Customer ‘SIRvice’: Examples of Institutionalized Polite Paralogic
[An analysis of what happens when failed customer service critical listening is compounded by failed critical thinking]
My recent 6-week experience with Philippine customer service was hilarious, exasperating, expensive and scary—the latter in connection with bizarre prescription medication practices, the former with just about everything else, especially airline online booking service. Picking up where my “Critical Listening: Case Studies, Catastrophes and Analysis of Customer Service Without It” article left off, the following is a chronicle and analysis of a litany of customer service failed critical thinking.
Paralogical Joke and Fable
On the hilarious side, it has generally amounted to endless and now predictably surreal encounters with customer service reps whose critical thinking and critical listening efforts or skills are best illustrated with a joke and a fable: Booking a Denmark-Manila flight, Hamlet asks, “To be there, or not to be there?”, in connection with whether he has to be at the airport check-in three hours before flight departure. The customer service rep replies, “Yes.” When he says, “That was an ‘or’ question”, the agent confirms her understanding: “Yes.”
A man approaches a farmer by the side of a long country road and says, pointing to a collapsed horse, “Can you help me? My horse has suddenly died.” The very polite farmer replies, “Oh, Sir, you will have to go down the road many miles to the next farm. So, Sir, you should get on your horse and ride to there.”
The man replies, “But my horse is dead!”
Looking very pensive and concerned, the farmer says, “Dead, Sir? Oh, in that case, this is very serious! Sir, you should get on your horse and ride to the next farm right away!”
That fable and the joke aside, I really don’t know where to begin, although my bizarre customer service experiences—widely replicated in the stories Filipinos told me about their own parallel bizarre experiences with airline customer service—began in the Philippines and were endlessly repeated just after I arrived almost two months ago, for my month and a half holiday. Unique in my travels through 52 countries, they have, as I’ve said, been alternately scary and comical—sometimes both, and almost always frustrating (for locals, as well as myself and other tourists).
Allow me to orient you with a small sample of the utterly illogical customer service practices (in addition to those I cited in my “Critical Listening” article).
Paralogic: the 4th “P” of Philippine Customer “SIRvice”
Before that, however, I wish to commend all Philippine customer service employees I’ve dealt with for their “3 Ps” of customer SIRvice: Politeness, Patience and Pleasantness. Zero exceptions—matching and sometimes surpassing even the legendary polite Japanese in all three of these dimensions of customer service, ranging from supersonic flights to supermarket aisles. In particular, their unfailingly, universally and politely addressing me as “Sir, Michael” or “Sir” was respectful in the extreme, even though “Sir Michael” was weird and uncorrectable (despite my numerous attempts to accomplish that by pointing out that I and almost all other male travelers have not been knighted).
Despite, or perhaps because of, the quirky charm of being addressed as “Sir Michael” and more generally as “Sir”, and because of the ingratiating 3Ps, it is with some reluctance that I now address the mind-twisting, gut-wrenching outcomes of that service, to which I reluctantly must add the fourth “P” of equally predictable “paralogic” (i.e., reasoning that does not conform to the principles of logic, a.k.a.,”illogicality”).
In the fourth dimension of logic and service results, the outcomes desired seem to vanish into some inaccessible Alice-in-Wonderland hyperspace. The following two anecdotes are but the tip of a paralogicberg I repeatedly collided with during my stay in the Philippines:
PRESCRIPTION MEDS: You’re trying to buy prescription medication in Manila (and other places) and are handed a card of pills, tablets or capsules, either completely unlabeled and otherwise unidentified, or with only the name on the packaging. Moreover there are absolutely no printed or oral instructions provided, including timing of or duration of ingestion, warnings, contraindications, emergency instructions or anything else of any use or critical importance.
In all instances, all you can do is to request a look at the original box or a listing in a pharmaceutical handbook (which is likely to be insufficient). (Note: Your physician’s prescription didn’t include more than dosage, number of times daily and number of days.)
This is apparently standard, tolerated practice everywhere I’ve been in the Philippines (where, on this trip, I needed meds for intestinal trouble caused by contaminated fruit). Pharmacy staff and doctors have confirmed that this is routine and accepted by customers and dispensers alike, despite the clear and present dangers and illogicality, not to mention irresponsibility, of dispensing powerful medicines with no instructions.
If the illogicality of this is not evident, look at it the possible paralogic this way: “Prescription medicines carry risks; therefore, because we want you to feel as well as get well, we won’t tell you about them or how to properly use the meds or tell or show you anything else.”
I asked (in several pharmacies), “Why are there no instructions or detailed identifiers?” The reply: “Sorry, Sir. We don’t have any.” Somehow, the sought-for explanation has been illogically equated with irrelevant confirmation. When I asked, “How about showing me the box?”, I was told there is none to show, and left wondering how a nation with a reported 97% literacy rate wouldn’t provide anything written.
