Customer service

March 24, 2007

In my last post I mentioned the growing disparity between customer service rhetoric and reality. We had some great examples of this at the university recently while we were enjoying some consultancy.

Picture the scene: we have half a dozen people in a room for several days, it’s dry old stuff to work through, so they need some stimulating drinks of coffee and tea on arrival and then mid-morning and mid-afternoon, and they need a sandwich lunch.

Problem 1 is that some misguided soul decided a few months ago that staff didn’t need two training rooms in the admin area and that one could be relinquished for use as office space, so we have only one left. Consequently it is busy a lot of the time and if you want to book a three-day consultancy session there, fitting in with the diaries of half a dozen staff and an external consultant, your chances are slim to nil. So we end up in a student pool room (sorry students, you’ll have to go elsewhere). But, the student computers are on a different network from the admin computers, so the requisite number of workstations have to be switched over to the staff network for the duration and given temporary IP addresses, network configurations and security permissions.

Problem 2 is that the catering department don’t deliver to that building because it’s a student building, and in any case food and drink normally aren’t allowed in there. So we have to get the no drinks rule waived and then send a runner from the meeting to collect the tea and coffee twice a day. We make our own signs to try and prevent students walking in unaware every five minutes; they mostly work.

Problem 3 is that the room is freezing. The cooling is set to cope with a room full of forty students with PCs running, we have six people and two machines. The cooling cannot be controlled from the room (it is a student room after all) so we have to ring the estates department to turn it off. Towards the end of the first day, they do.

Problem 4 is paying for lunch. Although coffee and tea can be ordered on a hospitality form and collected from the restaurant, it is felt that a more flexible approach is needed for lunch so that everyone can have something they want. Choices:

  • Everyone pays for their own lunch, and claims it back on expenses. Lots of paperwork.
  • One person pays for everyone’s lunch and claims it back on expenses. Expensive for one person and difficult to arrange as there are no less that three different food counters, each selling different things.
  • A hospitality form is left behind the counter and catering staff complete it with the purchases made (like a tab at the bar). Too many food counters to be practical.
  • Give everyone a fixed-price voucher to use as payment instead of cash. Purchases are then charged to the cost code on the voucher. Seems simple and flexible.

Problem 5 then is that catering staff need to know before they touch the till that you are paying with a voucher because for reasons no-one can explain, food purchased on vouchers is not rung through the till. What this does to stock control goodness knows, but as soon as the till is touched it becomes a problem for the staff and they will surely let you know it. Of course this means that they cannot use the till to total up the value of items so much anguished and unaccustomed mental arithmetic is called for. On top of this, the staff have no clue afterwards what it was you bought. Of course the budget will be charged the full cost of the voucher regardless of how much is purchased on it, so they are happy if you go under, but go over and woe betide you.

Problem 6 involves an open day coinciding with one of the consultancy days. Attendees are given a very similar voucher to ours with which to purchase a drink to the value of £1. So now, even when presented well in advance of their touching the till, the staff think that it is a drink voucher and that we are trying to spend it in the wrong place,until all has been patiently explained by each of us in turn.

Problem 7 occurs because not all the counters serve the same things. If, for example, you want a hot meal with a cup of coffee, it involves a trip to two different counters, but only one of them can have the voucher so it can’t be done. Apparently, although it can’t be done for coffee it can be done for fruit and other sundries. It seems beyond imagination that someone could write “taken £3.00” or some such on the back of the voucher, presumably because you could then walk off with the voucher and not hand it in, thus getting a free meal. But you can have free fruit and other sundries by the same mechanism? Whatever.

Problem 8 as the language barrier. Not all catering staff have, let us say, English as their first language. When they serve, every difficulty is magnified.

Problem 9 was staff attitude. This actually happened on the last day. You won’t believe it but it’s true. A member of our party had settled on a menu which maximised the value of the voucher: a toasted sandwich, cup of coffee, piece of fruit and yogurt comes to within 10p of the voucher value. Staff can’t quite believe you can get all this for the money and work it out differently each day until the correct arithmetic is explained. On the last day, the lady behind the counter says to her “You can’t have much going on in your personal life if you can remember from one day to the next that this lot costs £3.90.” Seriously, she actually said that to a customer. Amazing.

I’m sure that if we sat around carefully trying to design a more onerous, obstructive and ineffective system we could probably do it, but just how it might be made worse I can;t think right now.

Eventually our tales of how we had each fared at redeeming our vouchers became the chief topic of conversation over lunch. So all in all I wish that whoever-it-was hadn’t given away that second training room.

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