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Convenience at what cost?

Monday, July 25, 2011 - 00:00
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Yet another of the minion I call family has graduated. When you have a large family, it seems that darn near every weekend is either tied up with a graduation, birthday, wedding, funeral or a divorce — all of which are serious, momentous events that change the life of the person involved. Most of these events involve a good deal of travel because my family is like a bunch of gypsies — we tend to settle into the deepest nook and cranny of any given community. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy attending the functions for two very good reasons. First, they all provide an open bar, and second, it allows me to venture out into the world to compare my version of customer service with various other businesses that I encounter during my journeys.

It seems more and more that technology and modern convenience have affected how we travel. We book all of our travel plans online. If you are on a toll road, your pre-pay pass allows you to blow right through the tollbooths. You pay for your fuel at the pump, and so forth and so on. The only problem is that there is absolutely no amount of one-on-one customer service involved in the conveniences of using modern technology. It’s just really convenient, plus it gives the end user a sense of empowerment. The downside to all of this crafty technology is what happens when something goes wrong. This is where my story begins.

 

As I often travel with my brother on these trips, I allowed him to book the hotel rooms. He is a guru of all things Internet related, so he booked the rooms online, and said he got a great deal. The only problem was when we got to the hotel at 12:30 a.m., they did not show we had a reservation for the rooms. Also, there was a wedding party going on with a tremendous amount of well-dressed drunk people running around screaming and singing in a language I could only describe as foreign. The concierge explained that the hotel server was down, and the only rooms available were a couple of suites at a considerable increase in cost.

During the negotiation of this unexpected expense, a member of the wedding party proceeded to get sick all over my sister-in-law’s luggage. Sounds horrible, but it abruptly ended the price negotiation, and we got the rooms for the same online price. Credit cards were swiped, room keys handed over and off to bed we went. The day of our check out was where convenient technology proved itself to be very much the opposite, because the hotel server was repaired. My room was billed correctly, but my brother found out, to his dismay, that the online company had already billed him for the two original rooms. And because the concierge used the same confirmation number to book our updated rooms to get the discounted price adjustment, the hotel billed my brother for both of the new rooms as well, citing a server failure at the time of check in, and at the full price for all of the rooms. Since our concierge was different than the original concierge, it took an hour to straighten this mess out.

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On our trip back, it was time to fuel up, and we stopped at one of the huge filling station chains as they have pay-at-the-pump machinery. No problem for my brother, his pump worked just fine. My car is a diesel, and the diesel pump was a vintage 1960s original, or a possible replica. There were no instructions on how to operate this pump, but being a little long in the tooth, I actually understood how it should work. The only problem was that this old technology and modern convenience didn’t mix very well.
I turned the pump on and…nothing. My wife walked inside and asked the clerk to turn on the diesel pump. He explained that the diesel pump was a pre-pay pump, and it would require a deposit to activate the pump. Rather than set out on the trek back to our car, some hundreds of yards across the immense plaza, she decided to call me on my cell phone to inform me of the news. Well, I had turned my cell phone off, because that’s what you are supposed to do when filling up with fuel. At no answer, she hastily began to walk across the plaza and at about the halfway mark I noticed a scowl on her face. She quipped the response of the inside attendant in regard to our dilemma, and the scowl jumped off her face and immediately planted itself on mine. I followed her back inside the “convenient” store to remedy the situation. The attendant informed me of the same, and asked if I would leave my driver’s license and either $200 in cash or a major credit card to secure the sale, as that was the customary routine to use the diesel pump. I argued the point, explaining that my vehicle was a Volkswagen Jetta, not a Mack truck, further explaining that my wife would stand inside the store as collateral and pay immediately when I hung up the nozzle. I reassured the attendant that if she did not pay immediately, she was worth a lot more than a tank of fuel because she possessed remarkable abilities at pointing out everything anyone could ever do wrong. The scowl returned to my wife’s face, the store exploded in laughter, and my wife and I exited the building to return to our vehicle and still no diesel fuel. I simply went next door to another station with a proper “convenient” pump and fueled up, trying to avoid the evil eye of my wife.

