Sometimes, customers experience a problem, and companies simply cannot do anything to rectify the problem. In fact, the customer may have made a mistake, not the firm, and that led to a deeply dissatisfying experience. Let's take our family's own experience over the holiday weekend. We traveled by plane to Chicago for the weekend, and for the most part, we had an incredibly smooth trip. However, one of our children managed to leave an entire folder of schoolwork on the plane, including a project on which she had been working diligently for weeks. You can imagine the tears when she realized her error. I rushed back to the airport terminal from the rental car location to try to retrieve the folder. Unfortunately, the cleaning crew had already emptied all the seat pockets and thrown away all the contents.
Now, we clearly made the mistake. It was not the airline's fault that we left all this material in the seat pocket. The airline did nothing wrong. However, when I returned to the gate, the agent showed ZERO empathy toward us. She had checked the plane, having been alerted by the folks at the ticket counter to do so. She had found that the trash had been thrown away. When I arrived at the gate, she said, "The material is not there. The trash has all been thrown away." That was it. She showed no emotion. She didn't express how she understood the emotion that my daughter must have been feeling. It was Thanksgiving day, and you might expect a bit of warmth in the exchange, but we felt none. It left me upset. I didn't expect anything from the airline. I knew that we had made a big error. However, the lack of empathy troubled me.
What I learned from this experience is that good customer service requires empathetic front-line employees. Companies need to teach their employees how to handle these emotional moments. In some cases, the firm has made an error, and an apology is in order. In other cases, the firm has done nothing wrong, but it can still show that it understands the customer's pain. That may seem trivial, but to the customer in that very moment, it may have a lasting impact.