Thursday, January 13, 2011

Customer Service: A Tale of Two Countries

"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times." Actually, it doesn't matter what sort of economic times Australia or the US are experiencing in regard to the quality of customer service in each nation. Though Mickey and I love Sydney and its Aussie inhabitants, we find the efficiency and friendliness of service here below the American par to which we are accustomed.

(Oh, did you want to find out what happened to the sack of Christmas presents I thoughtlessly left at The Hotel Griffon in San Francisco? I know you did. We'll get there. Stay with me).

So, without further ado, I'll present the evidence, the Sydney customer service "horror" stories we tell at parties to shock our friends:

  1. Return Policies (or lack thereof) - I've had the misfortune of needing to return clothing from a TGV store in the CBD and Veronika Maine. For fear of this exact situation, I held on to my receipts, didn't remove the tags and returned the items to the stores the day after I bought them. The t-shirt shop in the TGV insisted that I get store credit though nothing in the store had any hope of fitting my non-emo sized brother; that's why I was returning it! The manager eventually refunded my money, but it was painful. I wasn't as lucky at Veronika Maine. I had to accept store credit and pick out something else. I cried in the store and they threw in a pair of leggings so really I guess this isn't so egregious. I just wish every store could be a bit more like Nordstrom. I had to return something there over the holiday and they didn't even require my receipt and asked no questions... what a relief.
  2. Property Managers and Estate Agents - If you believe in reincarnation and met a Sydney property manager/estate agent, you'd agree that they did something really, really bad in a past life to wind up in this one as an estate agent. In fact, if you have to deal with them on a regular basis, you start wondering what you yourself did in a past life to deserve it. I'm convinced their job descriptions bind them to not call you back. However, when they want a response from you, boy, they want it quick. They often show property for a fifteen minute window. Fifteen minutes in Sydney? Really? For estate agents, who are notoriously late, to schedule something from 3:15 - 3:30, say, is a joke. Real estate agents in the states aren't saints, but they call you back.
  3. Restaurants - The stories are too numerous to list here, but here are a couple of my faves. We once went to a Japanese restaurant that ran out of tea. We found this out 30 minutes after we ordered our tea. First, you're a Japanese restaurant! Second, why didn't you let us know when we ordered? Many Sydney restaurants prefer that you make a booking beforehand and look at you funny when you present them with a bit of walk-in business. I'm always stunned when the restaurant is half empty, but they tell you they're booked out. We've been to many restaurants that have separate menus for different sections of the restaurant. The bar menu is for the bar and the longer menu is for the restaurant. Sometimes the dividing lines for these sections are so nonsensical you find yourself asking the servers the same retarded questions more than once: "so, if I sit three meters away, I have to order off of this menu?" Or, "I can only purchase that cocktail upstairs and then I have to walk through security again to bring it back?" I could go on and on and on, but our latest experience was kind of funny. A bar told us we couldn't have a pitcher of cocktails because "people kept asking for them and they take too long to make." 
  4. Dry Cleaners - Aside from the Incident, I've had other less violent, yet still disappointing experiences with dry cleaners. There are two different vendors that added new stains to my clothes and then looked put upon when I asked them to re-clean them. When I showed up to collect my clothes at another on the appointed day, they told me my items wouldn't be there until the next day. "If you need to pick it up Saturday, you have to say Friday." Silly me for not counting backward one day.
  5. Port Stephens Samurai Beach "Resort" - I can't generalize to say that Australian hotels and/or B&Bs are lacking. In fact, most that I've stayed at are great. Yet, we had a very interesting experience at the Samurai Beach "Resort," a spot puzzlingly ranked number one on tripadvisor. Housekeeping staff did not clean the place daily despite it being a beach "resort" and the tendency for sand to get everywhere. Their method of delivering extra blankets, pillows and towels to our room was shouting 'hey, you guys!' when we walked by reception one morning. They tried to charge us $30/night for our third guest presumably for the extra pillow that we ourselves had to pick up from reception a day after we requested it. Maybe I could cut Samurai some slack if I had seen the koalas that allegedly live on their property, but I didn't so I won't.
  6. George Street Cinema - While sorting out a seating issue before a movie once, an ornery usher told my friend Jess to move her handbag. It wasn't in the aisle, it was just in front of her, yet he told us to "put your handbags in your lap or leave it at home." What?! Since when is that the rule? Everyone's familiar with don't talk and turn off your phone, but keep your handbag in your lap? This guy was nuts. 
  7. Online shopping with Big W - My savvy colleague Adam bought a DVD for his wife from Big W online. He was told it would arrive in about eight days. On the eighth day he rang them to find out the status of the order. 'Actually, that item is out of stock,' they told him. They had already charged his credit card and seemed to have no plans to let him know his item would never arrive.
  8. Health Insurance - don't. even. get. me. started. My limited dealings with my health insurance company have turned me into a bitter, crazy person. Why do they insist on conducting business via fax? Can't they tell I'm under 30 and incapable of using that machine? :)
Mickey was meant to write about the hassles of banking, setting up internet and phone service and even trouble with booking seats on Qantas, a usually quite reliable airline, but perhaps his rage is just too fresh. :) 

