Cafe Witness

Monday, May 04, 2009

Your Customer Is Not Your Problem

Black humor - customer service

Two very different experiences this past week have taught me a lot about the value of positive customer service -- and the need to create a workplace environment that encourages and sustains it.

When Good Road Signs Go Bad

A week ago, I noticed that the five-way stoplight at the Forward and Murray Avenues intersection of Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood was broken. One of the light's cycles -- the side that faces traffic coming off the I-376 exit -- was lasting at least 2-3 times longer than it normally does. This is odd because that's usually NOT a high-traffic approach; it also extends the wait time for those on Murray Avenue, which results in 8-block traffic jams during rush hour.

So I contacted PennDOT, informed them of the problem (via email form), and someone wrote me back within a day to explain that traffic lights are the concern of the municipality, rather than the state. They also said they'd forward my email to the Pittsburgh traffic office -- which, I'll admit, is where I thought this story would end.

Today, I received the following email from Amanda Broadwater, P.E., Municipal Traffic Engineer for the City of Pittsburgh's Department of Public Works - Bureau of Transportation and Engineering:

Dear Mr. Kownacki,

Within the State of Pennsylvania, traffic signals are the jurisdiction of the City. Therefore, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation forwarded your comment to us regarding the intersection of Forward and Murray in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

The City of Pittsburgh has identified [that] loop detectors are malfunctioning at the intersection. This type of problem happens often during wet weather. When this occurs, the maximum time allotted to the approach with the bad loop is displayed during each cycle, rather than the green time being traffic responsive. Obviously this creates greater delays on the other approaches of the intersection.

The electricians will be back on site today to try and remedy the problem. However, it may be necessary to completely replace the loop detectors. If this is the case, a timing change will be needed to ease congestion during preparation of the work. If a timing change is needed, it should be in place by mid week.

I wanted to highlight Amanda's response for two reasons:

* What speedy turnaround time from a pair of agencies that probably receives dozens (if not hundreds) of similar reports every day.

* What a thorough and understandable explanation! I would have expected a form letter saying "thanks, we'll get to it." Instead, Amanda went to the trouble of explaining the issue to me in layman's terms and then suggested a date by which the work should be completed.

On the Other Hand...

Last week, I stopped at a Wendy's just off the Hazleton, PA, exit on I-80. I've been to this Wendy's half a dozen times over the past year, because that exit is a regular pit stop on my business trips between Pittsburgh and Connecticut.

This time, I was one of the only customers in the place, and the staff of 5 or 6 seemed frustrated. Maybe it was because I was disrupting their side work, or because of something their manager may have said moments earlier. Maybe they were just having a bad day.

But when the kid gave me my order and I said "Thanks," and he just grunted at me with the body language that let me know I was his problem, not his customer, it clarified two things for me:

* There's a reason front-end workers in fast food and retail only get paid a minimum wage, and

* I need to stop eating at the Wendy's in Hazleton.

Conversely, although I disagree with their politics, I enjoy the experience of ordering food at Chick-fil-a. Why? Because their employees (at least in Pittsburgh's Waterfront location) are perpetually in good moods. Not the kind of fake smile most employee handbooks insist their cashiers sport, but the kind of jovial attitude that lets me know they enjoy working there -- and that they're happy I'm spending my money with them.

Like PennDOT and Pittsburgh's Department of Public Works, I'm not Chick-fil-a's problem. I'm their customer - and they'd like me to stay that way.

Photo by lawgeek.

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  • I have to say the employees at the Robinson Chick fil-A are also always in a good mood and very friendly.

    I'm impressed you got such a quick response from the city regarding the light.

    By Anonymous pittchick, at 1:06 PM  

  • Yeah, I'm also surprised that PennDOT responded so quickly, but I guess we underestimate the power of internet pseudo-celebrity.

    Obviously, the higher-ups realized that Justin Kownacki, "social media explorer" and the creator/producer of the internet's longest running sitcom, is not a man to be trifled with and immediately fast-tracked this traffic light repair project.

    By Anonymous Jia, at 12:33 AM  

  • And conversely, Jia, Wendy's clearly does not regard the social media pioneer business as something to be desired. :)

    By Blogger Joe C, at 4:37 AM  

  • As someone who is an alumni of PennDOT Traffic Engineering Section and knowing many people in the city signal section, I was not surprised by this response. Both are competent and excellent agencies who not only answer complaints but keep traffic moving to their best abilities.

    By Blogger greenbandman, at 5:04 PM  

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