Is The Customer Always Right?

Nobody ever wants to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles.  It’s just one of those necessary evils in life like taxes and colonoscopies (that’s an entirely different blog post). Even though it’s not my idea of a party I recently had to go spend some time at our local DMV office.

As I sat there waiting my turn, I looked around at my fellow customers.  Most had that vacant half-stare that people waiting in a dentist’s office have.  Kind of being uncomfortable while you are waiting to be more uncomfortable.  As if waiting in the DMV isn’t bad enough, this local office is located in a cell phone Death Valley.  No bars or dots or whatever your phone uses to display it’s ability to make you not bored.  Nothing.   So I people watched.  What I saw was interesting in that it sucked a great deal less than I thought.  The operation ran pretty smoothly.  Most customers waited patiently and the staff moved as quickly and efficiently as they could.  In fact, I noticed that most of the issues caused, at least while I watched, came from the customers . . . not the staff.  Many people didn’t have a form that they needed or weren’t prepared for the visit.  Unpreparedness isn’t surprising, seeing as most people only go to the DMV annually.  Every time you go it’s like the first time . . . and not really in a good way.  The staff dealt with their customers with mostly smiles and helped out the best they could.

After about 10 minutes of waiting, I watched two elderly women walk in.  Our DMV, has two video touch monitors set up with instructions displayed prominently next to them and on them.  You touch a screen and select categories that get slightly more specific.  The screen tells you what forms or information you need for your transaction. Then hit a large screen icon to print a numbered ticket.  If your ticket is numbered between 700 and 900, says the prominent sign, you take it to an information desk for prescreening.  All other numbers require the bearer to have a seat and wait.  At some point in the future a voice tells the ticket holder which station to go to.  While I was there this system worked perfectly for maybe 40 people.  It was a bit too much for these two ladies.

Their issues started as soon as they walked in.  The first lady, who was apparently just accompanying her friend, looked at the set up and immediately claimed it was “too complicated”.  The second lady studied the screen and tentatively tried to engage.  The first lady announce loudly that she would “go get them some help”.  She walked straight to the information desk, past about a dozen people holding tickets numbered between 700 and 900 and engaged the single clerk working at the desk. “We need some help,” she said, ignoring the fact the young man was helping another customer.  He glanced over and signaled that he would be right with her.  She wasn’t buying it.  “Excuse me,” she said, slapping the counter top to emphasize her point because . . . you know . . . if she slaps something hard enough he won’t be occupied with another customer.  The clerk stopped what he was doing and listened to the woman explain how she couldn’t get the computer to work, conveniently leaving out the part that she didn’t try to make it work.

“Ma’am, I’m helping somebody else right now,” he said patiently.  “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

“But we need help now,” she said.  There was a discernible quality of disbelief in her voice.  She stood there for a second before she gathered her things.  “Well!,” she huffed and turned around.  “I guess you just don’t get any help here anymore!” she said loudly.  I have done some public speaking.  One of the first things I learned is to know your audience.  In this case her audience consisted of people who conquered the computer mind-bender.  The people closest to her  . . . the ones in the line for prescreening  . . . solved the screen riddle and got in line before she pulled into the parking lot.  These particular people were probably not all about her pulling the clerk away so he could read her the directions.

She walked back over to her friend who was taking a strong stab at the computer again.  “Print Ticket?” she asked her friend who was making the walk of shame from the information desk.  “How do I print a ticket?”  I could see the large ‘Print Ticket’ icon from my seat.

“I have no idea how to print a ticket,” her friend said loudly.  “Nobody will help us.”  She actually turned her head to direct her voice toward the clerk.  “Last time I was here there was somebody very helpful working here.  But not today.”  She turned her attention back to the computer and the ticket printing machine.  There were some mutterings and frustrated mumbles.  I could still see the “Print Ticket’ icon.  The first lady actually started hitting the machine.  I was amazed.  Physically hitting computers or related hardware has been ineffective since like early this century.  Today’s machines are way too sophisticated for that.

Finally the first lady read a sign.  She read the one that instructed holders of tickets numbered between 700 and 900 to get in the information line.  “The sign says we should get in line,” she told her friend.

“We don’t have a ticket between 700 and 900.”

“I’m sure that doesn’t matter,” said the first lady.  Made sense to me because, personally, if something doesn’t matter to a specific situation I write it down and display it prominently.

“But the sign . . .” the second lady started to say.  She stopped when she realized she was talking to herself.  Her friend was already standing in the information line.

The second lady moved closer to the computer.  It was like she was certain the answer was in there somewhere.  I couldn’t take it anymore.  I stood and walked over.  “There is an icon on the screen that lets you print your ticket,” I said low enough to not draw attention.

“Where?” she asked, squinting at the computer.

“Use the screen to pick what you want to do.”

She touched the screen a few times.  After the last touch the icon came up.  I pointed at it.

“Oh, I see,” she said.  “That’s clever!”  She smiled and thanked me.  I took my seat and resumed my DMV stare.  She took her ticket to her friend.

“Look,” she said, hold up her ticket.  “That man showed me how to print the ticket.  Let’s go sit down.”

“No,” her friend said.

The lady looked at the ticket.  “We don’t need to be in line.  Our number isn’t between 700 and 900.”

The first lady was having none of it.  “I am sure they need to help us,” she said.  “Plus I need to tell this young man how he wasn’t helpful at all to us.”

The vaguely feminine electronic voice announced loudly that my wait was over.  I took my ticket over to the appropriate station and did my business.  Later in my truck I thought about the encounter.

What is good customer service?  Is the customer always right?  I am a black and white guy.  If service isn’t bad, then it is good.  I am not hard to please when it come to customer service.  As long as I can do the business I came to do within a reasonable amount of time, I am happy.  I recognize outstanding service when somebody does something that they don’t necessarily have to do to help me.  Consistency in service level is a big deal with me as well.

The thing is that we all expect good customer service, but is it necessary to be a good customer?  Think about that one.  Do we, as customers, have any responsibility for our experience?  Is the customer always right?  The lady at DMV expected her needs to be handled immediately even before the needs of people that got there first . . . people, it should be pointed out, that all negotiated the process that she found undoable.

I try to be a good customer.  I try to be prepared and follow any procedures or guidelines that are part of the customer experience.  I have to admit, however, that I am famous for asking questions that could be answered for me by the large signs or the well-illuminated mechanisms that I am invariably standing near.  I am great at asking where something is while I am standing within arms reach of the specific item.  Done that a lot.

If nothing else perhaps just remembering that your not the only horse in the pasture would help when it comes to being a good customer.  The ladies could have simply gotten in line if they were confused.  Admittedly, that would have cost them more time, but going to the head of the line to talk to the only person that can help is kind of making it all about you.  That’s not always appropriate.

So, is the customer always right?  Maybe . . . maybe not . . . you are welcome to have that discussion around the water cooler or the beer keg or where ever.  Many businesses still have that philosophy and even in agencies that aren’t dealing with profit margins many times the customer drives the boat.  It makes sense, however, that we, as customers, can help by being good customers.

Thanks for reading and we’ll talk again soon on This Side of the Diaper.

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