The President's Corner
COLUMN: Is good customer service a lost art?
BY LYNNE RICHARDSON FOR THE FREE LANCE-STAR
What organizations in Fredericksburg practice excellent customer service?
I know there are some, but it seems that even good customer service is hard to find these days.
Think about your best and worst customer service experiences recently. What made the best ones stand out in your mind? Conversely, what happened in your worst? In my experiences, both recollections probably had something to do with the attitude of the person you were dealing with and the respect (or lack thereof) they showed you in their interaction with you.
I came of age when good customer service was expected by customers. If it was not present, customers voted with their feet and went to the business that DID offer good customer service. That does not seem to the case in 2014. Why do I say that? Because I visit far too many businesses, at least once, that do not deliver good customer service.
Over the years, I have talked with business owners and managers about this. They offer excuses as to why customer service seems to be a 'lost art.' For many years I was told that, because the unemployment rate was so low (that is, there were so few people unemployed and looking for work), that firing an employee because of poor customer service might mean that the employer could not find a warm body to replace the fired worker.
And to the employer, it was more important to have a warm body manning the cash register (or whatever the job was) than to treat customers with respect. Hmmm.
In today's world, young people do not necessarily learn how to properly treat others from their parents. When I was a child, manners and attitude were front and center in my home. I was taught to say "Yes, ma'am" and "No, sir" from an early age (and was punished when I failed to do so).
We talked at the dinner table about the right and wrong way to do things. We know that all parents do not talk about these things today. Employers, many of whom are my age, assume they are hiring people who have been brought up in homes like me and they have not.
Because they assume the knowledge and skills are already there, they fail to train or, perhaps, train enough. Instead of teaching these generally entry level, but frontline (the first to greet the customer), employees properly, they leave it to chance. And you, Mr. and Ms. Customer, become the recipient of this.
So when you walk into the retail store, instead of being greeted with, "Hello, how may I help you?" you are ignored by a couple of employees chatting about what they did last night. Instead of the person at the drive-through saying, "Thank you, it's my pleasure to serve you," you are told nothing as the bag with your order is thrust at you.
On the airplane, the flight attendant talks too rapidly in a droning voice, so no one listens to the instructions. Last week I was on a flight and the flight attendant was awesome! She will be forever memorable because she inserted her personality (with pauses, enthusiasm in her voice, and dramatic comments) and everyone listened! I complimented her as we were deplaning and evidently made her day. She "got it."
So what does this all mean for us as consumers AND employers? As a consumer, if we accept poor customer service (and I have just glossed over the greetings in a business; there is much more to it than this), then we deserve what we receive. For most of the products we purchase, there are alternatives, so we can vote with our feet and patronize another business.
As an employer, we can no longer delude ourselves into thinking that our employees will automatically be fabulous deliverers of customer service without being trained, trained, and trained again. Talking to a new employee one time about expectations is not sufficient. Role playing different scenarios can be helpful in giving employees experience in a non-threatening environment. Giving feedback on performance is essential.
Training is not enough, however. Employees need to realize that poor performance will result in sanctions, perhaps including termination. So while I always recommend that businesses offer carrots to their employees to encourage appropriate behavior, sometimes sticks are necessary.
At the end of the day, it's up to you. Will you support businesses with poor customer service? I have chosen to not do so.
This is one in a series of columns by University of Mary Washington College of Business faculty on various aspects of finance and economics as they affect our readers. Lynne Richardson is the dean of the University Mary Washington School of Business in Virginia.