Is customer service a priority, or the last thing you think about?

Few business rivalries are as spirited as that between FedEx and UPS for the hearts and minds of package delivery customers. Both are huge organizations, with UPS the larger one at $30 billion in annual revenues compared with FedEx's $22.5 billion. I've dealt with both at various times with generally good results, until a recent bad experience soured me on UPS.

A few days before last Christmas, UPS tried to deliver a package to my home that required a signature for receipt. Since nobody is home during the day, they were predictably unsuccessful. Per UPS policy, after the third delivery attempt, they hold the package for five days at a UPS facility. If the recipient doesn't pick it up, the package gets returned to sender. They leave notices after each attempt, and this gives the intended recipient a chance to make sure someone is home when the next delivery comes, or call to arrange for alternative delivery.

There are obvious flaws in the system. UPS failed delivery notices are on small paper forms with a sticky strip on the back to affix to mailboxes or another surface. I live in a condo building and the notices get pasted to the outside of the glass main entrance door that is locked to non-residents. I never received the note about missed deliveries until after the third attempt. It could be that I just didn't notice the rather inconspicuous pieces of paper stuck to the other side of the entrance door, or they could have been knocked off by all the coming and going. In any case, the third and final notice did catch my eye, so I called the number indicated to arrange for pickup.

I have no idea what the package contained or who it was from. Because of Christmas season, I surmised that it was a gift from someone out of town. "Probably a fruitcake," I moaned to my wife when I awoke early on Christmas Eve to pay a visit to the UPS facility. I got up early because I wanted to beat what was certain to be a crowd as the day wore on.

There is a small UPS office merely five minutes from my home, but I was told I'd have to go to a UPS distribution center about 15 miles from where I live. The company's logistical scheme does not factor in customer convenience.

Customer Service Lesson #1

Most businesses implement policies that maximize convenience for the business. The best ones figure out what works best for the customer, then strive to achieve it.

When I arrived at the UPS site, the lady staffing the pick-up counter stood a few feet to the side talking on a phone to another employee. He was a couple of hundred yards away inside a humongous warehouse trying to track down a package belonging to one of two other early-bird customers who had gotten there before me. (I miscalculated that it would be about a 15-minute drive, but it took almost twice as long.) The waiting area had only two uncomfortable chairs and no reading material. I cussed myself for not bringing along the day's newspaper to read, thinking I would be there only a few minutes.

The guy in the warehouse was having trouble locating the customer's package, and the counter clerk kept repeating the same information over the phone as minute after minute dragged by. I made eye contact with the woman but she refused to acknowledge me with so much as a nod of recognition. Had she done so and maybe added a little smile, I would have been in a better mood and not so cognizant of all the other crap I had to put up with in the next half-hour.

Customer Service Lessons #2 & 3

And it's Lesson #2 that I want to convey with this article. It doesn't take much to please most people. A friendly demeanor can help soothe ruffled feathers. Corollary to that is Lesson #3, which is that customers notice more than you think they do.

As I drummed my fingers waiting to be served, I watched a half-dozen employees scurry to and fro accomplishing nothing. I never saw any of them with a package in hand, and although there were twice as many UPS employees present as customers waiting to be served, they avoided us as if we were lepers. Presumably there was some purpose to their scurrying, but darned if I could figure it out. I give them credit, though, for mastering the art of looking busy.

I would expect this kind of performance at a U.S. Post Office. I was astounded to find it at a private company with a fine reputation such as UPS. Not with me anymore.

Customer Service Lesson #4

All it takes is one slip-up to destroy the goodwill built up over a long period of time. About five minutes had passed and the lady on the phone still ignored me. Finally, one of the scurriers noticed my drumming fingers and the smoke starting to emanate from my nose. She took it upon herself to ask if I had been helped.

"Heck, no!" I stated emphatically, looking directly at the counter lady who was still repeating herself to the hapless package retriever. She avoided my gaze but flitted a dirty look at the co-worker who offered to help me. The phone lady seemed annoyed at this intrusion on her turf.

