Photo by Sander Sammy / Unsplash

A cautionary tale for incautious people: it's always best to tell the truth

Rude customers, if not outright dangerous ones- are normal these days, in that way that the bar is lowered so far that we can say that Mr. B was a rude asshole but at least he didn't shoot us.

Now, it turns out, service folks can be just that bad or worse. An elderly burger joint customer can get a beat down for complaining about a sandwich. Don't believe me?

Wendy’s Worker Punches Elderly Customer Who Complained About Order [Video]
The worker has been booked on one count of aggravated assault.

Remarkable how our new normal has allowed, if not forced us, to lower the standards so much that basic courtesy has been tossed for want of sheer survival.

Happily, this isn't that story. It is, however, a tale about what happens when you're dealing with someone in a key service capacity who cannot own a mistake which affected you directly. Worse, someone who lies about what happened and assumes you don't possess the motivation or the wherewithal to do your research.

That just cannot end well for anyone, and it truly underscores the need to take responsibility for something we did, or failed to do, which had an impact on the customer. As with all things, the takeaways from this experience apply to this writer as well.

In this case, it was a global insurance company tasked with extracting people who have done harm to themselves, which is typical in my case, or harm has simply shown up sharp-edged and grinning, while on adventure travel.

Your personal version of a Guillermo del Toro monster, come to make you miserable when you spent a small fortune to have an adventure. I've had my share.

Since I seem to be really, really good at that, the getting injured part that is, I have some skin in this game. Or more poetically I've left a great deal of skin behind in this game, having had to be airlifted out of various countries and brought home to stitch myself back together.

Normally I know how to navigate the system, especially since I've used the same provider since 2011, sometimes four times a year, on various adventure trips from the Svalbard Islands to South Africa.

Some context: Three weeks ago, mid-morning on 24 October, I managed to take a header down some stone stairs which resulted in some impressive face gashes. More importantly, I blew out my left knee.

I was in Chile to ride the Atacama Desert. Determined to do it anyway, I misjudged how bad it was, and subjected myself to both grueling pain and a wicked-ass challenge. I made it, but my leg was a mess. After the eight days of riding and one blessed day at a nice hotel in San Pedro de Atacama to sluice off the considerable dirt, I flew to Santiago.

I was unsuccessful in finding a doctor after schlepping my badly-bruised body to three hospitals. Sometimes that happens in countries where you don't speak the language or the health care system is simply overwhelmed. Or both, as in Chile.

My guide, who lives north of Valparaiso, got me an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon who is a friend and a neighbor. That was a small miracle. I bussed west and waited, saw the doctor, and began the journey to fill out claim paperwork and find a way to get home as soon as the xrays and MRIs were completed.

Meanwhile I sent a slew of detailed emails including my location, Chilean phone number, tentative schedule and a detailed account of the accident. I am no rookie, I left no detail out- insurance companies are brutal about this. One slip of the typing tongue and everything can get denied. My intention was to insure the staff had all they needed to get in touch and get things started.

I tried to call repeatedly.

The website's phone numbers for such emergencies didn't work when called from my phone. Doesn't matter why. They just didn't.

Meanwhile, armed with crutches and my fat knee brace (and a painful fat knee) I spent another eight days just sitting. I was stuck in a BnB which did not want an invalid on their  second floor who needed to eat/drink outside rigidly-set rules, meant for folks who were out exploring and eating all day and night. That's another story.

In response to my detailed emails, I got form letters, form letters and more form letters. The form letters demanded that I do precisely what my emails explained that I could not do. Nobody read the emails.

It was enough to drive anyone mad. Did drive me mad. I emailed a friend in the US who called the emergency number, and then I penned an email to the CEO of the company.

She was horrified, then looped in the US director of the company. Sigh of relief. I got the feeling there was movement, rather like taking psyllium tablets. Progress, if not actual production.

With raised expectations also come more pratfalls. After a couple of conversations which got the ball rolling, I was given permission to travel -YAY- and to expect flight options shortly. There ended the progress. I went to bed early.

Left my phone and computer on, inches from my head.

Woke up at 5:30, late for me, what can I say, pain drugs, to an email marked High Importance. Will this flight work? I wrote YES and hit reply. Most people would. Especially in a pain-induced comatose state.

For the next two-and-a-half hours I got multiple High Importance notices that they needed me to approve the flight. APPROVE THE FLIGHT. NOW. WE HAVEN'T HEARD FROM YOU.

I already had. Three times.  A normal, sane person hits reply, assuming the email goes where intended.

Finally I get this arch email from an irritated woman who says they have tried to call me and even called the hotel where I was moving that day. Nobody had called-not the number I'd provided. It was only 9 am and I hadn't even checked out of my place yet.


She didn't get that email either.

She didn't bother to call those other employees who had successfully called me the night before to verify if she had the right number. Of course not.

Meanwhile, I emailed the supervisor with whom I'd had several talks the night before. She calls this employee, then circles back around to me to tell me that said irked employee was indeed calling the wrong number. Admitted to it.

