Improving Customer Service

Issue # 30 of 70 

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

The El Nino Syndrome: The Blame Culture

Do customer complaints seem to be rising? Blame it on El Nino.

Sure, why not? Why squander a great opportunity? I mean it doesn't happen everyday. Jump on the bandwagon, strike while the iron is hot. Help raise cliche awareness.

When you do blame problems on El Nino, most people don't know whether to believe you or not. If they do, you've successfully shifted the blame to that ole devil El Nino and therefore it's not your fault. If they don't believe you, you can just smile and let them know you were only kidding. It is a totally win-win situation.

Sometimes a company's culture is such that every employee and manager alike feels pressure to find fault in the next lower level, even when they personally disagree with the culture. It is the Abilene Paradox which deals with the psychology of groups. The theory being that the group doesn't want to go to Abilene but no one will speak up and voice their disagreements, so on they go.

Does this sound familiar? Is it the culture of your organization to always place blame on someone? Do you feel that you must find and point out deficiencies and shortcomings of others to fit in?

I believe that this blame culture is more prevalent than might be thought. It is such a negative culture that it affects the very essence of the workforce. Productivity goes down and turnover goes up. It is a pure causal relationship.

When you know that coming to work each day means finding out what you did wrong the previous day, it reinforces defensive attitudes. To come in each day knowing that your boss feels that he/she is not being the "boss" or acting "boss-like" without finding fault in everyone makes coming into work hell. Most people won't take it for long.

Knowing you must work defensively and not creatively is extremely difficult because to be creative and innovative requires risk. Risk implies and requires a measure of trust in the relationship between the boss and the employee. When that trust is missing, defensiveness begins and a questioning of job satisfaction begins. When that happens, turnover is inevitable.

Whenever high turnover takes place, customer service is non-existent. When this is a new symptom in an established company, the company can possibly weather it by first recognizing this "blame culture" exists, which is difficult. Then they must react to eliminate it which will be even more difficult. When this happens in a new company, the company will cease to exist in a very short period of time because the level of cutomer service is simply not competitive.

If this is the way it is, I'm sorry for you. I have lived through that kind of boss and I know that customer service suffers terribly as a direct result. It is human nature that if treated wrongly (especially for long periods of time) attitudes suffer and going the extra mile becomes impossible.

Blame it on El Nino. Everyone else does.

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.