Improving Customer Service

Issue # 18 of 70 

John T. Self, Ph.D.
By: Dr. John T. Self

Customer Service, Not Customer Servitude

You've had a hard day, with many demanding, impolite customers who think they own you. But, the final straw comes as you're just finishing listening to a customer tell you exactly, in excruciating detail, what she is looking for. As you turn around to retrieve the items for her, she says very loudly to your back, "Whoa!"

Not "excuse me", not "just a minute", just "Whoa!" As to a mule. As in a command, not a request.

This immediately irritates you and your first reaction is to have your head spin around 360 degrees and say in your best DiNiro voice, "You talkin' to ME?"

But, of course you don't.

You say concerned and politely either "Yes?" or "Was there something else?" with a frozen smile. But what you really feel is that you have just about had it.

So begins the attitude that serving customers is more servitude than service. Most will simply write off the negative attitudes to burnout.

But is it simply burnout? I'm not so sure.

Burnout typically occurs when a person has been in customer service awhile, but the feeling of servitude can occur on your first day, with your first customer. And yes, you can minimize it, but it will remain. If this attitude is allowed to grow, it will fester and eventually erupt in even the best employees.

Is there a way to prevent this feeling that just because we "serve" customers and we take "orders", that it shouldn't be taken literally?

Maybe we should just approach it from a completely different angle. Let's educate the customer and require them to be certified in whichever service they want before they can partake of that service.

I humbly suggest (with my tongue just barely in my cheek) that this is a wonderful opportunity for the federal government to create a new bureau, under the direction of Postal Department or, on the state level, the Driver's License Division. Both of these organizations have a history of legendary service. Maybe something like The Office of Customer Certification (TOCC). This organization would have branches in every city and town in America and would be charged with the responsibility of testing and certifying each person for the privilege of using services. If they fail, they can't use that service. "Soooo sorry, but I just can't do your nails, I see you haven't been certified".

Think of the opportunities for employment! There would have to be someone in charge of testing for each service. Hair cuts, going to a restaurant, getting a ride in a taxi, having your lawn mowed. Why, if done right, every person in America could be employed.

But seriously, here are some suggestions on how to prevent the attitude of servitude from creeping in:

  • Make sure your employees feel secure in their job, including a supportive boss and environment.

  • Encourage active, healthy lifestyles.

  • The customer is always right. . .BUT - exceptionally wrong customers are wrong!

  • Avoid overtime like the plague, even when employees ask for it. The extra money will quickly turn into bad attitudes.

  • Make it a policy that vacations are taken, never allowed to skip because they prefer pay in lieu of vacation. They have to recharge their batteries, whether they realize it or not.

  • Resist hiring employees that have second jobs because they usually have a lower tolerance for customers, especially when both jobs involve a lot of customer contact.

  • Each customer service boss should schedule a shift or two periodically on the front lines to understand what their employees really go through. Up close and personal.

Actually more importantly, how long has it been since the senior executives have worked a customer shift? Companies should do this routinely to keep their employees as their focus and to know the true beat of their customers.

John T. Self is a lecturer at The Collins School of Hospitality Management at California State Polytechnic University (Cal Poly Pomona). Prior to entering academia, Dr. Self spent fifteen years in the restaurant industry. While in the corporate world, he worked for several chains including Chili's and Steak and Ale, and as vice president of a regional restaurant chain overseeing six restaurants with sales of over twenty million dollars. He has also owned three independent restaurants, including a comedy club.
Dr. Self has also been involved in the development of international hospitality programs. While at Golden Gate University, he started the partnership with Dalian University of Technology in Dalian, China and is continuing in that involvement at Cal Poly.

Improving Customer Service #18 of 70: View all in the Table of Contents

For more customer service articles, visit the Customer Service series on the new Sideroad: Practical Advice Straight from The Experts.

Text © Dr. John T. Self, 1997,1998. Part of the original Sideroad.