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The Value of $18

Rather than take a plane to Chicago to meet with some of my clients, I decided that, for fun, I would try the train. (Blame it on my recent visit to Cincinnati’s beautifully-preserved, sickeningly Art Deco Union Terminal train station, coupled with my love for old movies in which motors and planes were less accessible.) While my expectations for this form of travel weren’t abundantly high, per se, I was still kind of excited to try something new.

Upon arriving, I got in line to retrieve my ticket. In front of me was a kindly older woman inquiring about an $18 refund; she had been directed to that specific counter by a customer service agent over the phone. The customer calmly and concisely explained the situation to the agent, stating that she remembered also speaking with her as well. Immediately, the agent interrupted the customer, saying, “Mary, you did not speak with me. I do not remember you at all.” Becoming slightly frustrated, Mary reiterated what she had been directed by the agent on the phone to do, which was simply to see an onsite agent for the measly $18 refund. Rather than issuing the refund, the agent repeated defensively that it was not she with whom Mary spoke, and there was nothing she could do for the customer; Mary would need to call customer service back and work it out with them. Needless to say, for those of us in line, it was fairly uncomfortable. The defeated customer begrudgingly grabbed her suitcase, thanked the agent and walked out. At least the agent used Mary’s name when addressing her, I guess.

Of course, I could bemoan all of the lost opportunities for actually helping the customer, but, that’s too easy. The predominant issue, in my humble, business-traveling perspective, is ownership. Are we taking ownership of our customers’ problems, or are we simply identifying a scapegoat and inefficiently pushing the problem to someone else? Not only would it have been a more satisfying customer experience for Mary if the agent had either provided the refund or simply called customer service to determine what Mary would need to do in order to finally receive said refund, but it probably would have been more cost effective as well. What could have been resolved with one point of contact (the original agent over the phone) was still unresolved after two—maybe even three or more—contacts. And further, the station may have lost (at least) one of its customers as a result. Was cyclical finger pointing worth it for $18 and the potential abandonment of what could have been a customer’s long-time loyalty?

While waiting for my overdue train, I thought about whether or not Mary will return to this train station (or any, for that matter) when it comes time to book her next trip. I’ll never know. But, after witnessing this spectacle, will I myself return? It’s hard to say. Perhaps a follow-up, train-soul-searching trip to Cincinnati’s defunct Union Terminal station is in order. However, I’ll refrain from taking the train there, just in case.