Why is Service so Bad?

Customers like to kvetch a lot and so it’s easy to complain about missing the “good old days” when a lot of times the old days weren’t so good with no vaccine for polio, 1 in 2 children dying before the age of 10, maybe a world war going on with millions dying, being born lower class where your chances of going to college were nonexistent or living in a time where there was no such thing as an iPod.  Living in the past wasn’t always better.

But lots of people (me being one) feel that overall service performance is getting worse.  That’s not just generational narcissism or  curmudgeonly attitudes that come from an aging group of baby boomers.  I do a lot of client work around service issues and customers experience and that’s my take.  And Bloomberg and JD Power collect data on overall service and that’s their take too–overall service performance is getting worse.  Oh, there are exceptions–firms that continue to raise the bar.  But overall, most firms seem to be doing a worse job serving customers and creating distinctive experiences that provide a competitive edge.  How is that so when so many firms pay lipservice and actually spend a lot of bucks on supposedly improving service.

I’d argue there are a couple of factors:

1.  The economy has certainly had some impact on this issue.  As firms have laid off people, some work simply is not going to get done (or won’t be done with the same degree of detail or consistency).  When you compete on price (where customers have no loyalty) then service standards tend to be evaluated solely on the basis of cost (ie: “Is there a cheaper way to do this?  What can we stop doing?”).  But the economy isn’t the sole culprit because data on dropping service levels showed up in many sectors prior to the global recession.

2.  Too many firms don’t evaluate service from the customer’s perspective.  We hear hoary extortions like “the customer is always right” or “under promise and over deliver” which are actually bad service mantras to live by.  Firms that don’t provide service guarantees usually do so on the belief that customers would rip them off (when data continuously shows this not to be the case).  To many firms define good customer service on the basis of a set of association behaviors (smile–be friendly, etc.) that are nice but usually don’t matter if a host of other service issues are present before the company associate ever comes into contact with the customer.  Issues like the customer’s expectations (realistic or off-base)  and the company’s reputation (deserved or unfair) have far more impact than smiling, being friendly, listening well and being prompt (or other behavioral tactics).  Related to this, too many firms view good customer service as a set of employee behaviors–not a performance issue.  That’s unfortunate because when we make it all about behavior, we set up a series of targets that are moving, nebulous and difficult for employees to meet (so we breed cynicism and ultimately failure).  The outcomes we want from good service are not friendly staff or smiling desk clerks.  We want an outcome of customers who feel welcomed and respected–it’s about the customer’s perspective not the employee’s behavior.  As more firms attempt to improve service, there seems (at least to me) to be more focus on behavior which of course runs counter to how performance works (which is starting with outcomes and working our way back).

3.  Absence of standards is a huge factor with service failure.  When you define good customer service as a set of behaviors (like a “friendly smile”) it makes it difficult (though not impossible) to measure performance objectively.  Check with any five-star hotel property around the world and they have hundreds or thousands of performance standards.  Some of them are behavioral or appearance-based.  But many involve specific outputs (what a clean sink is supposed to look like) that allow for consistent, objective measurable data that can be used to track performance and assess progress.  Show a business with consistently good service and I’ll show you one with explicit standards to measure service against.  For too many firms, identifying and codifying and then measuring standards is just too much work.  So they just tell employees to go out and “wow” customers.

So a better economy might help improve service somewhat.  But ultimately service problems in the West are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of customer service and performance.

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About Joe Willmore

Joe Willmore is the President and founder of the Willmore Consulting Group. With over two decades of experience as a consultant, facilitator and trainer, he has worked with a wide range of public and private sector organizations within the United States as well as internationally. Joe Willmore is highly regarded by his peers and is a leader in his field of human performance. Specifically, he has authored four books in the field. He has been a leader within the profession, serving on the Board of Directors for the American Society for Training and Development. He was one of the first facilitators certified by ASTD to lead their Human Performance Improvement workshop series. He has been selected as a presenter or workshop facilitator for conferences by over 14 different professional societies.