A customer-service miracle shows America at its best

Amid all the talk about America in decline, we must not forget our strengths.

Reports of America’s decline and China’s rise abound today. As a longtime China hand, I admire Beijing’s amazing accomplishments and sometimes fret about America’s ability to meet the challenges China’s emergence poses. 

I’m also reminded, sometimes at odd moments, of our nation’s strengths, some of which go unremarked. They’re real – and we must not take them for granted.

A recent adventure in an airport lounge brought some of America’s best assets to mind.

I spend a lot of time on planes. I’m obsessive about my favorite luggage, particularly the “wheelie” suitcase that’s my savior from the purgatory of baggage claim.

Traveling to Taiwan earlier this year, I had checked my bag instead of taking it on board. On arrival, its mangled handle looked like limp spaghetti. The airline didn’t “cover handles.”

So I took a cab to a Costco (the US-based warehouse chain) outside Taipei and bought, for a reasonable US price, a new roll-aboard.

I was instantly smitten. One of its most beguiling features was the nifty strap, with its unique clip-in fitting, for hooking a small extra bag or a computer to the wheelie.

Three months later, on some other flight, I lost the strap. A web search revealed no sign of the bag, or its “parts,” and I resigned myself to a dreary future of strapless juggling.

Earlier this month, in the lounge at San Francisco airport, I spied a traveler with the very same bag. I approached him cold and lamented my loss to him. He sensibly suggested calling the local store near the airfield.

I called, pressed a number for “administrative offices,” and gave the one-minute version of my tragic tale.

“We can’t help you, but we suggest you call our home office,” said the person I’d cold-called. “Here’s the main number.”

I called the home office, told the operator my problem, and got connected to an extension. The voice mail message gave a colleague’s name and extension for “urgent” matters. I called that number and reached a real person. Kelly got the full, two-minute tale of woe.

 “We’ve changed manufacturers, and that bag is no longer available,” Kelly said. “But I can check our system and see if I can find a strap for you. Let me have your name, address, phone and e-mail address.”

Eight hours later, safely in Honolulu, I checked my e-mail. A message from Kelly read, “We found one strap – the very last one. Take good care of it. It’ll be in the mail in a day or two.”

The next morning, Kelly’s assistant rang my cellphone: the strap had been mailed.

In how many other countries would this have happened? 

Not many. I have the deepest admiration for what the Chinese people have accomplished in the past 30 years, but this series of events strikes me as unimaginable there.

The contrast underscores some often hidden elements of America’s effectiveness: individual empowerment and open social communication.

This was, to me, a tiny but exhilarating American success story. Every element of my story highlights American strengths that we must preserve and promote to stay competitive. 

• Trust between strangers. The traveler at the airport didn’t know me. But we conducted a constructive conversation with no rituals or barriers.

•Service-focused organizational design. The store switchboard linked seamlessly to the office figure, who laid out the right next step for me. There was no need to “go back two spaces,” redirect my call, or repeat my message two or three times.

•Everyone a stakeholder. The home office operator was a nonnative speaker in a low-level job taking calls from the general public. Yet she was equipped to listen effectively, make crucial judgments, and connect me to the right party.

•Emphasis on action. The voice-mail message was clear, complete, and gave me an option to reach someone else if my case was “urgent.”

•Employee initiative. Kelly – who was not a customer service representative – showed mastery of product availability, and, above all, an instant willingness to think creatively – to “problem-solve” – for a customer completely unknown to her.

•Follow-up. Kelly e-mailed me new details while I was still on the plane, and her assistant called just hours later to report completion of the order.

Open and effective communication, broad-minded employee training, individual employee problem-solving skills, an emphasis on speed and full task-completion: We have these ingredients in front of our noses. We need to grow them, use them, and never forget how much they can do for us in a competitive world. 

Robert Kapp, former president of the US-China Business Council, heads Robert A. Kapp & Associates, Inc., a consulting firm. He taught Chinese history at Rice University and the University of Washington

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