AIRLINE BOOKINGS POLICY: In April, I reserved and paid (in full) for seats for two flights—Taipei-Manila, Manila-Vancouver, both with the same Airline. But, to escape the Taipainful heat, I left Taiwan early, on an additional, new ticket, and planned to board in Manila,for my Vancouver flight weeks later. What happened next is a stunning manifestation of nutty Philippine customer-service paralogic.
I was informed by the Philippine airline in question that I would have to buy an additional ticket to fly back to Taipei to catch my Manila-Vancouver flight, even though I was already in the Philippines and would remain there, or otherwise repurchase a ticket for the Vancouver flight, at about $800 on top of the $800 or so I’d already spent on it.
That’s right: Even though I was already in Manila and was prepared to cancel my Taipei reservation without any refund, II was told that I had to pay to fly back to Taipei in order to fly on from Manila,where I already was, or pay more than $800 (again) for my flight home. The only way that would make sense is if the Taipei-Manila-Vancouver flights were hermetically sealed—no one gets on, no one gets off in Manila, e.g., because of Ebola?
Because of the habit of thinking that I have fallen into as a result of being me and a critical thinking lecturer, I found that policy—confirmed by my Canadian travel agency—bizarre and surreal, not to mention truly dumb and nasty.
You don’t have to be Aristotle to argue that by allowing me to cancel the paid-for Taipei seat, the airline could double its revenue on that seat, as a Taipei-Manila flight, by selling it twice—to someone else the second time or at least boost their profit through reduced fuel consumption resulting from an empty paid-for seat and cost of meals. The only flimsy stab at logical justification was some mumbled remark about differences in currency for the Taipei-Manila flight, as though currency conversion was a yet-to-be acquired airline capability.
I am not exaggerating in telling you that I had to spend about a dozen hours on Skype attempting to to book that single needless and absurd Taipei-Manila ticket and pleading to not have to do that. Maximum time on a single call: 2 hours and 17 seconds, on top of others exceeding one hour.
The End of the Long, Wrong Road to a Logical Click of a Mouse
Only after those approximately 12 hours of pleading and remonstrating on Skype, at a cost of dozens of dollars, with at least a dozen agents, call-centre reps and supervisors, was I able to convince one of them that if I were forced to accept the booking dilemma they posed, there would be serious repercussions, especially legal (if I could get them, if not myself, off the ground without a hitch). She then, to her credit and my utter amazement, chirpily informed me that it would be easy: All she had to do was, with a click of her mouse, enter “USED” in the file for my Taipei-Manila flight. Yep, that simple…and logical (however belatedly).
As for my follow-up request for reimbursement for that needlessly booked ticket back to Taipei, the airline never responded—perhaps after having taken the requisite time to think it through logically or paralogically and given up. (My guess is that they will not, following paralogical reasoning like this: “If we ignore his request, for us it will not exist. Therefore, for him, his request will not exist either.)
Stunned by my reversal of fortunes and luck and wanting to commend her for succeeding where a gauntlet of her colleagues had failed, I quickly requested confirmation from the helpful agent’s supervisor and her supervisor’s supervisor, before an (re)lapse of logic could kick in. Thinking logically, I asked when I would get an email confirming the change. Reply: “We can email only booking confirmations, not flight completions (i.e., confirmation that a ticket has been declared “USED”).
When I insisted I have some proof of the change other than oral assurances, fearing that my claiming “The rep on the phone said I can get on this flight to Vancouver” might not be accepted by Manila service agents paralogically insisting that I had to get on the Taipei flight that has already been completed, she acceded to my request and said, “We’ve sent you email confirmation of the change.”
Checking my email, I saw multiple emails arrive—all about that one flight. The problem was that every one of them confirmed the original, now-canceled booking and instructed me to be at the Taipei airport two hours before departure.
Still on the phone with that supervisor, I asked for the proper email confirmation of the change, and was immediately reassured it was on the way. Of course, I was understandably confused and aghast to see more emails confirming that I had to be at the Taipei airport two hours before departure–a total of seven. (Eventually, I got confirmation of the Manila-Vancouver flight, but never received the requested email regarding the Taipei-Manila flight.)
My paralogical reconstruction of that outcome is this: “He wants a confirmation of the change in his Taipei booking. That is a subset of confirmations regarding his Taipei booking. Therefore we will send him a confirmation of his Taipei booking.”
Thanks to what I am convinced was sheer luck that turned out to be better than airline logic and SIRvice, I got on my Vancouver-bound flight, on schedule.
Now, I can take comfort and solace in knowing my mind, as well as my body, is safely back in Vancouver, out of reach of any more ordeals of that kind of customer SIRvice paralogic.