Friday, April 23, 2010

Goodbye St. Vincent's: the Effect of Customer Service on a New Mom

As I get older and crabbier, customer service matters to me more and more. I get so burned up when people are impatient or rude unnecessarily. Why deliberately ruin someone's day?

I think all the way back to my first retail job when I was fourteen or fifteen, working after school and some weekends as a cashier at the then very cool Canal Jean Co. I made $5 an hour which to me was a lot back then, and I worked in SoHo which made me cool by extension. Because it was near the Village! Also I sold jeans and basic black clothing to Dave Gahan and David Bowie! Anyway, the best advice I ever got regarding customer service in my life so far came from my then-manager, Martha. She was a skinny girl perhaps two years older than me with a Puerto Rican accent and the ability to suck her teeth in like no other girl I've heard since. She had big, round, teenage girl handwriting that I was so envious of but, try as I might, I couldn't copy. Anyway, she told me very simply that if you're nice to the customers, both your day and theirs go by much faster and more pleasantly than if you're rude, even if you're in a bad mood. She was right. A simple thank you, have a nice day! goes a very long way. It really works, and it's so easy!

Conversely, when someone is rude to me, I remember a story I read in Steven Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He talks about a man who was on the subway with his three kids who were bouncing all over the place misbehaving and all he did was slump behind a newspaper. Another passenger was infuriated with the kids' behavior and said so. The man looked over at him and said "I'm really sorry. I don't have it together today. We just came from the hospital where their mother just died." So you never know what kind of day the other person is having. I try to think that maybe rude people are just upset about something else and accidentally taking it out on me, but even with that in mind it's not always so easy to shake off.

As we are settling into our new place, we decided to get blinds. We live pretty near a Home Depot so we made the trip over the bridge to the Bronx. We pored over colors and styles. We let it sit. We came back and pored again, and then, our minds made up, we sat at the desk in the Flooring department (as custom blinds do not have their own department) and worked with someone very nice who helped us set up a date and time for someone else to come measure. A week later, a second very nice man came and measured the windows, handed me a business card, and said the measurements would be in the system by the next day at 10 am so we could go purchase the blinds. We were so excited. We walked back over, nervous about the cost but excited to finally order the blinds and be able to take down the sheets and old curtains that are taped over the windows now. I sat back down at the Flooring desk and waited. There was a girl there, Nini emblazoned on her orange apron in round handwriting not unlike Martha's. She ignored me. I figured she was working on something else. But then she took another customer. And another. She answered the phone. She chatted with a group of boys about carpets. She ran over and effusively (and flirtatiously) greeted a male friend. And I sat there, a sleeping baby in my arms, quietly fuming. I finally asked, "Am I in the right place to order custom blinds?" and she nodded in my direction. That was all. She went back to whatever else she was doing. For all I know, she was on Facebook and not actually using the computer in front of her for anything. It was becoming apparent that she was deliberately ignoring me. We attempted to flag down a half a dozen other people with orange aprons, but they all said that Nini was the only one who could help. Finally we snagged someone willing to try and who seemed to understand my frustration, but she didn't know how to look up our names in the system. She had to interrupt Nini, who told us disdainfully, cracking her gum the whole time, that it was too soon. It takes 48 - 72 hours, she said, speaking over my insistence that the man said it would be in by the morning. She didn't even want to look it up. She dismissed us and I was so livid that I stormed off. Steven Covey was not helping me. Now I don't want to go back and even though it's a simple process that should take no more than 20 minutes, I feel slightly sick about it and dread the whole thing.

How dare a customer service rep be so rude to a customer? Especially one about to order hundreds of dollars worth of products and services in a place most people just buy batteries or a screwdriver? I felt that the staff should have been falling all over us to get our business and instead we were treated rudely while she gave her undivided attention to what felt like everyone else in the store and on the phone. And you know what's worse? I was actually afraid to complain because the girl was so mean and my name, address and phone number were "in the system." What if she came after me? Or my baby?

