Improving Customer Service

Issue # 55 of 70 

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


What do hospitals, restaurants, construction sites and other customer service operations have in common? Before I just give the answer away, think about their common environments--controlled chaos, incredible amounts of energy and spirit, hordes of people, lots of crises all ending with, hopefully, satisfying results.

Now, as to the answer: what they all have in common is triage. Do you know what this word means? According to our friends at Webster's, it is "the sorting of and allocation of treatments of patients according to a system of priorities designed to maximize the number of survivors."

Doesn't this sound like a day in the life of a service or operations manager? Putting out fires, answering phones, taking care of complaints, placing orders, redoing schedules, the list goes on and on. All of these activities require prioritizing. I can't speak for you, but back when I was in management, each time I got home after a typical day I didn't want to answer even one question. I was drained of answers and the ability to make a decision.

The point of this is that we spend a lot of our precious time putting out fires or doing what is also known as crisis management. We've all done it at one time or another. Sometimes we have so many fires that we have to run it like a field hospital in a war, working under triage conditions, putting the crises in priority order, first saving the ones with the best chances of survival and then the rest, if you can get to them in time.

The real question you have to ask yourself is "Why do we have so many crises?" I can only give you my own, simple answer: it feels good to put out fires; it is very satisfying. Since we usually tend to go where it feels good, it is no wonder that crisis management is popular. Any superior that thrives on this high will sometimes force us into this mode. One who is an active, "gotta-be-moving," "gotta-be-putting-out-fires" kind of person may fall victim to the conclusion that someone is good if they too are crisis managers. This type only appreciates one of their own.

For all those managers who are not like that, who prefer to be pro-active, rather than re-active, and see their job as preventative rather than fire-fighting, I say hang in there. Your time will come. You understand that management is about preventing and anticipating problems before they become problems. Effective management has a minimum of crises not a maximum. Effective management reflects on any crisis that has taken place but doesn't glory in it. They realize that even if they successfully put out the fire, they are just containing a symptom.

Great management runs smooth shifts that seem effortless. They seem effortless because they are so effective. Mark McGuire's swing, Bill Gates' fortune, and Linda Tripp's friendship are all seemingly smooth and effortless, but just try to do it yourself. They are far from it.

The same concept is true for running a customer service operation. We must place high value on managers who are able to run smooth, seemingly effortless shifts, rather than the more traditional managers that thrive on crisis management. Crisis management will only tend to keep us stagnant when we need to be progressive and adapt for the future. As the great 20th century philosopher Bob Dylan said, "The times they are a changin'." It is about time for the service industry to think their way "out of the box" and end the proliferation of this exciting, yet chaotic triage management.

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.