A couple months ago I went shopping for new car insurance. Got a quote from a reputable company that turned out to be cheaper than my incumbent insurer. So I made the switch.
Fast-forward to last week when my new agent informed me my premium was going up because, according to their underwriters, my traffic abstract indicated “two recent speeding tickets,” the last one a year ago, the prior one three months before that.
This was news to me. I clearly remembered getting one ticket in the recent past, but couldn’t for the life of me recall two. My initial reaction was to question my sanity. Was I getting so forgetful in my old age that I wouldn’t remember a speeding ticket? I racked my brain but was drawing blanks.
So I shot an email to said agent asking for confirmation that the abstract was indeed correct. Without checking he assured me that the underwriters were “very accurate with their research,” and that I must’ve forgotten, end of story.
I’m embarrassed to admit that he almost convinced me I was senile. And I probably would’ve let the whole thing slide had I not glimpsed the revised quote showing an 80% increase in my premiums!
Needless to say, this was enough to make me reconsider my premature-senility theory, and further scrutinize the traffic abstract. Turns out the first speeding ticket was issued on October 16th 2012, the second on January 1st 2013. So I pulled out my trusty checkbook ledger and quickly found a record of payment to the county court for the first violation, case number and all. So far so good.
But it was the January 1st ticket that was bugging me. One, because I would’ve absolutely remembered getting a speeding ticket on the first day of the year, and two, there was no record of me ever having paid it. So either the ticket never happened or….I forgot about it, neglected to pay it, in which case the police would’ve issued a warrant for my arrest. This would definitely be on record. It wasn’t.
Emboldened, I sent another email to my agent challenging the second ticket on the grounds stated in the previous paragraph. Here’s how he responded:
Hi Tim, I have some good news for you. The second speeding ticket is one and the same as the ticket on 10/16/2012. Evidently, when we initially did the quote that was the best guess estimate. The underwriters took the 1/1/13 date as an additional ticket.
As you can see when mistakes are made in my culture, rather than apologizing, customer service folks default to the positive spin. Absent was an awareness on the agent’s part that he wasted my time, absent was any concern about my fragile memory, absent was any hint of regret that they made a mistake. Instead, he had “good news” for me.
The late and great George Carlin would call this response “high quality manufactured bullshit.” As a former salesman who once made a living in corporate America’s customer-service spin zone, I can vouch that Carlin’s description is spot on.
Now compare my agent’s happy spin to this story, as told by a dear old American friend who lived in Japan for fifteen years.
One of my adult (Japanese) students back in the late 80′s worked for Hitachi. I just so happened to have a Hitachi VCR that stopped working for no apparent reason. I made the “mistake” of mentioning it to him one evening after class and wanted to know where I could get it repaired. Well, you’d think I blamed him for it not working, as I was totally unprepared for what ensued.
He immediately apologized profusely for the defective product and insisted on taking it to his factory where he worked to have it fixed. I balked, but he continued his apologizing and practically demanded that I turn it over to him which I did. To top it off, he returned to my house about a half hour later with his own VCR for me to use so I wouldn’t be inconvenienced while mine was being repaired!
How’s that for customer service? An employee apologizing for his entire firm and personally taking the product to the factory to have it repaired! Would, or could that ever happen in the US? I think not.
My VCR was personally returned to me about a week later with more apologies along with a 10 pack of blank cassettes, courtesy of the company, for a “defective” product!
In fairness the Japanese apology is not always sincere. But at least they pretend to care, and usually do the right thing.
Don’t get me wrong–I don’t expect Americans to behave like the Japanese. What I did expect in this instance was for my agent to preface his words with a simple “I’m so sorry for the misunderstanding, here’s how the mix up occurred and here’s how we’ll rectify the matter.”
Admittedly I’ve been spoiled by Japan’s excellent customer service. But regardless of culture, is a simple apology too much to ask for?
For more on how culture drives customer service in Japan, check out Japanese Customer Service Means Always Having to Say You’re Sorry.
Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014