You Don’t Define Great Customer Service. Your Customer Does.

My car was in the shop last week and I reserved a car at a neighborhood Enterprise rental location.  About a half-hour before they closed for the day I showed up at their office and stood in a line of four people, all of us waiting to pick up our cars.

If you’ve ever rented from Enterprise you’ll know that they have a practice of sending representatives from the desk to go with you to your car.  In the lot the agent does a walk-through, describes how the gas cap and radio works and how the car’s lights turn on and off.  They then wave as you drive away.  It’s clearly a “high-touch” customer service standard for the brand, since it works this way at every Enterprise I’ve been to.

Last week there was only one employee working the desk.  She wrote up the paperwork, scanned licenses and found keys in about five minutes.  Then she’d put on her coat, scarf and mitts and descend into the parking lot for 10 minutes with the customer to explain the gas cap and radio, before returning to the office to remove her coat and start again.  Since the cycle time was 15 minutes per renter, a line of four renters took nearly an hour to process. 

At some point Enterprise decided that having employees escort customers to cars was a high-touch customer service intervention and they made it a standard practice.  For the four of us in line there was nothing about it that felt like service.  We all just wanted the keys and to get on the road,  We would all have been happy to come back inside if there was an issue with the car.  The agent couldn’t / wouldn’t do it.

Here’s the take away:  As a business, it’s easy to assume that you know what customers want.  You can craft complicated, labor-intensive high-touch moments for your customers only to find that they aren’t actually what customers want.  Great customer service is ultimately defined by the customer.  The Enterprise rep was obviously following policy with the best of intentions,.  But she created hours of wasted time for her line of customers.

You actually see this kind of fake “service” a lot in hospitality:  Valet parking is the most frequent example (leaving your car with the valet often means waiting 15-20 minutes longer for the car to come from the lot versus doing it yourself).   Another example is bellman luggage service at hotels, where your bags typically take 15-20 minutes longer to reach your room than if you’d carried them.

We have these kinds of “high-touch” interventions across healthcare and many healthcare executives often get warm and fuzzy thinking about the “branding” opportunity they have to give “high-touch” care to patients as they’re introduced.  In some offices I’ve seen, registration is done in private workspaces where clients sit down, are offered coffee and then wade through stacks of paperwork.  I suspect that many patients would much prefer to register at a kiosk or on their phones than suffer through a long in-person registration.

I’ve worked at a highly service-focused healthcare company where we initially greatly over-estimated our patient’s appetites for long visits.  We thought that patients would uniformly welcome extended visits, but soon learned that many of them had things to do and wanted short visits (or calls, or texts, or video chats) for short problems.  That made us much more flexible about booking appointments.

Don’t make the mistake of over-serving what you think is high-touch customer service.  It’s easy to do because delivering “more” seems so intuitive, though it’s sometimes the wrong thing to do.  Ask patients what they want, and listen to what they say.

A little irony:  Here’s recent ad from Enterprise, where they distinguish themselves by their ability to listen:   “At Enterprise we listen” it begins, “and we’ve been listening for more than 55 years….”  I sort of wish they had listened when I asked them for the keys and told them I was running late.



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