Strangled by Boundaries

Strangled by Boundaries

Recently I was baffled by a three-second exchange between a customer and a service provider.

Passenger coming off a delayed flight: Our connecting flight on Air Canada leaves soon. What is the gate number, and how do we get there?

Agent: I don't know; you'll have to talk to Air Canada about that.

The agent turned away, dismissing this passenger and his wife, and effectively ending further conversation.

Husband to his wife as they hurried away, confused and stressed: The bastard!

Although the incident took place around a United Airlines arrival gate, the message goes far beyond the airline industry.

While waiting for my own flight, I had watched this United Airlines gate agent serve passengers coming off the delayed flight. He was fantastic--anticipating the needs of passengers connecting to other United Airlines flights and addressing each passenger's questions with courtesy and clarity--until he was approached by the deplaning couple, anxious about catching their Air Canada flight. Suddenly he turned into a machine of cold indifference. Why?

Simply, he did not see Air Canada passengers as "his to serve." They were outside the circle of customers to whom he felt he should provide attentive service. The limits he set were clearly artificial. In fact, he seemed not to recognize that this couple had been on a United Airlines flight and that Air Canada is also part of the Star Alliance of which United is a founding member. On the United Airlines website, the alliance promises: "We're making connections so you make yours. Stay connected with the world's largest airline alliance. With the Star Alliance network, our customers have seamless travel options from Austin to Zanzibar and everywhere in between." Oops!

More telling than any marketing slogan, set of standards, training program or customer-care initiative are the lines employees draw around those who deserve their attention and care and those who do not. Fragmentation of care is often designed by brand executives as part of loyalty programs, and loyalty-based programs feed this selective application of involvement.

Sometimes it is the delivery or information system that creates fragmentation in the customer experience. But most often, it is an unplanned result of a customer service subculture that over time narrows the focus of attention to a subset of paying customers. The effect on the customers outside this inner circle is clear.

Where have unspoken limits established themselves within your organization? Boundaries are powerful predictors of behavior. This is true for war, marriage, your neighborhood and--for the segmentation of your customers. The previously described incident is clearly not unique to United Airlines. To name only a few other industries: banks, restaurants, hospitals, car rental agencies, financial planners and hotels all share this dynamic.

What is the cost of these artificially set boundaries? Public promises that are not kept but allowed to slide--We are making connections so you make yours--hurt every future effort to improve service and reliability. The cost of a broken promise that is central to your brand promise and values is enormous.

Service providers who routinely and repeatedly divide their customers into groups--those who are "worth" a best effort and those who are not--are engaged on a daily basis in doing something that fundamentally undermines our common humanity. Can dignified behavior be fractured and reset over and over again without a deep cost to oneself? The effect on the psychology and behavior of a customer service provider has not been well researched, discussed or described. The cost of triage of attention and its harmful effect on both providers and patients in health care and first-responder services is documented. If you are involved in setting boundaries around customer care, these studies should give you cause for concern.

To discover the origins of the unsanctioned setting of customer boundaries, start by looking at:\
1. Service Culture--including the unintended consequences of producing and then acting on a hierarchy of customer status. How do these distinctions affect the language and actions of your service staff when dealing with the lower tiers of the customer-status hierarchy, and what is the net effect on how employees view their role?
2. Process--how are service delivery processes bounded in their design?
3. Infrastructure--including the information and staffing required to deliver in real time on your customer promises.

Little has been explored or published about what happens to service providers who are asked to segregate their attention and efforts based upon a hierarchy of customer importance. How does your company address this issue?

For more information on aspects of infrastructure, process and the importance of how we speak to customers, please click the library tab at our website: