Customer Service for a Price

OK, show of hands. Who flies Air Canada? Now, who thinks they have mediocre customer service? Last question: Who wants to pay $25 to $35 to talk to a customer service rep who actually knows what they are doing? That is apparently the new deal at Air Canada and it seems, like every other pinch, nip, tuck, slash and gouge at airline service we’ve seen lately, to be the result of an airline’s desire to squeeze every last dime from their customers. 

Toronto Star writer Chris Sorenson wrote, “In an era of continued cost-cutting, the country's largest airline yesterday rolled out a new service called "On My Way" that, for a fee, promises to help passengers cope with delays and cancellations beyond the airline's control, including bad weather or airport traffic.” 

I may be wrong about this, the world has changed so much in the last three minutes and all, but isn’t that what airline customer service is for? In fact, isn’t that what customer service is all about, helping customers? I seem to recall a time when airlines helped their inconvenienced and stranded passengers for free. In fact, I seem to recall that the airlines considered that service to be a point of pride, not a point of sale. 

Except, those days are over and now airlines seem to be vying with credit card companies to see which can be the more predatory with their customers. Let’s see what we would get for our $35:

  • Access to a group of specially trained Customer Service Agents who are available around-the-clock, seven days a week, to address your travel needs
  • Priority rebooking on the first available flight (with Air Canada or another airline)
  • Complimentary hotel accommodations, car rental or other ground transportation
  • Appropriate meal vouchers, and more. 

All that sounds very nice, especially the “and more” part. In fact, it is what the flying public used to expect of an airline in the good old days for free. However, what happens if you decide to hang on to your money and opt out of the “On My Way” customer service program? Presumably, you get the usual customer service. 

No doubt they feel that alone is enough incentive to make you pay. 

The problem is that incentivizing customer service the way Best Buy does, charging for it the way many banks today charge you for speaking with a teller, is exactly the wrong way to deal with today’s difficult business climate. Rather than making it easier for people to do business with them, these companies choose to make it harder. 

These are not decisions that are forced upon them by circumstance; they are planned and executed with little or no consideration for those who will be affected, the customer! These are tactics that are cynically applied to force the customer to spend more than they should for services that should be free with their original purchase. Consider how different things would be if Air Canada or Best Buy actually decided to upgrade their customer service sections rather than just retraining a small number for the purpose of selling their services. More people would consider them actually worth patronizing which means more sales and more income and a better reputation. You have to wonder what is going on with the suits in the executive suite. Is it possible that no one told them about this little fact of marketing, that if you make your establishment worth patronizing, you will get and keep customers? Or, is it more likely that someone actually did articulate that position, passionately defended it, perhaps, and the boss, after careful consideration and reflection—understanding the pros and cons of each side of the debate—decided to go the other way? 

The Bottom Line

The cynic in me is definitely leaning toward the second option, no question about it. The decision-makers in cases like these normally have some compelling motive to do something this customer-hostile and no, it is not the cost of jet fuel. The main trouble is that they have forgotten the importance of the customer to their business. They have forgotten how their company rose on good customer service and they don’t realize that their company can fall the same way. 

Your company, your small business, remains afloat because your service is better than your competitors. Time and time again I have asked small business owners the secret of their success and I have never once heard about technology, management, branding or any of the myriad other important things that go into a business. No, I was told about customer service and I was told about it by enough people that the message got through even to me: Treat your customers like gold. Give them a great customer service experience that they will remember for a lifetime. 

One more thing: Real customer service is free!