Where I work, my staff and I bend over backwards to provide excellent customer service. Most of my staff is medical, however, I work customer service into their job descriptions. They are expected to be polite and patient and friendly at all times, and believe me when I say it's not easy. I know it. We work with the financially underserved of NYC, some of whom live in the projects, some of whom are uneducated, all of whom have pets they love desperately. They want to do right by their animals so they come to our clinics but they don't always know what services we offer, or what it means to spay or neuter a cat or dog. They ask the same questions over and over and over. They show up late, they show up early. They are always loud and demanding. They bang on the door all day long, interrupting surgery, even though we have a sign on the door that says Please do not knock, we are in surgery. Take a flyer and call the number for more information! Thank you! It's crazymaking. Over the years, one person had a gun pulled on him, another a hammer. Others have to deal regularly with cat rescuers, some of whom are wonderful, some of whom might be a little bit insane, all of whom are very needy and tenacious. And still, the team goes back out every morning, smiling. They are awesome. We also have a whole team of customer service reps who handle clients on the phone. They strive to be friendly and polite at all times. Their calls are recorded, and I've heard them grit their teeth and smile through some of the worst abuse you can imagine. I loathe dealing with these kinds of calls, but I sometimes have no choice. When I'm returning calls I really don't want to return, I actually pretend that I am someone else: someone who is in a good mood, someone who is always smiling. I know I will have to sit through someone's angry tirade that has nothing to do with me, and listen to them threaten to call the president of the organization, the mayor, the media, and it's much easier to do if I'm smiling. I remember what my old boss Martha said, that being nice makes my day and theirs go by faster and more pleasantly. It always helps. And it has a lasting effect on the people, who then nine times out of ten end up apologizing to me, and then we're both happy.

So where in the &%$!!@ does Nini get off treating us this way? I am still angry. Have we ordered the blinds? Not yet. We went to another Home Depot and the people there were so unbelievably nice that I almost cried when they told us we had to continue working with the location we'd started with. So I called again. The measurements are in, but I want to go sometime when Nini will not be there. Not like I know her schedule. What a hassle.

What does this have to do with Thora? A lot. The point I'm trying to make is that how strangers treat you has a lasting effect and can really change your mind about things, no matter how firmly you think it's made up. Many of you will remember how adamant I was about wanting a homebirth. I wanted the whole natural hippy experience: midwife, homebirth, birth pool, husband in the water behind me, wiping my forehead and breathing with me. Long braid and Birkenstocks optional. I pored over Ina May Gaskin's books and seriously contemplated driving to The Farm in Tennessee to have my baby there, on a VW bus, in her birthing center, under a tree, wherever. I loved the stories in Spiritual Midwifery and imagined myself like one of the ladies in the pictures: heavily pregnant and with lots of armpit hair, chopping wood or picking flowers while going into labor. Taking a long walk and smiling through the rushes, singing Joni Mitchell songs and having my partner kiss me to help manage the pain ("that's how the baby got in, and it's the best way to get the baby out!").

As if! My birthing was nothing like that. It was a medicated nightmare, one intervention after the next. There was no kissing, no singing. I peeled back layer after layer of my expectations like onion skin, and let go of them all one at a time. I said goodbye to my homebirth, to my natural birth, to my vaginal birth, even to my midwife. It was difficult, but let me tell you, it would have been a thousand times more difficult if we hadn't been at St. Vincent's.

Just as Nini's crappy customer service was something that has stayed with me long after I walked out of that store, excellent customer service can work similarly lasting - but positive - magic. I have been completely converted to hospital birth by St. Vincent's. And I did NOT want to have my baby in the hospital. When my midwife told me at about 28 weeks that I had no choice, I cried and ran out of her office. I was devastated. But then something happened that in the end changed my mind completely. About seven weeks before my due date, Johnny and I took some time off and had a "staycation" in New York City. We did a lot of things we - as native New Yorkers - had never done before. We went to an expensive restaurant we'd always wanted to go to, went to a few museums, walked through the Plaza pretending we were rich tourists. We walked through Central Park as it snowed lightly, pretending we were seeing it for the first time.We got Circle Line tickets. And we bought tickets to a Broadway musical. On the way to the theater district that late December evening, I fell into a pothole right off the curb on 8th Ave. I went down, belly and all. People stared at me. I thought they were laughing but then I realized they were frozen in fear because they'd just watched this 33-week-pregnant woman fall on her side and hit her belly. Johnny leaped to my rescue. It wasn't a serious fall but I was so worried. Should I or should I not go to the hospital? Should I or should I not call the midwife? What about our expensive Broadway tickets?

We went to the play anyway, and I did enjoy it, but halfway through I started having contractions. I got more and more freaked out. In the end we went to the hospital because although I felt instinctively that the baby was okay, I knew I would never ever forgive myself if I was wrong and she wasn't.

