Improving Customer Service

Issue # 2 of 70 

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

This Ain't Your Father's Customer Service

At the risk of dating myself, do you remember when the humble service station used to be the epitome of customer service? Your entire car would be gassed, aired, oiled and windows wiped without leaving the comfort of your car. No extra charge.

At the time, this service didn't seem the least bit exceptional. In fact, it was expected. Today, including these kinds of services for a basic purchase would seem incredible and a waste of money. Today's customer might even raise a skeptical eyebrow expecting some ruse. Yes, times have changed.

Clichés are phrases that always have truth in them. One of my favorites, "No one welcomes change except a wet baby" exemplifies the process of change that has taken place in customer service within the service industry over the years. Even though there has been drastic quality changes in many manufacturing industries, such as automobiles, the service industry has lagged far behind. Oh, we've read about it, talked about it, and even experimented with changing at paces ranging from those of a glacier to frenzied. But adapting them is another story.

Isn't it kind of ironic that the service industry has, in many instances, the most trouble increasing its level of service? There have been many excuses offered, of course, with difficulty in obtaining quality employees being the most prominent. (But I digress. . . that will be the subject of another article.)

The reasons for this lag are the inherent problems that service has going against it. First, it is incredibly hard to measure. Because of this, management measures what is objective and easy, and that usually means measuring costs and then cutting costs, because they are easy to measure. Vicious circle. Costs are very easy to measure and very satisfying, because the results of cost cutting are almost instantaneous. Can you guess what is usually chosen to be cut? Yep, you got it, Service.

Why this happens is the second problem with service. It is not instantaneous. When consistent service takes place, whether excellent or horrible, it takes a relatively long time to take effect and produce results. This time delay makes it difficult to measure. Since most companies are still much more short term oriented than long term, service often takes a back seat. Pity.

An example of perception and service becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy (and a personal pet peeve of mine) is when a waiter comes to your table in a restaurant and asks "Is everything OK?"

Is everything OK? Sheesh.

This implies that OK is the standard of service that the restaurant is striving for.

Although, I'm sure it isn't, the message being sent out does not make this apparent. I mean the definition of OK is kind of well, OK. Neither great nor terrible. Mediocre.

It would seem that a problem exists when service providers allow OK to be communicated as their standard.

At the risk of having to re-title this column to something about cliches, I offer one more, "Only the mediocre are at their best." Management must expect better and provide its employees with the tools to perform far above mediocre to survive and prosper. You see people want the return of customer service to the level of the humble service station because it is turning out to be far from humble in retrospect.

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.

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