Service with a Smile (Just Not If You're Taking Your Bike on Amtrak)

This is the first day of my vacation: my girlfriend and I are going biking in upstate New York. The plan was to take the Amtrak to Syracuse. We'd check our bikes to get them onto Amtrak, and then from Syracuse we'd bike east along the Erie Canal.

Only a few minutes into the journey, though, and already we're off track. We arrived at Penn Station two hours before our train was supposed to leave — plenty of time to check our bikes, we thought. To get your bikes onto Amtrak, you have to partially disassemble them: you have to take off the pedals and then turn the handlebars partway in order to fit the bike into an Amtrak-provided box ($10 for the box, $20 for the handling). Disassembling the bikes proved to be harder to do than I thought. By the time we had them ready to ship, the woman at the baggage check informed we had missed the cut off to check the bags. By how much had we missed the cut off? A mere 8 minutes.

Once on board, we then were informed by a junior conductor that we couldn't sit in a clearly open two-seater by the window because he was reserving it for families. Instead we had to sit in a darker two-seater — no window — which was one row forward. I swear, this train car is half-empty and the two rows look identical to me. No flexibility at all.

I've taken Amtrak tons of times before and this is by far the worst experience. This reminds me that it is so key, when you're in a service business, to be investing in good people who enjoy working with customers. Every service has a set scope and there are always rules to adhere to — but at some point you have to understand the customer and know when those rules can be broken.

The junior conductor who wouldn't move us a seat back — to a window seat — justified his actions by talking about job security. He said he needed to adhere to the rules or he would lose his job. But it doesn't work like that. If your job is just interpreting a series of options within a defined rule set, then your job can be easily automated. A robot could do it. These Amtrak trains could be fully automated: purchase a seat online (just like purchasing a seat in a concert hall or for a play); scan your ticket at the door; and then walk to your designated seat. No human intervention required.

Amtrak, you can have that tip pro-bono.

But, truthfully, I like interacting with human beings. Some services can be automated to improve efficiency, but at some point you're going to be dealing with a human being. Either that human is the customer or — especially in a service-oriented business — it's the person doing the selling or performing the service.

If you're the person who's performing the service — well, I realize you may be coming off an 8-hour shift which probably started at 5 AM, and I realize you can't perform miracles. But, please, treat me like a human being and I will reciprocate.

This is a practice I take into my daily work. Sure, work is hard — but treating your customers, clients, and co-workers civilly goes along way. Personally, making a customer happy is one of the best parts of my day. Customers don't always say "thank you" — after all, the are paying me, so I don't really expect it. But when they do... Well, let's just say I save those emails. They brighten my day.

Finally, hat tip to two organizations who helped out during this fiasco:
• TSA. Thank you to the TSA agent who saw us struggling with our bikes and walked with me to the hardware store to pick out a wrench. Above and beyond the call of duty on his part and a big thank you for the kindness.
• Bicycle Habitat. As usual, these guys are awesome. Thanks to the mechanic who helped remove the pedals from my girlfriend's bike and let me watch while he did it. These guys always offer solid advice. Bicycle Habitat is my go-to shop — they have shops in Soho, Park Slope, and Chelsea — and if you're a NYC cyclist they should be your go-to shop, too. The Park Slope shop stayed open an extra hour last night to give me a last minute tune-up (and offered me some cold veggie pizza from their lunch — mmm). Thanks again, guys!