Thursday, August 27, 2009

Right Question, Half an Answer

It was the summer of 1975. It's easy to remember which year, because it was coming up to America's bicentennial celebration (1776-1976). I got a phone call from my friend Ed. His family had been in the jewelry business years ago, and one of Ed's uncles was using the family brand for flag lapel pins. These pins were special: The flag was combined with emblems for the police, firefighters, VFW, and other major groups. Uncle Dick had even gotten approval from NYPD and FDNY for the pins to be displayed on their uniforms.

Ed was calling me to see if I would go with him to the county offices so that he could get a vendor license to go around our suburban county and hawk the pins to various groups. I agreed to go. That afternoon left me with some wisdom, and a great story.

We walked into the county building in Hackensack. To our right was a large glassed-in booth with a sign that read, "Information."

We walked up to the window, and Ed asked, "Where can I get a vendor license?"
"Room 105, down this hallway, and on your left." "Thank you!," said Ed, and off we went to Room 105.

There were a few other people waiting in that room to approach the clerk. We waited, talking about golf, summer, cars, and books we were reading. Soon enough, it was Ed's turn, and he said, "I'd like to get a vendor license." The statement prompted a question: "Are you a vet?" (We took this to mean veteran, not veterinarian.) "Uh, no." And then we were told we'd have to go upstairs to Room 306. And we did that.

Again, we waited our turn, and Ed stated his purpose. "Are you a vet?" came the question. "Uh, no." We were directed to Room 212, and so we went downstairs to 212 and repeated the exercise. "Not a vet? You need to talk to Information." "We did talk to Information." "Well, that's where you need to go." I joked with the ever patient Ed that we had gotten into some enormous, human pinball game as we bounced from room to room.

And so back we went to the glassed-in booth near the front door of the building. This time, a different person was stationed at the window. "I'd like to get a vendor license?" Ed asked more than stated. "And no, I'm not a vet."

"Oh, you can't get a county vendor license if you're not a veteran. You need to go to each town and get a permit from them."

Ed and I looked at each other, shrugged, and left the building.

Each person we had spoken with along the way knew part of what they were supposed to know. The question, "Are you a vet?" was correct. The directions they gave following the question were not correct.

When you equip your Customer Service people with some of the information they need, but not a good overview of policies, procedures, escalations, and—most importantly—the tools to get more answers, you are setting a trap for your customers. Give folks the tools they need, especially the freedom to get more information quickly and easily.

Give it some thought.

By the way: Ed and I were both in the first draft "lottery." My number was 224. Coincidentally, Ed's was 225. I never forgot that he told me he'd enlist if my number came up. If I recall correctly, the highest number called that year was 218. Ed and I remain friends.

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