The Never-ending Search for Excellent Customer Service
I recently traveled across Virginia to visit a nephew in Portsmouth before backtracking and watching my son play football at the University of Richmond. As I returned home after nearly 600 miles on the road, I realized something: excellent customer service is rare to find.
The highways we traveled weren’t customer friendly, but I suppose most aren’t these days. Large sections of I-81 and I-64 were unlit and dark, many of the lines on the road nearly invisible. Sections of road were under construction but no one was working, yet signs forced us to change lanes as if they were. The worst sections of road, which were endless series of washboards, were not under repair.I saw VA state troopers relaxing in their hideaways as truckers flew by them doing 80 mph going up hills. We pulled into a rest area, the only one on our side of I-64 until Richmond. A sign greeted us: “Currently under repairs.” Unfortunately, no one was currently working to make any repairs. We had no warning of this out on I-64, no sign of any kind to tell us the bathrooms were inoperable.
As I backed out to race 66 miles to the next available and hopefully usable rest area, a VA State trooper pulled in behind the car next to us, its driver black and traveling alone. Talk about racial profiling. Those truckers zooming by you weren’t a danger? I thought. Those trucks have been riding in the left lane exclusively since I-81! Pull them over, give them hefty fines, use the money to light, paint, and fix those roads, and leave that man alone!
We stopped at a McDonald's in Portsmouth, moving toward an empty spot at the counter in front of an unmanned cash register. We stood for quite some time until a cashier yelled, “Line’s over here!” Her line—the only line—snaked back into the dining area. Hey, it’s lunchtime, I thought. This is the lunch rush. Where are your employees? Why do you only have one cashier working during the busiest time of the day? As soon as we got to the front of the serpentine line, another cashier showed up, announcing, “I can help someone over here.” It was where we had originally been standing. She had such great timing.
We placed our order, and I asked our loud cashier for some extra barbecue sauce. “That will cost you extra,” she said. “You charge for condiments?” I asked. “They’re not condiments,” she said. “They’re sauces.” She obviously didn’t know the definition of a condiment. Because of the crush behind me, I asked her if I could move my empty tray to a more open spot to let the next customer through to the register. “No,” the cashier said sternly. “It’s fine where it is.” She was on a power trip, and I didn’t feel like traveling with her. I moved it anyway.
After sitting, we found the ketchup dispenser empty, and I hesitated going to the front to ask for some ketchup packets. She’ll tell me that ketchup is a sauce, too, I thought. I also saw a sign over the drink dispenser: “One refill only.” How will they know? I thought. Are there cameras over the dispensers? Do they call out the refill police? Ah. That’s where their workers are. They’re scoping out the dining room for thirsty people over-serving themselves. Some of the old-timers around us had most likely been sitting there and sipping since breakfast.
Before we could visit with my nephew, a receptionist stopped us at the front desk. “No cell phones or purses allowed,” she said. “Your bags will be searched. Here, wear this.” She handed us name-tags, only she had written the day’s date on them instead of our names. We were only dates to her. I suppose we would have expired if we had stayed too long. We weren’t people to her, and we had just come in from the cold. Had there been signs outside listing the contraband items, I would not have had to return two purses and two cell phones to the car. I felt like a prisoner for visiting. A sign inside warned us, “We check all ID—have it ready.” No one checked our ID. No one searched our things either. Why tell us you’re going to do something and then not do it? I thought. Why scare people and not follow through? Why have signs that even you don’t adhere to and read?
On our way back to the University of Richmond, I missed a turn and ended up somewhere in the city of Richmond. I don’t normally get lost, but some of the signs on I-64 confused me. Who designed the highways around downtown Richmond anyway? Did an engineer with a wicked sense of humor do a series of doodles that became a plan? I know the lowest bidder “earned” the job. Whatever happened to straight lines and signs that warn drivers a few miles in advance to “keep right” or “use the left lane”? I know I could have used the GPS, but I’ve had problems with those gizmos, too.
