Two Reasons Why Priority Numbers Demonstrate the Wrong Priority

Let's forget the fact that you have already read the title of this post.....

What do banks, airlines, retail stores, vanity clinics, shipping, restaurants, pharmacies, schools, electric utilities, water utilities, cable companies, government offices, hospitals, and a long list of organizations added every year have in common?

Can you guess? 

Many customer service managers swear its the greatest invention ever introduce in customer service.

Are we getting closer?

Here's another hint....

In spite of the fact they tell you it will get you served promptly and quickly it never does.

It comes in many forms, materials, and sizes.

It attracts almost everybody's attention except the person who is suppose to give you the attention.

Ok....let's get it over with.....

It's a priority number.

Banks use it....airlines use it.....retail stores have it....you get it....

Personally I hate it. I have worked customer service for almost twenty years. The use of priority numbers never came up as an alternative in improving customer service.

There are two and I have only these two reasons why I would not use priority numbers to improve any customer service response process or program.

Reason Number One
Priority numbers give your people a false sense that they have started the customer service process. Giving or offering customers a paper, cardboard, plastic or even a disc bearing a number gives frontline service people the feeling that they have already started serving customers.

My first example and usually a more common one is the experience I have with banks. Bank tellers give me an impression that tellering is a process which seem to have a universal intent of socially or psychologically disconnecting service staff from the essence of customers. They can't seem to look at you in the eyes or even give you a passing glance even when you are in front of them.

My first experience of holding a priority number myself was when I accompanied my mom to buy airplane tickets. After you get the number, frontline staff just totally ignore you.

Frontline personnel probably have this conversation in their heads that since we (the Customer) already have a number they can proceed to step two which says: "I'll get to you when it pleases me" or "I'll get to you after I get back from lunch". Since there's a likelihood of 9 out of 10 this service staff don't like people in general, this can be a really long wait for you (the Customer).

Just recently, I walked into a retail store that specializes on computer accessories (one of many big chains of similar kind). After stepping in I stayed right in front of one of the many service counters in a room of seven sales staff. I was the third customer with two already lining up on one of the counters.

The second customer (a lady) told me to get one of those recycled compact discs with a big number on it because they won't serve you unless you get a priority number. I guess the staff was very serious about the numbers because there were seven of them in the store. Nobody thought of just calling the second lady and serve her since she already has Number Two on her hand.

I called out to a guy in the other counter across the one I was lining up to and the response he shouted back was to get a priority number. I responded by just telling the guy that there's at least five of them doing nothing. Why can't they just ask me what I need and if they don't have it, then I can just leave. The guy still insist on me getting a number and then he turns his back to go back to what he was doing (which is nothing).

Maybe I am down right condescending or just totally dumb but I had a distinct feeling that these sales counter people were made to believe the following:
  • Customers generally cannot count beyond five.
  • Customers do not understand that numbers on disc are very important to customer service.
  • Customers do not care about recycling compact discs that is why they don't know what the priority number is for.
  • Customers have no idea that what comes after two is three and so on.
  • Customers are suppose to follow the sequence of numbers displayed and flashing on light emitting diodes.
  • Customers can only be serve by sales staff directly in front of them.
May be you can add some more to these theories and assumption. I think some genius in these retail organization just invented the best customer service process for dummies.

Reason Number Two
A priority number in the hand of a Customer is a contradiction in terms. Altough the primary purpose is to prioritize (taken from the word "priority") service  to Customers, the exact opposite is what Customers actually perceive, feel and experience on a regular basis. When I enter an organization and see a number dispensing device, I actually don't feel that I will be serve. The first feeling I will have is I will be staying on some bench or standing in some corner to wait indefinitely. This trend has not change for at least  30 years of my life.

I have waited on many benches from social security offices, hospitals, business permit counters, trade name registration, clinics, bus stations, and even in a pizza parlor.

Priority numbers are never reassuring. It only tells me one thing consistently----wait and bear it.

One incident about priority numbers that really push this concept to the "hilt" happened in a government managed hospital. I never forgot this incident because it made headlines in a local daily newspaper. A man bleeding walked in with a really long knife stuck in his back. Apparently and obviously (well I thought it was obvious to the nurse in the Emergency Section then) the man was stabbed from behind and the assailant probably did not have time to pull out the knife from the man's back.

The first thing the nurse did (of course) is to ask the man to get a priority number and fill up a form. Even today for some reason, I still can't get my head around the fact that for an organization dedicate to saving human lives, this extreme mutation of callousness can come in the form of a customer service process or patient care process (a fancy name).

I thought medical professionals have this hypocritical, hipocratical or hypo-allergenic oath that they subscribe to. It's kind of hard to remember these terms when institutions don't really mean to follow anything written on them.

If you are even remotely considering doing this in your own store (or hospital), I suggest you walk into and line up (short of being stabbed from behind) inside the store of your nearest or worst competitor. It doesn't matter which. You just need a perspective. This perspective is called "shooting yourself in the foot".

If you still don't get it, I suggest not getting a gun. There's a fire axe nearby somewhere inside your own store....

........break glass....

......take axe...and then.....

....drop it on your foot.

If you're a bit hurt that I might be inadvertently referring to your enterprise I apologize ...really....now about the axe in your store....

I would like to sincerely help you with that axe.


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