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.

Gulf Oil and Performance Lessons

With some labeling the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as the worst environmental disaster the USA has ever experienced, it’s worth looking at what we know so far about efforts to deal with the spill for performance improvement lessons.  As I look at what I’ve heard about this disaster, several critical lessons come to my mind.

  1. Ignore process at your own peril.  There has been such an emphasis on “action” and “leadership” (both by private and public sector organizations) that we’ve seen lots of money, people and activity–but often at cross-purposes.  Throwing money and resources at any problem is usually ineffective when there is no clear alignment around the process connecting all of the specific tasks.
  2. It’s a lot easier to prevent a problem than to fix a mistake.  The Gulf Oil spill illustrates this point so well–far better and easier to prevent the rig blowout than to clean up tar balls from beaches and try to bathe birds.
  3. Being clear about the desired outcome is critical.  Those of you knowledgeable about performance improvement know how critical outcomes are as a means of providing direction.   Unfortunately, everyone assumed there was a clear purpose (clean up the spill) when actually there was tremendous disagreement among directions.  Some groups argued for booms to corral the oil (which doesn’t address oil beneath the surface).  Others argued for strong use of chemicals to eat the oil or break it down (which was opposed by others who felt this could produce worse environmental impacts than the oil itself).  The disagreements were more than just differences on tactics but instead reflected major (and often incompatible) directions.
  4. Data matters.  Throughout the first month of the disaster, there was a consistent inability to answer some of the most basic questions like:  approximately how much oil is escaping daily, what backup or contingency plans are reasonable if the first cap fails, what are the environmental impact of the oil dispersants being used, and what percentage of the oil is remaining beneath the surface?  Without some kind of data, policy decisions were being made on the basis of educated guesses and anecdotes.

What other performance insights have you gotten from this mess?

The Checklist Manifesto

Anyone who is familiar with my work or my publications knows that job aids are near and dear to my heart.  My third book (Job Aid Basics) is about the subject.  Any serious performance student or consultant knows about the power of job aids—about how they are a cheap and effective way of improving performance.  Well, there is a great new book out by Surgeon Atul Gawande called The Checklist Manifesto.

Checklists are just one example of a job aid.  What is a job aid?  A job aid is a device or tool used to improve memory or confidence on the job and thus overall performance.  A wrench is not a job aid (it’s just a tool).   But a checklist (which reminds us of what to do), a recipe with steps (so we don’t add the eggs too soon), a trouble-shooting guide on how to figure out why the car doesn’t start—these are all job aids.

Gawande writes about a number of examples in this great book but his first primary examples involves healthcare.  He examines the case of the Johns Hopkins ICU where using a simple 5 bullet checklist, the staff reduced central line infections from 11% to 0% saving an estimated 43 infections, 8 lives and 2 million dollars per year.  Gawande and a team then went to a number of hospitals around the world and tried the same approach from rural Tanzania to Seattle.  Using a 19-point checklist for surgery, they found that EVERY hospital experienced a significant drop in post-operative complications and deaths.  In the 6 months after the checklist was introduced complications fell by an average of 36% and deaths fell by an average of 47%.  This was no new technology, no other major changes or influx of talent or resources—just the use of the checklist during surgery.

Performance consultants know about job aids.  Joe Harless gets credit for having coined the term.  Job aids are often a faster, cheaper alternative to training.  They’re an underutilized way of improving performance and a useful tool in the performance consultant’s tool box.

Gawande has done us performance consultants a tremendous favor.  He’s got a significant following (staff in the Obama White House look at his writings, both this book and his previous one Better about improving performance).  Dr. Gawande has provided very specific, tangible and quantifiable examples about how performance can be radically improved with even just simple tools or approaches.  For all the clients out there who want to throw training at the problem or rehire a work force or change the bonus structure, Gawande’s work is a useful tool to help us make the case for a performance-based approach to improvement.