- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 29, 2001

Patience, civility and customer service have gained new currency in a climate in which banks and businesses often find themselves dealing with customers whose lives and finances have been disrupted in big and small ways by the Sept. 11 attacks.
Typically strict about getting payments on time, credit-card issuers, mortgage and utility companies are waiving late fees, giving extensions, and trying to work with delinquent customers.
"Essentially, all the consumer needs to do is call the bank and talk to the bank," said Peter Nostrand, president of SunTrust Bank, summarizing how the company is trying to treat customers.
On Sept. 12, the bank set up a relief fund for the victims of the terrorist attacks, allowing people to donate at any of its 167 branches in the region. Since then, SunTrust has also waived its late payment fees on credit cards, extended mortgage payments, put a moratorium on foreclosures and suspended reporting of late payments to credit bureaus.
Other banks and large retailers who have their own credit-card divisions have also relaxed rules, said Sarah Scheuer, spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation.
"They are not going to do that indefinitely, but now in order to be sensitive," she said.
SunTrust has urged its employees to be kinder than ever to customers, but that was almost unnecessary, said Mr. Nostrand, adding that he has noticed an overall improvement in people's dispositions.
"Immediately after the attack, a worker at the Corner Bakery wished me a 'safe' afternoon," recalled Jessica, a D.C. resident who asked that her full name not be used. "That threw me off. My friend also changed her voice mail to say 'Have a safe day.'"
Catherine Timko, another D.C. resident, has also noticed an improvement.
"At the restaurants people are if not nicer, more patient," she said. "I find people are much more gracious they stop to talk to you, managers, owners. Friday night, I was at dinner, and I was at one of 20 tables, and the manager came out and talked to everybody. He said he now wants to get to know his customers better."
David VanAmburg, managing director of the American Customer Satisfaction Index, a business project at the University of Michigan, said, "Clearly, this is going to have a huge impact on some service sectors."
The lodging industry is being hit hard, as the number of tourists and business travelers has dropped by about half.
"When the hotels start laying people off, is service going to suffer because staffing is down?" asked Mr. VanAmburg. "The same for retail stores: If fewer people are coming into the store, the store's bottom line is suffering. So the store lays off some of its support staff. And is customer service impacted? Not really. Because even though the support staff is now smaller, the customer base is also smaller."
Criticized for bad customer service, the airline industry is one where seeing improvement following the terrorist attacks is difficult. With tougher security measures in place and longer lines at check-in counters, tensions would seem to run high.
However, said David Stempler, a consumer advocate and president of the Air Travelers Association, "people are so overwhelmed with security issues and dealing with long waits and trying to be patient that I think that the service aspects are very low on the priority list."
"When you're dealing with hijacking and crashing planes, it just doesn't seem to be important if you get your Coke right away anymore, so I don't think anybody is really angry on the airplanes these days," he added
Observers of the customer-service sector suggest that layoffs will have a positive effect as well, because workers will be happy to be employed and try harder at pleasing customers so that they are not handed pink slips.
"It seems that people are more tolerant, more willing to accept things and put on a cheery face," Mr. VanAmburg said.
But is it that customer-service representatives are kinder, or that the public is more receptive in the wake of the attacks.
"The change could come from either side of the equation, or both," said Jeff Marr, vice president of the People and Product Development division at Walker Information, a market research company in Indianapolis. "Part of that is simply being respectful of how people feel right now."
Major corporations working with Walker Information are asking whether this is a good time to have their customers evaluate service.
"In the day-to-day, most business people have reconnected with other people in a notable way," he added. "People band together more and talk more, and appreciate relationships. I've noticed that all of these people with whom we have relationships have become more dear somehow, that we didn't realize how much we appreciated these people until we were faced with others who've experienced such a loss."

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