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JetBlue can teach Verizon a thing or two about compassion

Why is it so hard for some companies to show a little human decency when a customer has a problem?

August 23, 2011|David Lazarus
  • When Shelley Keith of Sherman Oaks called JetBlue to delay her flight home after her mother's death, she said a customer service rep told her: "On behalf of everyone at JetBlue, please accept our condolences." That's a lot more compassion than her sister found when calling Verizon to cancel their mother's phone service.
When Shelley Keith of Sherman Oaks called JetBlue to delay her flight home… (David Paul Morris / Bloomberg )

Rising prices, lower quality, less convenience — consumers can put up with a lot. But one thing I've consistently heard from people is that they won't stand for lousy service.

And I can understand why. There's just no excuse for businesses treating customers like unwanted dinner guests, tapping their corporate feet until the annoyance goes away.

It's a symbiotic relationship. We need businesses to provide the stuff we want. But they need us just as much to buy their stuff.

So why is it so hard to show a little human decency when a customer has a problem?

I think about that every time I encounter a tale of woe from a reader. And a recent chat with Shelley Keith of Sherman Oaks only reinforced my belief that some companies get it, and some seem to go out of their way to appear insensitive, cynical and just plain mean.

This story offers an example of both.

Keith's mother, Lilyan Goldberg, had terminal cancer. I say "had" because she died last month, on her 91st birthday.

Before Goldberg's passing, her caregiver needed to call a relative in Britain. Keith's sister, Phyllis Goldberg, was overseeing their mother's affairs and had power of attorney for business matters. She gave permission for the call.

But it wouldn't go through. Phyllis Goldberg called Verizon to ask what the problem was. She was told that the international call appeared unusual for the account so a block was imposed. Verizon said the block could be lifted with the written authorization of the account holder.

As Keith, 63, related this to me, I could hear the anger in her voice rising. Even now, a month after her mother's death, the wound is still raw.

Goldberg explained that their mother, the account holder, was incapacitated and that she had power of attorney. The Verizon service rep insisted that only the account holder could lift the block. They went round and round on this.

"Finally my sister hung up," Keith recalled. "And she's not the kind of person who has difficulty communicating with people. She has a PhD. She's a writer. But she couldn't get anywhere with Verizon."

On July 21, Keith flew to New Jersey to see her mother. On the day Keith was scheduled to return home on JetBlue, her mother died. Keith called the airline to see if she could reschedule.

"JetBlue was incredible," she said. "I told them my mother had died, and the service representative immediately said she was sorry. I said that she'd died on her birthday, and the representative said, 'On behalf of everyone at JetBlue, please accept our condolences.'"

After confirming with the funeral home that her mother had indeed passed away, the airline told Keith that she could reschedule her flight to Los Angeles for any time. And it wouldn't charge her the customary $100 change fee.

Now back to Verizon. Keith's sister called the phone company to cancel their mother's service. The service rep asked the reason.

"My sister said that our mother had just died," Keith recalled. "The representative didn't say she was sorry or say anything else that would be natural under such circumstances. Instead, she said, 'Can I tell you about our other services?' "

Goldberg replied that perhaps the rep hadn't heard what she'd said — her mother had died. The rep reportedly answered that she'd heard, and asked again whether she would be interested in learning about Verizon's various money-saving service plans.

It takes your breath away.

I called JetBlue and asked if the company gives any special training to its workers for handling bereaved customers.

Allison Steinberg, a company spokeswoman, said there's no special training for bereavement, but all employees are taught to listen to customers and to address their problems. "The emphasis is on treating all customers on an individual basis," she said.

The results are obvious. Keith said she'd happily recommend JetBlue to others. And I have no doubt she'll remain loyal to the airline for the rest of her life.

Verizon … not so much. "It's like they've got some policy about not empathizing with customers," Keith said. "What does it cost to say 'I'm sorry for your loss'? Five little words. And Verizon just couldn't utter them."

Jarryd Gonzales, a Verizon spokesman, didn't dispute Keith's account of what happened. But he said it's not the company's policy to either ignore a customer's distress or use such moments of vulnerability to make sales pitches.

"In this case, the experience is not how we want our customers treated, and for that we apologize," Gonzales said.

He said the sales rep "may have forgotten what was happening" when notified of a death in the family, and that's why Keith's sister was asked if she wanted to hear about other Verizon services.

Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, recently remarked that "corporations are people." They're not (despite the legal invention of "corporate personhood"). The people who work for corporations are people.

That's why service reps need to put down their scripts and set aside their sales quotas and act more human. It's simple: Treat others the way you'd want to be treated.

"Verizon extends its condolences to the family," Gonzales said of what happened to Keith and her sister.

Better late than never.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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