Almost Paradise... in Customer ServiceRecently, I had an experience whereby the principles of customer care sorely failed, and it reminded me that even when logistics break down, supplies fall short, and a company ends up short-staffed, companies need to remember that practicing customer service skills becomes even more important in these stressful situations. That may seem intuitive, right? However, in the race to pick up loose ends and keep things from unraveling, it can be easy for teams to focus on the logistics and not attend to their customers.

I’ll explain in more detail.

The Car Rental Industry Can be an Unpredictable Business

The story I’m referring to happened recently when I arrived in Hawaii (don’t roll your eyes – things can go wrong and be frustrating, even in “paradise”). Weary from the flight, yet excited to be in the tropics, I caught the car rental shuttle (from a prominent national brand – not one of the so-called “rent-a-wreck” companies), expecting to quickly grab my car that I had reserved months before. To my surprise, 40 or so people were waiting beneath a tent near the car company’s rental office. I assumed they didn’t have prior reservations, and I pitied their waiting as I proceeded to check in with the company to confirm my car reservation. I was directed outside, to wait under the tent along with the other customers, with no explanation from the customer service representative about the wait time or why a car was not immediately available.

I soon found out, by overhearing conversations from the other customers, that many of them had been waiting for over an hour, and they too had arranged their car rental long in advance. People were frustrated, and no one understood why there were plenty of cars in the lot, yet it was taking over an hour to get people a car. I soon heard people on their phones calling the customer service line and complaining. During this whole time, the actual live customer service team issuing the cars still didn’t offer explanations or try to personally explain to customers why there were delays. I realized, as I watched this all unfold, that the car rental company was violating some core principles of customer care.

It took me an hour and a half before my car was issued, and along the way, I jotted down some mental customer service dos and don’ts about how the car company could have addressed the situation in a way that didn’t eliminate future business from everyone who had to wait that day.

Principles of Customer Care #1: No Information is Misinformation

The car rental company, it turns out, was suffering some logistical breakdowns with cars not being returned on time, being short-staffed, and available cars not being ready for re-issue. However, the customer service representatives didn’t communicate this to the waiting customers – they were frantically trying to process everyone who came in to pick up their car, without personally discussing the problem, offering apologies, and letting customers know what to expect in terms of wait times. They assumed that customers would understand they were behind on logistics, and in their own frustration, they neglected the very people they were trying to serve. The customers, in turn, took the lack of information and filled in the missing gaps with theories of their own, leading to misinformation.

The lesson here? Be transparent with your customers, apologize, and make sure they understand that you’re working hard to address the problem. Ignoring an obvious problem does not make it disappear.

Principles of Customer Care #2: When You Can’t Control Logistics, Do Everything You Can to Make the Customer Comfortable

The car rental customer service representatives could not control certain factors that unfolded that day, but the one thing they could have controlled was the comfort of the customers who were waiting. The day was warm, and a nice touch would have been offering water and snacks to the customers, with frequent reassurances that the team was doing everything in their power to secure more vehicles. Circumstances are always different of course, but if you’re ever in the position where you have customers who are present, ask yourself what would make you more comfortable if you were in their shoes. It’s worth dedicating one or two staff members who are focused solely on customer comfort and addressing questions while you sort out the logistics of the breakdown.

Principles of Customer Care #3: Ensure Future Business by Offering Refunds, Upgrades, and Discounts

Perhaps the most surprising thing to occur during the whole car-rental wait time, was that at no time was I, or any of the other customers, offered a refund of any sort, upgrade, or discount for our inconvenience. Yes, we understood that factors unfolded that were out of the company’s control, but the company truly put a nail in their own coffin when they didn’t attempt to make amends and ensure future business by lessening the cost or future cost of a rental car. I heard quite a few people mention that they would never rent from the car company again, and furthermore, many were eager to hop on social media and share their experiences publically about the customer service breakdown.

Customer Service Training is your Cushion When Things Go Wrong

In most businesses, at some point, somehow, your logistics will fail, your supplies will fall short, and you will end up short-staffed. You can work hard internally to ensure this happens infrequently, but equally important is making sure that your customer service reps are well trained in principles of customer care. With proper customer service training, you can take your company’s worst moments and turn them into a still-positive experience for your customers.