Service Excellence

customers

The scene:
7:30 PM on a Friday, at a local casual restaurant near the mall. My husband and I have just been seated to at a table and the waitress approaches.

“Hi. How are we doing tonight?” she opens with a peppy greeting.

I cringe at her use of “we”. My husband and I are happy albeit hungry, but I haven’t the faintest idea how the waitress is doing. When did the waitress become our uninvited third wheel? It’s like some colloquial bro-pat used to make the waitress one of our buddies. I hope this red flag isn’t an indicator of mediocre service for the rest of the meal. Already my expectations are lowered.

Have we come to expect and even accept poor customer service in America? Service standards are undoubtedly different under various cultural norms. Our visiting European friends are always delighted when a waitress comes mid-meal to ask if there is anything else she can get for us. Evidently this mid-meal interruption (my term) is welcomed over desperately trying to flag over the waiter for the bill at the end of the night. Yet, listening to people grumble, service seems to be on a slippery slope down, down, down. Or is it?

Yeah, sure, service is a factor or training and strong management. But, to a degree service is a responsibility of the customer too.

It’s been a few years, but I’ve worked in retail and it left some marks. I’ve greeted people to the shop with warmth and sincerity and been ignored. I’ve worked in a fitting room where people grunt at me and make no eye contact. And, I’ve transacted far too many wordless check-outs. Its about as inspiring as mud to provide service to duds. But take that and multiply it by several hundred and you’d have your typical work day at the bank drive-through, or big box store or the movie theater box office.

Its no wonder that otherwise qualified workers get burned out on the inhumanity of customers.
As a customer, you might try these steps: smile, make eye contact, say hello, give thanks with sincerity. Being a customer is a social experience. And, your chances of getting good service increase exponentially if you are a good customer yourself. In life, and in shopping, people get what they give. Shop, dine and do your business with warmth and kindness and you will most likely find the fitting room attendant is helpful, the insurance man cracks a joke, the bartender comps you a beer. Kindness is never out of style.

The Scene
2:15 PM on a Tuesday, at the US Post Office. There is one employee working, and four automated kiosks.

On my list are a sheet of forever stamps, international stamps, mailing a “large envelope” to the UK and posting a small box to Wisconsin. I could stand in the long line to receive service from a trained professional, or I could fumble through these transactions at a kiosk by my lonesome. I choose the kiosk because I want to prove I can do this. And, unlike the stamps, I don’t have forever.

I have a love-hate relationship with self-service kiosks. I love them because sometimes they really work and are fast and effective. Other times, self-serve machines are an evil monster like the manual check-out lanes at the grocery when I have a cart full of produce and bulk-bin staples.

It is considerably more difficult to charm my way through a transaction online or at a kiosk. While I prefer to do business with “real people”, I’ve found many reasons to love online shopping like product reviews and recommendations.

Cool developments in online and kiosk shopping fuse personal experiences with a mechanized interface. Ordering a Domino’s pizza from mobile device triggers a step-by-step pizza progress update. At the Hertz car rental kiosk a live person will video-chat with you to assist. Fits.me is a company that will soon help show you what the shirt you’re buying online will look on your own physical proportions. How great is that?!

The Scene
December 18th, my foyer. A glass decanter I’ve ordered as a Christmas gift has arrived in 1-million pieces.

I phone the 1-800# for the .com vendor and brace myself for a fight. But soon after, I put down my dukes. I’ve done business with Uncommon Goods and they are being uncommonly kind about this situation. They are fortifying and repackaging a replacement which will ship overnight at no additional charge. I didn’t need to photograph my shattered decanter to prove it’s a goner; I didn’t need to beg and plead for a pre-Christmas fix. They surprised and delighted me by doing more than I expected.

Its been said that if a company treats you well when things are good you’ll like them, but if they treat you well when there is a problem, you’ll be a customer for life. Problem solving is a skill both when you are the customer with a problem, and the company who is expected to solve it. I’ve watched many people go from sane-to-manic in a millisecond. Dramatic, emotional escalation is rarely an effective problem-solving technique. Site: Alec Baldwin. Just chill out, people. Present the facts and ask for your options. When a problem arises, its not the time to screw the vendor. When your flight is cancelled because of unsafe weather, thank the airline, don’t yell at them.

Many companies are repatriating their call centers. While I’m certain there are many contributing factors, I have to imagine customer frustration must rank highest. Few things are as frustrating as calling the bank or an airline for service and getting someone half a world away who reads off a script and fails to show empathy. I gleefully welcome those call center jobs back to the US of A.

We’ve come a long ways since the days of a general store on Main Street where a mom and pop owned the shop and knew you by name. For most of us, that concept is so unfamiliar it could have its own diorama at the American History Museum. Although we live in a digital, global, and sometimes impersonal world, we can still get excellent service. However, more than ever, that excellence will start with you as the customer.

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