands. Doing so, he came to a realization and called me over.

"There is a problem with your license. It's expired."

My heart sunk. Immediately I realized the truth of what he was saying. In the midst of everything else that had been going on in my life, I'd managed to overlook that important detail just long enough to have forgotten about it altogether during the intervening months. And just as quickly, I realized the enormity of the situation, even before he spelled it out for me.

"Without a valid license, we can't rent you the car."

There have been very few times when I have come up against truly irreversible mistakes but when it happens, it has always resulted in the same hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach - no, no, no... it can't be true. In that moment, I may not have become the woman in that video, but I understood how she felt.

Not generally one to allow emotions take control (crying at movies doesn't count!), I was suddenly unable to prevent months worth of pent-up tears as they began to slide down my face. I tried valiantly to keep my composure and found I just couldn't. It seemed there was nothing to do but go back inside and re-book myself on a return flight. I wasn't even sure how I would get home from the airport.

As unwanted as they were on my part, the tears were too much for the Hertz agent. He started casting about for solutions. Could my family come get me? No - they were too far away. Did I know someone else in the area who could take me? No, I could think of no one who lived in the area. I had flown all this way for nothing. I was going back home to an empty house, both literally and figuratively.

Still, the agent kept looking for answers. Still, none of them were workable. He went to make some phone calls to see if there might be other solutions he hadn't considered. I collapsed into the chair near the car I wouldn't be driving, my son trying to offer hugs for tears he didn't understand. I called both my husband and my father to share the bad news.

Ultimately, the Hertz agent returned. The very last thread of hope he'd been following showed some promise. Maybe, just maybe, I could get a driver's license in the state of Utah. It had seemed like a slim chance at first, but he'd called around and he was reasonably sure it could work if I thought I could pass a written test. He'd have one of the attendants drive me.

It seemed like a lot to go through, but I don't struggle too much with multiple choice exams and anything seemed preferable at that point to cutting my trip short. I regained control of my emotions, keeping tight rein on hope as well as distress, and Ahmed drove me over to the nearest Department of Licensing office. I called Tall Person to share the shred of hope I was clinging to.

We arrived at the DOL office just before noon, with lunchtime crowds building. I stood in line forever, filling out the license application form while Ahmed, the Hertz attendant, entertained Small Person with paper cranes he folded from forms others had discarded. Finally, I reached the head of the line and explained my plight. The woman was sympathetic but we hit a road block when she realized I could not supply a local address.

"Don't you know anyone in Utah? Anyone at all whose address you could use?"

I tried to search my brain but it was quickly becoming addled with all the stress and the knowledge that the line was building behind me just compounded the problem. No, no family or friends in Utah came to mind. I could think of women with children my son's age all across the US - Indiana, Texas, California, Massachusetts, Georgia - but none of them in Utah. No work contacts either. I started to feel dizzy. The line continued to build behind me. I was sure I was about to become so much bureaucratic roadkill.

Instead, the woman encouraged me, "I'm sure you can think of someone. Just step aside right over there and when you've come up with a local address, come straight back to me so that you don't have to stand in line all over again." I found it easier to breathe again; the tunnel vision that had been encroaching began to recede. I thanked her profusely then pulled out my PDA and set to work looking through my address book for a clue to a local contact.

Finally, I hit on one. A work colleague of my husband's... I didn't know his wife well, but hadn't she mentioned her family was from Provo? I called Tall Person for a third time. He was at lunch with the colleague in question and they had already guessed what I needed.

"I bet you're calling for Jennifer's parent's address, aren't you? Here it is..."

Two major roadblocks down, one more yet to go. Ahmed the Hertz attendant still patiently entertaining my son, I began working on the open book multiple choice exam. The only tough part was locating the information in the pamphlet they provided. I had to will myself to slow down and not panic, and even to remember to breathe. Finally, I had just two more questions to answer. I kept flipping through the pamphlet and could not seem to find the right sections containing the answers.

Then, with the worst possible timing... "Mommy! I have to go!" For that matter, so did I, which was not helping me think. And we were both hungry, having had very little to eat all day. But just two questions to go... I looked pleadingly at Ahmed. He was kind enough to come escort Small Person to the bathroom while I finished my exam. Clearly that was way above and beyond the call of duty; I knew it and was beyond thankful.

Turning in my exam was an exercise in torture. The man responsible for validating my responses pulled out the correction key and started checking. The first couple responses marked wrong didn't surprise me, given the situation. The next few concerned me; how many could I miss and still pass? Then as his pen bled red all over the paper, I stopped breathing again. Feeling dizzy once more, it barely occurred to me that this couldn't possibly be right. No matter how stressed I was, there was simply no way that I could have gotten every single answer wrong. No way.

It seemed odd to him also and he took a second look even before I thought to ask. "Oh, wrong key!" I nearly collapsed with relief.

Validated against the appropriate key, he reassured me that I had indeed passed. I went through the motions of having a photo taken and scheduling the driving portion of the exam I knew I wouldn't be taking and then rushed back to Ahmed and my son, full of smiles and a temporary Utah driver's license in my hand.

Three and a half hours from when I first stepped into the Hertz office, I dropped off Ahmed at the airport again and headed south and west to Telluride, arriving just an hour after my sister and in plenty of time for a late dinner.

When I returned to Seattle at the end of the weekend, I wrote an extensive thank you to Hertz and set about getting a new Washington State driver's license which, given that I was beyond six months overdue, would have been much more difficult had it not been for the Utah license I had in my possession at that point. Meanwhile, somewhere in Provo is a family who has never even met me, receiving junk mail in my name.

Nearly ten years later, I still love to tell people how out of the way the Hertz people went, both personally and professionally, to help. They didn't just provide excellent customer service; they helped me deal with a problem that was entirely of my own making. And while I have no idea which licensing office I visited, I am equally thankful to every agent there who helped me, encouraged me, reassured me, and in every way possible, made it easier for me to accomplish what I needed when just behaving as we've come to expect bureaucrats to behave would have made it tougher - or even impossible.

Some people talk about delighting the customer or excellence in service. Instead, I believe it comes down to just caring enough to do whatever is in your power to have a positive impact on the customer's experience with your brand. Every customer interaction is a tangible exercise in brand management.

That day so many years ago, every individual I encountered provided me with a brand experience that has stuck with me all this time because of how superbly positive it was in the face of utter hopelessness. Who wouldn't want that kind of customer service? The beauty of it is that it doesn't have to cost the company extra.

Sure, not having Ahmed around for a couple of hours had to have been a bit of a stretch for the Hertz guys. But it's not like someone shows up every day with an expired driver's license, so going to such extremes is probably not needed often enough to drive up costs significantly. And I like to think that my continued raving over my experience with them is worth more than enough to cover whatever costs they did incur. The long-term gains for great brand management in the form of great customer service can be huge.

How is your customer service influencing your brand?