Hurricane Sandy in the Customer Service World

Hurricane Sandy arrived last week with devastating consequences along the East Coast. Totaling at least 113 fatalities and an estimated $50 billion dollars in damages, Hurricane Sandy’s effects were felt in as many as 24 states with particularly heavy damage in New Jersey and New York.

In the storm’s aftermath, thousands of people were left without water, power, or phone service. Naturally, a massive outage of critical utilities wreaks havoc on the basic infrastructure many of us take for granted. Without power or cell service, voice and internet communications are gone, leaving people without access vital information on where and how to get help, or when to expect relief.

In times such as these, most of rely on family, friends, and neighbors to get through the crisis; however, the way businesses react to such circumstances—essentially, how helpful and effective is their customer service—also plays an important role in how well people are able to get through the problem.

Over the past week, we’ve all seen amazing stories of neighbors and communities coming together for support. But what should we expect from the businesses we rely on under normal circumstance? And how well have they met the call after Hurricane Sandy.

What to Expect

When providing customer service after a catastrophic natural disaster, it’s absolutely imperative for companies to put the customer’s needs first. The question is not how you can profit, but how can you help. In his customer service blog, Shep Hyken points to the risk of seeming opportunistic in a time of need. Sure, some people will try to take advantage, but a truly customer-focused organization should understand what they can do to help.

For example, Tom Hoffman writes of his experience in the time leading up to Hurricane Sandy. In his case, an Allstate robo call alerted policy holders to storm preparation tips available at the company’s web site. Additionally, his insurance agent sent e-mail with guidelines for preparing their property, putting together emergency supplies, and safely storing policy information in the event his family needed to file a claim after the storm.

Though Allstate certainly stands to benefit if its customer are prepared, Hoffman wrote, ”this type of proactive outreach is a really effective way to demonstrate to customers that a company is concerned about their interests when lives are at stake and people are feeling vulnerable.”

For an idea of what customers should expect from service and utility providers in the event of disaster, The Eptica Customer Experience Blog offered some guidelines:

  • Insurance companies: Provide advice on how people can protect themselves and their property and deliver clear information on how to make a claim
  • Utilities: Warn of potential power outages and give an accurate timescale on when services are likely to be restored
  • Airlines: With thousands of flights grounded, provide information to help travelers plan different routes, and how they can claim refunds if applicable
  • Banks: In a crisis people need cash, so make sure that services such as ATMs are available, opening emergency branches if needed
  • Telecom companies: Like utilities give a clear picture of which services are affected, bearing in mind that many people won’t have access to the internet
  • Retailers: Make sure you stock the emergency supplies that people need and keep shoppers informed about when new deliveries will be in

As we’ve seen in the news over the past week, many companies are living up to these expectations. Others…not so much. Below, I’ve listed some stories and links of both good and bad customer service stories in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Doing the Right Thing

Susanna Kim (ABC News) detailed a handful of good customer service stories from around New Jersey and New York

  • Several major banks—Bank of America, Citi, Wells Fargo, TD Bank—are waiving fees such as overdraft fees for victims
  • Numerous hotels are offering discounted hotel rates for first responders
  • Comcast has opened up Xfinity wi-fi hot spots to anyone in areas affected by the storm
  • Town Sports International gyms opened their facilities to public, offering free showers, free workouts, and a place to charge a phone
  • Brightbox set up free mobile charging stations mobile in Manhattan

These companies are all doing the right thing by offering helpful services to people in need. In the cases of Comcast, Town Sports, and Brightbox; they offered services to both customers and non-customers, which makes it a genuine show of goodwill.

Lame self-congratulation

Blue Hill Data Services on the other hand sent out a press release patting themselves on the back because the storm had “no impact on their customers’ service and did not experience any power outages.”

The release, which includes a few unattributed “notes of appreciation” from grateful clients, went on to say things like, “Blue Hill’s production data center is a hardened, fault tolerant facility powered by two separate primary distribution utility electrical feeds, with both feeds coming into the facility by underground conduit.”

What? Who cares? Save it for a case study. It just comes off as a lame attempt to garner the company some unwarranted attention. Seriously, if I’m one of their customers, I already know I didn’t suffer any downtime. Otherwise, it’s neither interesting nor news.

Nice try, but…

In the Tutwiler blog, they seem to be doing something nice by offering 10: Hurricane Sandy Insurance Claim Tips. As noted by Eptica, this is exactly the kind of information an insurance company should offer under the circumstances. Upon further review…

The blog entry, posted several hours after the storm hit, begins thusly, “Hurricane Isaac has caused widespread wind, water and flood damage along the Eastern seaboard.” You catch that? Hurricane ISAAC? I’m guessing Tutwiler offered the very same tips when Isaac passed through in August of this year.

In all fairness, a typographical error isn’t that big of a deal; however, it does take away some credibility in terms how much you’re really concerned with the customer. Especially when posting the entry after the storm hit and power has been knocked out, taking internet access with it.

What really galls me, though? Here’s how the article closes: “Our 2nd set of 10 Tips to Avoid will be posted tomorrow.” WHAT? I’m already on your site. I need the information now. It’s not as if I asked for 10 hot tips on spring decorating. It’s an actual need. Right now. Seriously. Are you trying to help? Or trying to drive traffic? Sorry, but the two don’t really mix.

Cold and cynical

As widely reported, American Apparel tastelessly advertised a Hurricane Sandy Sale just prior to the storm landing with the headline: “In case you’re bored during the storm.” Yeah, of course. People who are at risk of losing their homes along with most of the utilities and services they rely on every day—including the internet, which is required for internet shopping—would naturally get bored and want to buy stuff. What else do they have to worry about?

To compound the matter, CEO Dov Charney completely downplayed the incident, saying: “I don’t think our marketing guys made a mistake. Part of what you want to do in these events is keep the wheels of commerce going…We’re here to sell clothing. I’m sleeping well at night knowing this was not a serious matter.”

Well, I suppose the “wheels of commerce” can help us all sleep better at night. Or not.

Heart-warming goodness

And to close on a story of tremendously heart-warming-though-not-totally-customer-service-related-goodness, you should definitely ready about 11-year-old Lucy Walkowiak’s pop-up internet café.

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