The road to customer service mediocrity continues unabated. In business, 59% of consumers change suppliers for reasons having to do with poor service according to consulting giant Accenture in their most recent global survey. At an important university, the Chairman of the Computer Science Department refuses to teach contemporary methods and techniques because, as he says, he likes to teach to his “strengths” – a code expression meaning that he teaches what he learned thirty years prior when he was taking his studies – and not to the needs of his customers – that is to say, his students. In government, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and with a Nor’Easter bearing down on the devastated regions of New York and New Jersey a FEMA office in Staten Island could do nothing more than to feebly post a sign on its window stating that it was closed due to “bad weather”.
In the same way that prisoners of war, after a period of captivity, become accustomed to a low protein diet we, as consumers, have become accustomed to a diet of poor service. Clearly, institutionally ingrained poor service practices in business, education, and government account for what is literally a service meltdown. What is mystifying, however, is how much patience a consumer exhibits and how much frustration he endures before finally voting with his feet in those cases where that is an available course of action. A deadly embrace between consumers immunized to poor service and suppliers incapable of raising the bar on service for their own well-being now threaten to establish mediocrity as a new standard of performance.
MEDIOCRE SERVICE IS THE NEW NORMAL
This state of affairs is a confluence of supplier behavior best epitomized in the phrase “we’re doing the best we can,” and consumers who no longer have an expectation that their suppliers can deliver excellence in service. At the dawn of the twenty first century it appeared that consumers were emboldened to become more demanding than at any other time in history due to techno/economic trends that shrunk the globe, increased consumer choices exponentially, and thus leveled the playing field for rich and poor consumers alike. Now it seems that our optimism was unfounded. I’m reminded that in 1989, in their book, Total Customer Service, authors William H. Davidow and Bro Uttal wrote of a “customer service crisis building throughout the business world.” I’m afraid to say that not much has changed in the intervening 20 plus years but that service has gotten progressively worse.
We are experiencing a service meltdown despite decades of jawboning by executives of large companies and small about the importance of customer service excellence. But this jawboning has proved to be just that: jawboning, a case more of lip service that of customer service. That we are experiencing a service meltdown is indeed the bad news. The good news, however, is that if I’m right that we are witnessing a service meltdown all around us then what a terrific opportunity avails itself to the customer-focused organization. I believe that if organizations re-direct the focus of their business they can have all the business they want – if they want. And, what if I’m wrong? That is to say, what if the organization re-directs the focus of its actions so that they are more consonant with the needs of the customer and there is no service meltdown as I believe the evidence so strongly suggests? What are the consequences? Well, I can think of two important ones: 1) the organization has raised the bar on its own service performance, and 2) it has dropped the gauntlet on the competition. So, service meltdown or no service meltdown it’s a win-win proposition.
“EXCELLENCE IS NOT AN ACT BUT A HABIT”
The statement above reflects the wisdom of Aristotle. Few suppliers, however, appreciate that repeated, habitual service behavior can deliver mediocrity or – with somewhat incrementally greater effort – excellent results. And, it is excellent service that best correlates with superior financial performance over the long haul. Consumers must understand that they have a vested interest in receiving excellent service from their suppliers and that their chances to receive such service are vastly improved if they trade with firms that turn in superior financial results. Walking away from a provider in the face of slipshod service might provide great psychic satisfaction but it doesn’t help consumers in the long run. In the same way that suppliers pay a heavy price for churning customers, so too is there a cost to the consumer who churns suppliers in pursuit of excellent service. In other words, the consumer must stand his ground, repudiate mediocre service, and demand improved service practices from his suppliers. In the end, consumers who fail to assertively demand better service risk seeing their suppliers race to find the low water mark of mediocrity. It might even be worse than that. William F. Buckley in his much anthologized essay written in 1961, “Why Don’t We Complain?” put it thus: “When our voices are finally mute, when we have finally suppressed the natural instinct to complain, whether the vexation is trivial or grave, we shall have become automatons, incapable of feeling.”
CAN EXCELLENT SERVICE RETURN?
Two-time presidential candidate Steve Forbes was the keynote speaker at the opening of our Company’s Technology Reengineering Center in Scottsdale, Arizona. In his address, Mr. Forbes repeated his oft-stated view that the nation’s leaders are adrift. What with high taxes, uncontrollable government spending, bureaucratic meddling, and corruption, among other afflictions, Mr. Forbes believes it is time for a national reawakening.
In a similar vein, I believe our nation’s business leaders are adrift without a compass to guide the service actions of their organizations. Reversing this trend will require more than a reawakening. In some organizations, it will take an effort of nightmarish proportions. But it’s either that or there will be no turning back from the road to mediocrity.
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