The receptionist at the hotel greeted us warmly, our reservations were in order, and our hotel rooms were clean. All right, I thought. Here’s some customer service. It was only some. The toilet took five minutes to refill, the drain in the sink didn’t drain, and the “banner blanket” at the foot of the bed would prove useless to keep our feet warm. And no matter how I turned on the TV, it made me look at the listings for pay-per-view (for $9.99-16.99 per half hour) and click a series of buttons before I could watch TV.
The parking attendants at the University of Richmond were helpful—to a point. One waved us in to a lot and pointed at another attendant. I pulled up to him. “Where do I park?” I asked. “Plenty of parking down there,” the second attendant said, waving in the general direction of a massive crowd walking our way and in our way. “Just don’t run over anyone,” he told me. I didn’t expect him to guide me, but I did expect some safe driving lanes to our parking spot.
We had excellent seats for homecoming, and I was looking forward to floats, pageantry, and pomp. At $56,000 a year for room, board, and tuition, I expected fireworks and a concert. At halftime, however, three barely decorated golf carts containing three queen and king candidates rolled by on the track. Three golf carts. The king and queen candidates walked out onto the field, the announcer garbled their introductions, and I’m still not sure who won. Homecoming was underwhelming to say the least.
A gas station
Low on gas after the game, we stopped at the first gas station we came to. The scarred up gas pump wouldn’t take my debit card despite my repeated insertions and swipes. “Network difficulties,” the screen said. I was on empty, and the closest gas station was two cold, dark miles away. An unconcerned man at the counter inside watched me insert my card again and again until the pump whirred to life, shaking and clicking the entire time. I only put in $15 worth. I wasn’t going to take any chances on an explosion caused by the built-up static electricity from all those earlier insertions and swipes.
We chose T. G. I. Friday’s on Broad Street for our after-game victory celebration. A hostess greeted and seated the six of us immediately (good) in a corner where every sound seemed to converge at 100 decibels (bad). I had trouble hearing my son talk to me across four feet of table. We tried to use a “$10 off $35 or more total bill” coupon. We were hungry. We had three growing teenaged boys. No problem, right? Problem. “Two-fers and three-fers don’t count,” our server told us. The two-for-one and three-for-one “specials” were as expensive as the regular entrees! Our soft drinks alone came to $17 with tax. We were halfway there! The coupon was still useless. "Sorry," she said. Spend more to save a little, I thought.
The rest of the evening was a chore. Our server never brought us any silverware, so I had to borrow some from another table. She and the other servers seemed more interested in serving and over-serving tall fruity, frothy drinks to a group of loud women near us. I attempted to find the men’s room, but the staff at T. G. I. Friday’s had hidden it well. I finally found it, and it was as far away from the bar and the dining area as possible—for good reason. The hot water didn’t work because the handle spun, the restroom stank of urine, and I had to use my elbow to flush because some unidentifiable goo coated the handle.
Back to our hotel
Back at the hotel, the “banner blanket” fell off during the night, and I awoke with cold feet. The shower water was either ice cold or scalding hot, nothing in between. I left the bathroom feeling quite bipolar.
We decided to try the continental breakfast downstairs before heading home. I had some difficulty with the waffle maker, and an attendant came immediately to my rescue, scraping the sides of the waffle maker and popping off a perfect waffle. She helped my son and nephew with their waffles as well. She smiled the entire time, restocking and tidying up constantly. She was on top of things. She was extremely attentive to our needs. She cleaned up our tables before we could blink. She acted as if she owned the place, as if the dining area was her own kitchen, and we were her favorite guests. A longtime customer even hugged her before she left. “See you next time,” she said.
That was excellent customer service.
I had finally found it at a continental breakfast at the Fairfield Inn off I-64 exit 180B. And of all the people who had “served” us during our journey, I imagine she was the least paid of them all.
We will be going back to that hotel on our visits to the University of Richmond. Oh sure, we’ll have to bring our own Drano for the sink and some extra blankets for our feet, but I can’t wait to eat some more waffles that came served with a smile and excellent customer service.