The Difference Between Good and Awful

Two events have inspired me once again to talk about service. There’s no new point to be made here, only an old subject worth repeating and two amusing tales to relate.

Last fall, while in London for a party celebrating Robin Walker’s retirement from De Beers, my wallet was stolen. Ian Macgregor, the manager of Durrants hotel in central London, stopped everything he was doing to help me call my bank and credit card companies. He also lent me money for cab fare to De Beers and the American Express office. Durrants’ beautifully appointed rooms and reasonable prices already had made me a regular customer; now I am totally hooked.

American Express did everything its TV commercials promise—within a half-hour they’d canceled my card and arranged for a new one and a cash advance. By contrast, AT&T gave me heaps of trouble about freezing my MasterCard. I understand the need for security, but grilling a person who’s just been pickpocketed to recall the exact dollar amount of a purchase she made six months earlier seemed a bit absurd. Late that night, I called AT&T again to cancel my personal and corporate calling cards. After 45 minutes of transatlantic automated telephone hell—and four individuals who had no clue how to help—I finally got connected to AT&T’s “overseas military services” department, which was able to freeze my personal calling card, but not my corporate one. That, they said, could only be done by calling 1-800-whatever … except 800 numbers can’t be dialed from overseas.

When I got home, I called AT&T to request reimbursement of the $120 my 45-minute call cost. Here’s the ultimate irony: The customer service representative chewed me out for using the hotel phone instead of my (missing) calling card! After a few choice words, I slammed down the phone. Later, I called again and got my $120 back, but I still felt betrayed. A loyal AT&T customer for years, I never even listened to pitches from MCI or Sprint. I’ve now canceled my AT&T MasterCard altogether and changed my long-distance carrier.

The other event happened in Orlando during the JCK Show. Giving “added value” is common for jewelers, but until I met a cab driver named Rae Martin, I’d never thought of a taxi as something that might have value added to it. If it was clean, functional, and the driver got me to my destination on time and in one piece, that seemed like value enough. But Rae Martin is serious about her taxi business, and we struck up a conversation about service. She has regular customers and she works hard to keep them. She makes appointments for pick-ups and calls to confirm them. She has a paging service so she can fetch a customer suddenly in need of a ride. She keeps child car seats available for customers’ use, she carries tissues and various other amenities, and she’ll drive anywhere a customer needs to go—even if it’s to Miami. And no, she doesn’t give discounts: She says customers ask, but she points out they can ride in a dirty, unkempt cab with a driver whose safety record is questionable, or they can take the same trip in her clean, comfortable van with a driver whose record is blemish-free. Nobody has ever argued back.

I had a 7 a.m. flight to New York from Orlando, but with an approaching snowstorm I assumed it would be delayed or canceled. I’d already booked Rae for a return trip to the airport, but when she called to confirm I told her I wouldn’t know until 4:30 a.m. whether my flight was leaving on time. No problem, said Rae, just call when you know.

At 4:30 a.m.? Yes, even at 4:30 a.m.

I called, expecting a groggy hello, but she greeted me with a cheery “Rise and shine!” (At that hour, “rise” is asking a lot from me; “shine” is out of the question.) But Rae Martin was at the hotel door by 6 a.m. and had me safely delivered to my gate on time.

So who is more likely to get repeat business? AT&T, or Durrants and Rae Martin? And if someone ever writes an editorial about you, what will it say?

hschupak@cahners.com