Improving Customer Service

Issue # 42 of 70 

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

Traveling Man

As I traveled from Alabama to San Francisco to begin my new position, I was struck by the richness and the diversity of people. From the quiet dignity of native Americans to outlandishly dressed service people where you would least expect them, the differences were extreme and yet at the same time, somewhat comforting. The United States is the melting pot of all melting pots. There really were no differences in people or service based on geography, but there were noteworthy differences in customer service based on attitude and emphasis.

Spending 4 nights on the road with two of my college age kids tested the customer service of restaurants, hotels, tourist sites and gas stations. It was an experience that I wouldn't trade for the world, apart from the obvious benefit of seeing the marked differences in landscape and attractions along the way.

The trip was full of interesting customer service points and opportunities for improvement:

When arriving late in the evening and trying to check into a motel, many times they were already full. Some of the motels were very helpful in directing us to a motel that still had vacancies. They had obviously been trained to seek that information for their customers. This was an especially nice service point for weary travelers and a potentially great marketing point if the motel is part of a chain; they simply inform the guests that there is another Motel X just a few more miles toward their destination. It would seem a good idea to not only refer the guest, but also to offer to make the reservations for them. This would serve two purposes. First, to lock the customers into their chain, but also to relieve the guests of additional stress in repeating the frustrating process of pulling into a motel and finding it full. It would be to everyone's advantage to establish reciprocal agreements among competing chains for the purpose of referring guests when one is full. In fact you can see this kind of atttitude in "Miracle on 54th Street" when Macy's Santa referred their customers to competing stores. The opportunity here is tremendous.

There were some humorous moments as well:

I knew I was in Berkeley when, after waiting in line in a US Post Office, I finally arrived at the window. As I looked up, the male, mail clerk had blue hair along with pierced lip and eyebrows. I knew my journey was about over. I had arrived on the left coast.

The huge meteor crater in New Mexico was incredible to see and the service provided there is so complete as to offer season passes. Does it ever change?

And then there were ten Cadillacs buried upside down in Amarillo, Texas? One can only speculate why.

Overall, the trip was wonderful, making an experience out of a task. Taking the kids allowed us (or forced us, depending on your definition or perspective) time to be together and to experience the amazing differences in the states. When the trip ended, I had very mixed emotions. Finishing the trip meant the kids would be flying back and I would not be seeing them as often as I liked for awhile. But it also meant that I was about to break new ground.

Travels with Charley, On the road with Keroac and Kuralt, Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. By no means would I try to compare myself with them. No way. But this trip has motivated me to read them again.

Editor's Note: John has moved twice more since this article was written, but remains in California.

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.