I braced myself because I've had some pretty rough experiences in hospitals, but it was unnecessary. Even though my contractions were getting milder as time passed, the staff validated my concern and took it very seriously. The nurses were all so kind and caring. I had one nurse all to myself. She was attentive and considerate all night. She brought me everything I needed right away, and when she could not be at my beck and call because there were more serious things going on (i.e., actual births) she let me know and promised me that she'd be in as often as she could be. They were so caring that I began to actually look forward to birthing at St. Vincent's. And when the time came, even though the experience was not what I'd hoped and my midwife was disappointing to say the least, the doctors and nurses at St. Vincent's were again wonderful. I knew they'd helped bring a million babies into the world but they marveled at Thora like she was the only baby they'd ever seen, making me feel special and cared for. They were friendly, accommodating of our vegan diet, willing to overlook infractions to the rules (like Johnny staying past curfew in our semi-private room) and just generally helpful. They made sure Thora latched on correctly and they let her stay with me at all times. They walked us out and helped us flag a cab home, hugging all three of us and waving goodbye like they were our aunts. And the doctor who just happened to be the OB on staff when it came time to take Thora out by c-section was so respectful and kind that I loved her right away and am now using her for my OB/GYN care. I told myself as I left that I'd send the Labor and Delivery nurses a bouquet of flowers to thank them, but then I got home and caught up in having a newborn, so I never did. I hope they understand all the same how much their kindness meant to us. I think they did.

All during the end of my pregnancy, we knew that St. Vincent's was in trouble. When I was about to go into labor there was some question of whether I'd even be able to deliver there. At the time it didn't really matter to me, because it was a hospital and that meant I didn't really want to be there regardless. Now that it is closing for real at the end the month, I am surprised to find how sad it makes me. St. Vincent's has helped its neighborhood, thousands of people in need, and now they have helped my family. They may have been struggling financially but I find it heartbreaking that providing excellent customer service and patient care regardless of ability to pay is no longer a way to run a successful business. Instead, small hospitals that serve the underserved are being swallowed up by larger conglomerations (that do not take my insurance, thanks Continuum!) and the little people are left out in the cold. If we have a second child, he or she will be born somewhere else.

Last week we walked by St. Vincent's and stopped in to use the bathroom so I could change the baby. There were job fairs going on to try to accommodate the hundreds of people about to be unemployed, and there was a somber feeling all around. I talked to Thora the whole time, telling her that this was where she was born, where I met her for the first time and held her in my arms and told her how much I loved her. I actually found myself getting choked up. There were posters on the walls of each department announcing the closing of the hospital, listing the date they would cease admitting patients, the date they would begin transferring current patients and/or how they would transition their services, and the date they would be closing their doors. At the bottom of each of the posters, there was a line, short and humble and to the point, that brought tears to my eyes. "It has been an honor to serve you."

This is customer service of the very best kind. It's the kind that sticks. Even though our birth did not go as planned, I have good memories that I will want to share with my daughter. What could have been remembered only as a nightmare became a positive experience in my mind because I felt cared for and special. After that building has long been torn down and turned into disgustingly overpriced condos or whatever it's going to be, I will want to take Thora back to the corner of 12th and 7th and show her where she was born and tell her the story of her birth over and over.


  1. Sorry about Nini!! I've definitely been in that position before. It's so infuriating. You should politley let the manager of the store know that you had some really good experiences with their employees, but one person has ruined your image of Home Depot. It could get you a discount, help you get your blinds on time, and maybe even allow you to work with someone besides Nini.

    And I love your story about St. V's. I'm sorry they are closing. I had my ultrasound there, where I found out I was a having a girl :)

  2. a few years ago mym mom and i went to go visit a house we used to live in. when we showed up it had been torn down! that's how i feel about st. vincent's closing. it's bizarre to have so many life-altering memories about a place that no longer exists. on a more practical note, have you tried getting your medical records yet? apparently you need them for a VBAC and i only imagine it's going to get harder and harder to get copies...

  3. "iknew they'd helped bring a million babies into the world but they marveled at Thora like she was the only baby they'd ever seen"

    That was my exact experience having Melody at St. Vincent's. I had the same reaction as you did--but you see so many babies, it's as if Melody is the first!" How I love the nurses and doctors there. So sad.


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