Companies that ostensibly put service at the top of the list of priorities are launching significant efforts to improve the consumer experience.  Dr. Chris Kuehl,  BIIA’s contributing editor, provides our members with his assessment on the current crisis.

It would be tempting to assert that “crisis” is an overstatement when referencing something as amorphous as service.   After all, the determination of what is good and what is bad about service is pretty much in the minds of the beholder.  One person may find the service they get to be perfectly acceptable and another person with different expectations may be appalled and disappointed. If the definition of a crisis is the amount of energy and attention an issue gets however, one could safely assume that many companies are now treating the issue as a crisis.

In the last few months many companies that ostensibly put service at the top of the list of priorities are launching significant efforts to improve the consumer experience.  McDonalds has just embarked on a major effort based on surveys that indicate that one of every five complaints are about rude and unprofessional employees and staff.  They are not alone.  The airlines used to get the majority of their complaints on issues over which they had relatively little control – delays due to weather and congestion or air traffic control decisions.  There were always complaints over lost baggage but at the top of the list now is the attitude of the flight attendants and the ground personnel.  The hotel chains are getting more complaints about service and so are restaurants, shops and almost every part of the retail sector.  There are even complaints about sales people and customer representatives in the industrial community.

Analysis: Given that this seems to be an almost universal issue these days there is a real desire to figure out what has happened to service in the US today.  Is it really that much worse than it used to be?  Do we have a sense of inflated nostalgia about the good old days that allows us to forget the bad service we were subjected to in the past and only remember the good occasions?

Who has changed?  Is the service different than it used to be or are we more demanding than we used to be?  Have the working conditions and the pay for those who provide services changed to the point that we can’t reasonably expect them to be anything but surly and resentful?  Is the problem a cultural one that stems from a generation of kids getting blue ribbons for participation from their helicopter parents? The fact is that nobody really knows as there have been very few studies of the customer experience that have any of the historical data that would permit real comparison.

What is known thus far is that poor customer service now ranks as the number one complaint by those who interact with airlines, hotels, restaurants, stores and almost every other entity or institution.  It used to be price and selection and even convenience. Now it is service.  The data also suggests that expectations have changed and most people anticipate a relatively bad experience and are somewhat shocked when it isn’t.

As McDonalds has moved to address the issue within their restaurants there have been some interesting observations from those who have been engaged in this kind of training for a long time.  Back in the 1980s the Soviet Union opened up to the McDonalds concept for the first time and the country was agog over the arrival of the first McDonalds in Moscow.  It was THE place to eat in that city for years. The first challenge to address was the lack of good service habits in the USSR. The performance of a service was seen as a lowly and undignified job and people doing these jobs were resentful, disinterested, surly and unwilling to do anything to make the process even minimally acceptable.  McDonalds famously sent staff from the USSR to McDonalds University to learn to smile and greet and perform service well. It was shocking to the people of Moscow and many reported that they went to the McDonalds just to experience this for themselves as they couldn’t believe that they would be greeted in that manner.  The trainers now are reporting that many of the people they see in the US have the same attitude as the people in Moscow before that training. They dislike the people they serve and they dislike the job they have. The customer is seen as anything but the key to the operation.

There have been many studies conducted by many companies over the last few years using everything from hidden cameras to secret shoppers and even plants in the midst of the employee base to determine what is really going on.  There are even shows on TV that show the behind-the-scenes activity in places of business. The information is shocking. The customer is almost universally seen as the enemy.  The employees ridicule the requests made and in far too many cases there are active attempts to make the customer experience as miserable as possible. Food is adulterated; products are deliberately tampered with and broken. The customer is laughed at behind their back and routinely ignored.

Employees trash their employers in front of the customer and they routinely put their conversations with one another far ahead of the interaction with the consumer.  The pattern is nearly universal but there are some exceptions.  The smaller the operation the less likely it is that consumers will be treated badly and the more that the business is “ family run” the more likely the consumer is to get the focus of the employees.  There are connections between the cost of the item and the amount of customer service  but studies have shown that there has been more of a deterioration in service at these high end stores than at any time in the last fifty years (as reported by the customers).

There are many reasons that have been offered for this deterioration. Two seem to stand out.

  • The first is that we are all strangers these days. The people providing the service are not people we expect to ever see again and they do not expect to see us. It is far easier to behave badly when everything is anonymous and ephemeral.  That is why the smaller places have less of an issue – the customer and the service provider know they will interact in the future.
  • The second problem is that there is an “us vs. them” mentality in place. The service providers do not think they are respected and treat all customers as hostile while the customer also gets no respect and thinks that all the service providers are jerks.  They each have preconceived notions regarding one another and that becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We haven’t done this for a while but we would like to ask our readers to send us some stories of good and bad service. We will pull this together into a “white paper” in the coming weeks and make it available to anyone who would want it.  Maybe it becomes a training tool or maybe just an opportunity to vent – in any case the stories may make us all feel better about our own experiences (or maybe worse!)

Courtesy Dr. Chris Kuehl, Armada Corporate Intelligence