The Tale of Two Cities – A Story of Customer Service


“It was the best of Times and the Worst of Times” – Charles Dickens

My wife and I were excited about our very first trip to Rome, Italy! We had flown all night, wanting to give ourselves as much time to do all the things during our trip of a lifetime that we could. We got off the plane tired, hot, and looking very much like we needed freshening up. We immediately went to the small hotel we had booked on the off chance the room was ready for us.

We arrived at the hotel at 11am in the morning and were met with fact that the room was indeed not ready for us. But the customer service agent after seeing us, realized that we needed to freshen up a bit. He courteously informed us that even though the room was not ready, yet we could go to the room, change clothes, brush our teeth and make ourselves presentable as we toured the city. My wife was very appreciative as she wanted to feel “human” again, as she put it.

Flash forward to 2020 and our trip to a beach town on the West Coast. We had flown all morning from the East Coast to arrive at the San Francisco airport. From there we had proceeded on a four-hour drive to reach our destination. My wife was not feeling very “human” when we showed up to the hotel. Once again, we arrived early for check in and understandably the room was not ready yet. But this time the customer service agent reaction was very different. My wife asked if they had a lobby bathroom she could use to freshen up.

This time the customer service agent informed her there was no lobby restroom available. My wife asked if there was someplace she could change, etc. and the customer service agent replied that she thought there was a public restroom at the beach she could utilize but she wasn’t sure since she had never used it. When my wife asked for any other options, she was told that there was nothing else that could the customer service agent could think of…and thus began the Tale of Two Cities. Oh, and what was the option my wife chose? We ended up changing in the car, taking turns watching for people passing by…

In the new Covid-conscientious world where every customer is valuable can we afford to have associates who look at our customers as simply being there?

The first step in training is to get our customer service representatives to recognize the opportunities to assist our customers present to us every day to assist them with their challenges and requests. The customer service agent at this hotel was very good at the function of answering a question by providing a “solution,” but not good at recognizing a customer service moment.

Recognizing a customer service moment takes training for all customer service agents. Some of our associates look at the job simply as series of task to perform to come with a result. Our first opportunity as leaders is creating an environment where we view the customer as a person. A person with needs that may not fit within the box that we train our associates on.

This means that when training our associates, we need to focus on two major things: Listening and Empathy.

How do we train our associates to listen effectively? We need to realize that we listen in three different ways.

  1. The first is combative listening where we simply tell the person they are wrong or “No, we can’t possibly do that.”
  2. The second is passive listening where the person listening simply looks at the person not giving off any sign that they are concerned, nor that they care about the topic the person is talking about.
  3. The third and best way to listen is to listen actively. In other words, active listening is where the listener seeks to understand what the customer is saying or asking. Actively listening allows us to seize the customer service moment. Only by actively listening to the customer can we fully understand the scope of the guest request.

Fully understanding the guest request can help us decide what options we can offer the customer. At the beach town in California, the guests (my wife and I) were left with the impression that the customer service representative was offering a solution without really understanding the guest request.

Which leads to the second skill we need to train our customer service associates to employ: empathy. This is the skill of putting our selves in the shoes of the person speaking. The customer service representative in California said she had no knowledge of the public restroom at the beach. So, in my wife’s mind, how could this be an option if the customer service person had never used it? Would it even really exist? In my wife’s prospective she was simply offering a vague option, not a real solution. So, did it really solve the problem in the eyes of the customer?

How do we train on our associates on these two skills? First, set the example by listening carefully to our associates and our customers even when we know the answer. Model the behavior you want from your associates. Second, use real life examples to role play with your new associates. Take to time to sit down with the associate and go over different scenarios you know they will be faced with in their position. Let them tell you how they would handle the situations that will surely arise. Also, when working with the associate, have them work on options while showing empathy for each guest. Training associates to think from the perspective of the customer can only be done through training and reinforcement of empathy in each scenario. Without empathy, the option presented will be looked at as only that, an option, instead of what is the best solution to the problem for our customer.

Which City does your company reside in?

Joe Lipham’s article “Tale of Two Cities” was originally published on October 14, 2020 by Training magazine.

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