And just how does this compare to my experience in the states when I left that precious little sack of Christmas presents in the Hotel Griffon and remembered two days later? Well, in a panic I rang them 30 minutes before we were to depart for southern California. They said they'd look into it and call me back. They didn't call me back, but when I rang them back they said that my items did not turn up in lost and found but that they would check with the housekeeping supervisor on duty next Monday. This was a bad sign that my items did not turn up in lost and found. Surely, a canvas bag would have been identified as lost property. 

I called them a couple more times on Monday morning (when they said they'd get back to me) and by Monday afternoon they had the following story. A housekeeper added the bag to her cart, then it was somehow mistaken as trash, then they went looking through the trash and discovered some of my lost items. Okay, here's what was in the bag: a set of five NARS lip glosses, unopened Orbit gum, unopened hot mustard, bar of soap shaped like a horseshoe, unopened calendar, Christmas card and five bags of special chocolate toffee candies from the ferry building's farmers market. Here's what was recovered: two of the bags of chocolate candies, the Christmas card and the canvas bag once containing all of these presents.

When I later received these surviving items in the mail, I realized how completely implausible their story was. None of the items looked like they had been anywhere near a trash bin. If they had, that assumes the hotel staff dug through 2 - 5 days worth of trash in order to recover them. My mom and some friends are convinced that the housekeepers stole the items and were guilted into returning some of them to management. In any case, Hotel Griffon apologized profusely, sent the surviving items to my mom's house and credited our account with $150, the value I attributed to the lost goodies.

I had trouble forgiving myself for this carelessness initially, but in the end, it could have been much worse. Now, I like to look at it as my small contribution to boosting America's economy.

In comparing the quality of customer service across nations, the conversation always returns to tipping. Because the tipping culture runs rampant in the US, does it improve customer service? This may be true in some cases, but if you've ever been to Japan you'll know that excellent service doesn't always require a tip.

While griping about the inconsistencies of America's tipping culture, when to do it, how much, etc., it occurred to me that the housekeepers at Hotel Griffon may have treated my lost bag of Christmas treats as their holiday tip. Mickey stayed there for a week and a half and didn't tip the housekeepers, perhaps inciting their anger and prompting sticky fingers. Tipping the housekeepers didn't even occur to me and that's what's really frustrating about tipping, the lack of clear rules.

On one side of the Pacific, you have sometimes appalling Australian service, but no tipping culture (even low-level workers are paid a living wage). On the other side, you'll find better service in America, but confusing and often uncomfortable expectations in regard to tipping. My conclusion? Perhaps both nations need to take a lesson from the Japanese. A stronger sense of shame and embarrassment might encourage service providers to step up their game. Though on the other hand, a healthy dose of shame might have also prevented me from writing this post. 

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