Enroute to my home, we must travel a toll road. The regularity of trips on this toll road has led us to install an E-Z Pass system in our vehicles. It’s convenient not to have to stop at the tollbooths as we simply drive through the E-Z Pass lanes. The pass is activated by a radio frequency. An audible tone is heard and then you can drive on through. Our E-Z Pass is billed to our credit card on a monthly basis. But our credit card of choice had been re-issued by our bank due to a hacker compromising the bank’s security, discontinuing the old credit card. Our device in the car was giving us no indication of such a problem, but at the third tollbooth, we were made aware of the situation as the turnpike security team greeted us with open arms. They explained that it was our responsibility to make sure that the credit card was in good standing as they presented us with a bill for the tolls, a picture of our car and a penalty if we did not resolve the issue within five days. And they took our E-Z Pass, telling us we could get it back after the issue was resolved. Super convenient.

Being convenient is not enough, especially when there is a fundamental breakdown or an exceptional issue. All of this ease comes with several caveats that are literally a nightmare when the system fails because the convenience of a price break or ease of use includes zero customer service during the transaction. It’s why all of the self-checkout lanes at many stores still have a real, live person watching what is happening. Exceptional customer service leads to repeat customers. Inconvenient transactions result in trying to find new customers.

This past weekend I have resolved never to use an online hotel booking service; I will never patronize that particular chain of filling stations again; I will drive an alternate route that does not include the turnpike; and I will never try to use my wife as collateral for 13.45 gallons of diesel fuel again.

Yet another of the minion I call family has graduated. When you have a large family, it seems that darn near every weekend is either tied up with a graduation, birthday, wedding, funeral or a divorce — all of which are serious, momentous events that change the life of the person involved. Most of these events involve a good deal of travel because my family is like a bunch of gypsies — we tend to settle into the deepest nook and cranny of any given community. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy attending the functions for two very good reasons. First, they all provide an open bar, and second, it allows me to venture out into the world to compare my version of customer service with various other businesses that I encounter during my journeys.

It seems more and more that technology and modern convenience have affected how we travel. We book all of our travel plans online. If you are on a toll road, your pre-pay pass allows you to blow right through the tollbooths. You pay for your fuel at the pump, and so forth and so on. The only problem is that there is absolutely no amount of one-on-one customer service involved in the conveniences of using modern technology. It’s just really convenient, plus it gives the end user a sense of empowerment. The downside to all of this crafty technology is what happens when something goes wrong. This is where my story begins.

 

As I often travel with my brother on these trips, I allowed him to book the hotel rooms. He is a guru of all things Internet related, so he booked the rooms online, and said he got a great deal. The only problem was when we got to the hotel at 12:30 a.m., they did not show we had a reservation for the rooms. Also, there was a wedding party going on with a tremendous amount of well-dressed drunk people running around screaming and singing in a language I could only describe as foreign. The concierge explained that the hotel server was down, and the only rooms available were a couple of suites at a considerable increase in cost.

During the negotiation of this unexpected expense, a member of the wedding party proceeded to get sick all over my sister-in-law’s luggage. Sounds horrible, but it abruptly ended the price negotiation, and we got the rooms for the same online price. Credit cards were swiped, room keys handed over and off to bed we went. The day of our check out was where convenient technology proved itself to be very much the opposite, because the hotel server was repaired. My room was billed correctly, but my brother found out, to his dismay, that the online company had already billed him for the two original rooms. And because the concierge used the same confirmation number to book our updated rooms to get the discounted price adjustment, the hotel billed my brother for both of the new rooms as well, citing a server failure at the time of check in, and at the full price for all of the rooms. Since our concierge was different than the original concierge, it took an hour to straighten this mess out.

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