Customer Service Lesson #5

When in doubt, take charge. Customers in need trump all job descriptions.

Alone among the scurriers, the lady who finally waited on me seemed to be on the ball. Exasperation was painted on her face, telling of someone sick and tired of having to carry more than her fair share of the workload in that office.

One of the others finally performed a semi-productive function. She brewed a pot of what turned out to be the vilest tasting coffee in memory, and invited the waiting customers - by then there were five of us - to help ourselves. Her heart was in the right place, but I'm sure I speak for all of us in that austere waiting area in preferring that she'd engaged in some task that would get our packages to us sooner.

I remarked to a fellow who had been there when I arrived, "Boy, you've been here longer than me!" "Yep," he replied with a frown, "and I was here for almost an hour last night waiting for another package."

So, this wasn't an aberration. My spirits sank. With neither vacant chairs nor reading materials to pass the time, I took to pacing back and forth across the room. Partly it was my Type AA personality doing what comes naturally, but in truth I was also consciously hoping to annoy the UPS staff. Maybe I'd drive them crazy enough to shift into higher gear retrieving my package. But they were too preoccupied with scurrying to notice.

Customer Service Lesson #6

What goes around comes around. Treat customers badly, and they'll look for opportunities to reciprocate.

Besides my personal beef with these people, this episode gave me time to ponder the inefficiencies of the UPS delivery system. Think of all the time, manpower and gasoline that gets wasted trying to deliver packages that have no hope of reaching their recipients. Think of all the double and triple and quadruple handling of packages that results. There has to be a better way to conduct this business.

Coincidentally, within days of this incident, I heard a FedEx commercial touting a new program of calling package recipients ahead of time to arrange delivery.

Customer Service Lesson #7

Where there's a will there's a way. Businesses must constantly search for ways to remove hassles and make it easier to do business with them.

After a half-hour wait, I finally got my package. As suspected, it turned out to be a relative's Christmas gift. It was a little better than a fruitcake, but not close to justifying the time and effort that went into picking it up.

Maybe I'm being overly harsh toward UPS based on one bad experience. After all, this is a hugely successful company much admired by stock analysts and the public at-large. Nonetheless, they aren't very popular with me and the others in that waiting room, and you have to wonder if the performance shortcomings we witnessed last Christmas Eve might signal a company resting on its laurels. In any case, from now on whenever I have need for a package delivery service, FedEx is going to get the call.

What's it Mean to You?

There's little resemblance between the package delivery business and what you do for a living, but the lessons imbedded in this article apply to every line of work. Whether you own a store, operate a factory or provide a trade service, the success of your business depends in large measure on how you treat customers.

Most people in the trades think their success or failure depends on how well they perform the work they do. Not so. Your customers expect good work, and most can't tell the difference between top-notch and mediocre craftsmanship. But they sure can tell when they feel poorly served.

Take a little time to review the lessons enumerated here. You'll find they do apply to your business.

1. Does your company have policies and practices that may make life a little easier for you but are an inconvenience your customers? "Sorry, but that's our policy," is one of the most annoying things a customer can hear.

2. Do you instruct every employee to be courteous in dealing with customers and everyone else they may encounter on a job site?

3. What impression would a customer form of your company after watching your crew at work?

4. When you make a mistake - and everyone does - do you acknowledge it and try to make it right? Or do you fall back on denial, excuses or cover-up?

5. Is customer service a priority with your firm? Do you instruct all employees to drop what they're doing to assist a customer in need? Remember, a "customer" doesn't only include the person who writes the check. It's anyone who works for the owner or GC, as well as inspectors, engineers, architects, consultants or anyone else in a position to spread the word about your performance and demeanor.

6. Does it seem like everyone you work with or encounter on a job site is uncooperative or has it "in" for your crews? If so, then it's time to examine what your people might be doing to spur such behavior.

7. What can you do to improve communications and remove obstacles that make it difficult to do business with you?