Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The disappearing customer

I have always been a person who manages to get overlooked, and frequently forgotten entirely, in customer service situations. I’m that person who arrives, hopeful, at the theatre box office to collect my definitely booked tickets and is told: “We don’t have a record of your booking.” I’m that person who phones up the bank, gets put on hold for 15 minutes and then hung up on because they’ve simply forgotten I’m on the line. Give me a customer service situation – anything – and I’ll be forgotten at some point during it. Guaranteed.

I ordered the mini cheese and ham toasties in Starbucks for lunch today, handed over the money, was told to find a table and wait while the toasties heated up, did so. Did the toasties appear? Did they buggery. The barista had listened to my order, taken my money, watched me sit down, then allowed me to completely disappear from her brain. “Are my toasties ready?” I was forced to ask, in a mortifyingly small voice – Hell, I wish I’d ordered something with a less ridiculous name – nearly 10 minutes after I’d sat down. “Ohh, sorry!” said the barista, laughing. Oh, yes, you’re right, taking money and then promptly forgetting your customer – yes, that’s side-splitting.

Seriously, though, this happens to me all the time. For whatever reason – I don’t know, maybe because I’m polite, posh and female – I am apparently somebody who instantly gets lost in the system just as soon as I’ve entered it. I constantly have to repeat orders in restaurants and caf├ęs, watching as umpteen other tables get their food within a sensible length of time and mine doesn’t materialise. I’m getting mighty fed up with having to ask for everything twice, or more, and hearing my own pathetic voice saying things like: “I’m so sorry, but ... about that coffee I ordered half an hour ago ...?” or: “I’m really sorry, I’m sure it’s nobody’s fault, but I’ve been sitting in my freezing car on my own in Herne Hill for hours and nobody’s arrived yet to change my tyre.”

Yeah, I’m still raw about that last one – it only happened last Saturday night. And it really was a perfect example of this problem I have of being a disappearing customer. As soon as I discovered my flat tyre, at 5.30pm, I rolled unsteadily into a dark residential street in Herne Hill, and called the rescue service. It all seemed to go swimmingly: a polite voice answered, chuckled gently with me about my tyre-based misfortune, took all the details and location, booked the rescue vehicle and assured me somebody would be there by 6.28pm (nice and precise, exactly what you need in a slightly anxious situation), wished me well and Happy New Year and recited a reassuring limerick to me – well, not quite, but you get the picture: it was darned efficient, hunky dory and on track to be a thoroughly successful customer experience.

They even sent me a text to verify the booking! (she screamed) It read: “Dear Miss York” (ooh, my name; nice and personal), “a rescue vehicle will be with you no later than 6.28pm.” Excellent, there’s that reassuring precision again, and with a “no later than” added in for extra cushiony comfort. Brilliant, I thought; they’ll probably zoom over and be here before 6pm, even. Gold stars all round. I put my hazard lights on, swung my legs up to rest on the passenger seat, and began texting my friends to tell them of my dramatic situation.

You’ve guessed what happens in this story, of course, but sssh, I’m telling it anyway, for catharsis. At 6pm there was no sign of them and, considering they did boast “no later than”, I decided to phone up, in a non-confrontational way, just to check progress. I ought, really, to have realised something was amiss at this point, because I was greeted and spoken to – different customer service rep from earlier, unhelpfully – as though nobody had heard of my case. Disconcertingly, I had to restate rather too many of the details of my original call. It could have just been for security reasons, or whatever, but with hindsight this would seem to have been my opportunity to make a bit more noise to check they had actually registered my existence. Eventually: “Oh, yes, Miss York, we have 6.28pm as the call-out time.”

I rang off. Hmmm. As I waited through the next half an hour, getting very cold and a bit blue around the lips, I reflected mournfully on the situation. The second person was not nearly as reassuring as the first. He clearly didn’t actually bother contacting the rescue vehicle to check where it was – he simply glanced at a computer screen and threw that fast-approaching 6.28pm at me and hoped I’d shut up and disappear from his life.

6.30pm. Their bright, shiny, precise 6.28pm had been smashed to smithereens. I called again. The first voice answered, thankfully. She put me on hold so that she could call the rescue vehicle, and then came back to me: “We’re so sorry, Miss York. They haven’t been able to set off just yet, actually, as there’s been a serious delay at the base. It’s going to be another 45 minutes.”

What I should have said to her is this: “What sort of delay exactly? Late afternoon tea and biccies for the drivers? Lady, tell them to cease their dunking immediately and get their lazy good-for-nothing bums to Herne Hill and rescue me, your customer, because I’ve been sitting in my car, which is now colder than a witch’s tit, for an hour. And tell them they’ll have some explaining to do when they arrive because I am one angry lady driver. And also, your customer service sucks. Don’t make promises you obviously can’t keep. And it really wouldn’t hurt to read customers a reassuring limerick once in a while.”

Instead, I quietly said: “Oh, ok. But, was there possibly any way somebody could have informed me of that situation an hour ago ... you know, when you ... sort of confirmed that everything was on track and that I’d be rescued within the hour?”

With no explanation or apology from them beyond a pathetic “we can’t always keep to our promised times”, I sat there, teeth alternately chattering with cold and grinding with irritation, until the rescue truck eventually rocked up.

Seriously, what is it? What is it about me that means I end up in situations where I’ve ordered something I need, only for my request to be immediately lost? What actually happens behind the scenes? Is someone just scribbling my details on a bit of loo roll and then flushing it down the loo straight away? Are they not even scribbling them down in the first place?

I know I’m a bit repressed and full of pointless apologies and pleasantries, but I’ve learnt to be that way because somewhere along the line something convinced me that politeness makes people want to do things for you. I’ve spent 24 years as a polite person, living by the assumption that being a bit too bolshy and demanding in a restaurant will get you nothing except spit in your soup.

Well, clearly, that theory can go to hell. Apparently customer service types – who, understandably, get into a sort of trance sitting in their depressing little booths or open-plan offices that smell of body odour and hot computer wires and coffee, or shuffling around their restaurants lost in a reverie about the acting or writing career they should be enjoying by now – need us to actually bark our requests at them in order for them to wake up and notice.

Fine, if they want the whole thing to be less polite and even more unpleasant and difficult than it already is, I’ll give it a go. I’ll yell my initial order for my ham and cheese toasties and make the barista jump out of her (probably) Starbucks-branded skin. Anything to stop myself disappearing and having to say the word toasties more times than is dignified for a woman of my calibre. Read more by Maddie.