While on the phone together, the supervisor explains, they went into the company's general email box. Lo and behold, there are all my emails.

Okay so why didn't you do that first?

Doesn't stop there. Irked employee, and here's where it gets ripe, calls me on the correct number, now very unhappy, and makes it clear that IT IS MY JOB TO FIGURE OUT WHERE TO SEND THE EMAILS, YOU SENT IT TO THE GENERAL EMAIL ADDRESS AND THAT'S NOT MY EMAIL ADDRESS.....and on and on and on.


In other words it was all my fault.

It's probably not the best strategy to lecture the customer on what they did wrong. I understand that a good defense is an excellent offense, but not in this situation.

Poor form.

She had failed to check if she was calling the right number. That was easy to fix by checking the notes or reading my emails. Calling one of the folks who had successfully called me.

She had failed to take into account my schedule: she was sending me emails where it was very early morning. Checkout wasn't until 11. I had three heavy bags to pack. Coffee, please. Bills to pay. A taxi to hire. Move to the new hotel, where their check in wasn't until 3 pm. I'm on crutches and I hurt. All in the emails. She was mad that she had called the hotel where I was moving, hours before I could even check in, and I wasn't there yet.

She's the travel service company. She doesn't understand time zones, check-out and check-in times? Read the emails. Google a time zone map. Think things through.

Poor form.

Then, she lied to me about the phone calls. She made up a bullshit story,which I knew to be a bullshit story. Expected that to fly.

About as well as a Twitter turd these days.

Poor form.

She had finally seen the detailed emails, including the one I'd sent her about calling the wrong number and the check in times. My guess, she was feeling defensive. I understand that. Still poor form.

Both CEOs were taking a high interest in the proceedings, because their company had a significant service failure. They wanted to know how to fix the problem, not punish the client who had paid for the services. To help them document what needed to change, I was sending them the email threads in real time. I included all of it, including the supervisor's version of irked employee's story.

Both the CEOs got to see what it was like on the receiving end, like an impromptu version of Undercover Boss.

Photo by Cytonn Photography / Unsplash

Good people fix the system. They don't catch the client doing something wrong. That's particularly true when your typical client is already dealing with losses both financial and physical, sometimes very significant losses including possibly a death.

Is the customer always right?

Google that sometime. Times have changed, a lot. Retail magnate Harry Gordon Selfridge coined the term in the late 19th Century, which led the retail business and many others to compete with each other to hold customer as king.

To be fair to the beleaguered service industry, I wholeheartedly disagree with this phrase "the customer is always right."  Those rules are changing, especially in the medical community, where doctors and nurses damn near need bodyguards these days.

However, this also depends on the nature of the service. The company in question specifically deals, in this case, with people who have had an abrupt and often ugly end to a happy time overseas. If that's ever happened to you, you understand the stresses, physical pain and for some, the extreme anxiety of being beached and needing  to come home, shepherded with competent and caring hands.

Up until this trip, this particular company had been superb, and had my trust for good reason.

When a service person is dealing with someone in extremis, it's probably not a good idea to go postal on them for something that could easily have been fixed beforehand- on your end, not theirs- especially if they can  prove they had done everything that was asked of them.

A couple of takeaways from this, for that angry employee, which are just as applicable to me as they are to anyone else:

  1. Before I go barking at someone for doing it all wrong, did I look at everything I could have? Did I check everywhere I could have? Did I ask all the right questions?

2. What assumptions am I making? Where might I be off in those assumptions?

3. Finally, what am I carrying into this exchange that has nothing to do with the issue at hand?  We are all susceptible: we carry a family argument, an angry boss's comments, stress from a microaggression, anything you can imagine into the exchange. I've done it, most of us do without realizing it.

Sadly, and I am as guilty as anyone of failing to ask these questions, when we are in the service industry- most especially one where someone's fine vacay turned ugly and someone got badly injured or even killed- the ability to be thorough, empathetic and respectful becomes far more important than just handing over a dripping sandwich to a hungry customer.

Today's technology allows us to track what's happening, research and reach out in ways we never could before. That's good in a lot of ways. What it also means is that in situations like this, own a mistake. Don't lie. Just don't. There is no kind of way there's going to be a positive outcome.

We have no idea how much the client already knows, and besides, we are far more likely to get kudos for owning our shit than trying to shovel more over the top of it.

The CEO with the most skin in this game received strong recommendations and thanks for two out of the three people assigned to my case. She passed that along not only to those people but to their bosses. That is what I wanted.

I also hope they find what on earth went wrong with the email system which kept sending me form emails about which I could do little directly. After this, not without a breath of relief, I age out of this particular insurance company's coverage.

As for the angry woman? I have  no clue what was going on her life that she made those choices.

But we do make such choices, and they have consequences. My choices do too. As much as this was about the angry woman, it is just as much about whether or not I am being mindful, thorough, and careful before I get defensive or come after someone with a verbal hatchet.

Because I don't know what they know, either.

Honesty, honestly, really is the best policy.

Montreal - black and white series
Photo by Amandine L. / Unsplash

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