Improving Customer Service

Issue # 49 of 70 




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


Performance Art


In a typical week, I usually go into at least one hotel, several hundred restaurants and assorted dry cleaners, retail stores, banks, and department stores. The best of these have one outstanding attribute in common. They have all elevated their service to the level of performance art.

This performance art comes into the little things that inspired service companies do for their customers through their employees. As John D. Rockefeller said, "The secret of success is to do common things uncommonly well." That was, and is still, so true.

Referring to service as performance art is by no means derogatory. When I watch a Broadway play I don't actually see the acting; I feel a relationship between the actors and myself to such a degree that I become lost in the reality of the play. And so it should be with good customer service.

The best service companies train and retrain until the employees know their roles so well that it is part of their persona. When they walk into the door of their work they are entering their theatre. They may be quiet and unassuming at home, but here with the audience of their customers, they become, like the best actors, the stars of the show.

Most service industries have at least a part of the theatre in them. Disney even calls each employee a cast member. Don't forget, people don't go out to restaurants just so they can survive for a number of hours. They go out to eat in order to be able to relax in one way or another and, in many ways, be entertained. So it is with many, if not most service companies. When the company really understands this mix of theatre and business they can transport their customers from the drudgery of a mere business transaction to actually becoming part of the community.

The relationship is like a dance that has the customer leading with the left foot while the business follows with the right. When it is executed flawlessly, the lead flows back and forth with seemingly little or no effort. When it is less than flawless, the results, like in dance, range from merely awkward to downright dangerous.

To elevate your service to that of performance art, try some of the following suggestions:

  • Overtrain. Do you think the cast of a play dares to go on stage with just knowing their part a little bit? Train till they can overact. Kill them with kindness.
  • Train your customer contacts to be aggressive. Go towards the customer. Don't hide, don't wait till the customer comes to you. However, aggressive doesn't mean suffocating the customer, but taking steps toward the customer and asking if they would like some help. Let it be certain that the customer knows that you know they are there and that they feel certain that someone will be there when needed.
  • Train EVERYONE who could even remotely come into contact with a customer at least the basics of how to respond to a question without simply saying "I don't know" and moving on. Extra bonus points go to those prepared to answer all of the most likely questions.
  • Let everyone know that each customer must be treated like they are special, not just part of the day's customers. When you can do that, your business truly becomes a stage and you're the star.

In the words of that great 20th century philosopher, David Letterman: "There's no business like show business, but there are several businesses like accounting."

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.