Improving Customer Service

Issue # 41 of 70 

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

A Prestigious Service Industry: Oxymoron?

Why is there a perception of low prestige for people involved in the service industry? Some people would even go so far as to say that the perception is really the reality, citing as examples the fact that customers don't have high regard for the lowly employees that serve them and that the employees themselves don't care about their jobs.

I disagree. I believe the cause of the perception(or reality) lies within the industry itself and has even progressed to the point where it has become self-fulfilling.

Consider the following generalizations about the management in service industries:

  1. Management does not respect their own employees.
  2. Management does not view their own business as a career possibility for anyone other than themselves(i.e. their employees aren't 'career' people, they're just passing through)
  3. Management treats their own employees badly.

Whether the above is true or not is open for debate. But what is not debatable is that the service industry must take steps to value its own employees if it is to elevate itself to a professional level. We have the highest staff turnover of any industry and are always bemoaning the fact that the labor market is drying up. Applesauce and horsefeathers. With over 100% turnover, how can there be a labor shortage?

The first step in creating a better environment for our employees is to actually respect their positions and the work they do. I suppose the reason that this is so incredibly difficult to do is that the service industry actually works against itself in some ways. It is such a wonderful entry-level market for unskilled labor, minorities and young people, often requiring little formal schooling or technical skills, that there is a proliferation of this type of employee.

And therein lies the rub. This 'advantage' in and of itself creates a disadvantage--the perception that our people aren't skilled. Ever. That is where the perception is wrong. Good employees in the service industry ARE skilled. All anyone has to do to prove that fact is to go to most service establishments and really study the level of service. It is easy to detect huge differences between skilled and unskilled service employees.

Further disadvantages can be seen in some of the objective differences between the service industry and others:

  • Benefits typically are the worst of all industries.
  • Odd hours, often with very late hours.
  • Typically, service employees work when others are off (i.e. weekends, nights, holidays).
  • Many service employees rely on tips, commissions or some kind of bonus.

What is interesting about the above 'disadvantages' is that with the exception of the benefits, they can also be listed as 'advantages.' Many people love the flexible, 'odd' hours, working when others are not. The flipside to that is that they are off when others are working. And the tips, commissions and bonuses allow many of the good(skilled) employees to make great money in a shorter time than their(more conservative?) non-service colleagues.

Pay the money to raise benefits to a good level, treat employees right and finally VALUE our employees. They are every company's most valuable asset; it says so right on the annual report and in the mission statement. Now all we have to do is practice what we preach.

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.