Has a definitive book on service and the treatment of customers, clients, shoppers, patrons, et al, ever been written? Yes, but you would never know it. The treatises that come to mind are Tom Peters’, ‘In Search of Excellence’, 1986, Carl Sewell Jr., Customers for Life, 1990, and there are scores of others.

Sadly, I am reminded of this missing caring know-how all too often. For example, a few days ago, too many early morning chores got in the way of allowing enough time for the preparation of the big breakfast I was in the mood for. And, those who know me know, it requires the deference to others or a Smith & Wesson held to my head for me to eat at a ‘chain’ restaurant. So, it was way out of the norm when I stopped at the nationally known ‘Cracker Barrel’, on the way to the office.

As I walked through the front area of the Cracker Barrel, a pseudo country store full of ‘made-to-sell’ merchandise (as my father-in-law would say), that when purchased is supposed to make you feel country, even if and when country wasn’t cool (I think only people who don’t live in the country buy this stuff). There were three employees literally leaning against the front counter who didn’t budge or greet us as we passed by and headed to the infamous ‘Wait to Be Seated’ sign.

I could have counted the number of customers in the restaurant on my hands and had plenty of fingers left over, so ‘the sign’ became a warning more than a request, especially since the word ‘please’ did not precede the word ‘wait’. And ‘wait’ we did. I admit it wasn’t long, but when your presence is not acknowledged, the wait seems forever. I asked the resting employees for help. One of them made a call to the kitchen and the caller / emissary walked over to tell me that he let them know I was there. A couple of minutes later, the ‘seating hostess’ sauntered toward me with no visible sense of urgency and said’ “Two?” When I heard that, I yearned to say, ‘here’s your sign’.

Seated at our table we continue doing as before, you guessed it, more waiting. After a bit and having not spotted a wait-person in the restaurant, I flagged the ‘seating hostess / emissary’ and asked for help. With the same sense of urgency exhibited earlier she sauntered toward the kitchen. Alas, I spot a wait-person, and after warming the coffee at the only other two occupied tables, returned to the kitchen, seemingly teasing us with her presence. You can’t make this stuff up.

Finally, when the wait-person arrived at our table, I asked if she was the only person working the room, she said, “No, there are two of us, is there a problem?” The urge returned, ‘here’s your sign’.

Why, when we are told that this call is being recorded for training purposes, does the service never improve? Airline Flight Attendants offer snacks and drinks for sale under $10, then roll their eyes when you don’t have exact change, and when we land say ‘we know you have a choice when you fly, so thank you for choosing American Airlines’.

Personal Value Contribution:

Recently, my flight was canceled as well as the three subsequent flights that I was assigned to fly. After over six hours in the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (not Dallas Airport), I walked onto an American Airlines Super 80, en route to Chicago. A flight attendant welcomed me on board, and offered refreshment while we waited for boarding to wrap up, all with a smile on her face, including while taking care of the inevitable steamer trunk that wouldn’t have fit in the overhead compartment on the Spruce Goose.

She took pride in her work. Her outfit and grooming were immaculate. She always smiled, and interacted well with her crew mates.

There was a time when even ushers and the coat-check girl took pride in their work. For quite sometime I have frequently had to find my own seat without an usher in sight and get my own coat while the coat-check girl finished up a text message, ‘YourFace’ or something. Also, why do employees in various stores think it’s alright to wait on you while talking to someone else on a cell phone?

I don’t expect anyone to make a career of being a coat-check person, but there is nothing wrong with the kind of pride that says ‘as long as I have this job, I ought to do it well and cheerfully’. On various flights, I have met housekeeping personnel who fill that bill and congressional representatives who do not. Once upon a time, teachers were part of that mind-set, lauded for their learning and unselfish efforts to help students learn. Today, generally, they are unionized workers, sloppily dressed with few if any initiatives aimed at anything but making their work easier, including the recommendation to parents that they ‘drug’ their overactive child. Certainly, student performance doesn’t seem to be a factor. But tell me, what other test is there?

We are being forced to become a classless society where no one is supposed to shine, standout, or excel. Other than insipid celebrities and drug-assisted athletes, we don’t want our ‘posse’ to be better than we are, even if they work harder or have more skill. [Right here I can’t help but think about gen X who were given too much and didn’t have to earn, and gen Y who didn’t keep score, got a trophy for losing and have moms who call the boss.]

Humanity is brought forward by rewarding excellence, not mediocrity. And at the core of excellence is caring, taking pride in one’s work, no matter if you’re the CEO or the coat check girl.

We don’t get to talk to real management with problems; we get to talk to call centers halfway around the world. And the emissary isn’t always a person. Mail to the company brass is intercepted by ‘CSR staffers’ who respond with form letters. We receive computer voice generated phone reminders for appointments and account information, and to avoid voice-mail hell, we are forced to use the web for airline and restaurant reservations as well as most other service matters, touting ‘our best prices are on-line’.

‘Computers are faster, but they take more time!’
The trouble with emissaries is that they do not possess authority, influence or often even the ability to solve a problem. As a rule they are impediments with agendas and no vested interest. And what’s worse, they have no accountability or consequences for their performance or lack thereof.

As an end user, our objective is to take our problem to an executive with authority. The emissary’s objective is to prevent that from happening. Typically, an emissary’s first concern is their own turf, ego and control of what they allow to take place, generally in total opposition to company strategy. Hence, the contest in which they are victorious, when we lose.

I am fortunate in that I stay in nice hotels, the front desk people are usually good, and I all most never have a problem, but when I do, I don’t deal with reservations clerks, I call the manager of the hotel. The likelihood is very slim for me to be able to visit the office of the Postmaster General of the U.S. Post Office, which is an inefficient operation, but I can visit the office of a hotel manager when I stay at that property. So the hotel manager is motivated to be in touch with me before I camp out in the lobby.

Too many of us assign our fates to others or technology, and assume we’ll be taken care of. As a management consultant, what do I hear in organizational America? ‘That’s not my job’. ‘That’s above my pay grade.’ ‘You’ll have to talk to another department.’ ‘Press 1 for English.’

Someone I know is in a fight with FedEx over an overseas lost box. FedEx’s Accounting Department is only responsible for billing, not credits. The lost shipment and Claims Department is only responsible for trying to find the lost box (which was not found), not credits. The International Operations department is only responsible for tracking, not credits.

The show-stopping comment from Accounts Payable, after he told them he had obtained a credit and gave them the manager’s name, was: “We never make outgoing phone calls, even to our own people.” Amazing, but when he consulted to some of the top companies in the world, they had an odd rule; ‘when you pick up the phone, you OWN the issue. You can research it, you can involve others, but you can’t give it away. My friend finally wrote twice, sent via FedEx to CEO Fred Smith, and after three months got it settled but at a great cost to FedEx’s reputation with my friend.

I implore you to appreciate that the customer issue on the phone just may be crucial and a commitment to help might, ultimately, be important to the company’s success and, therefore, your own, the emissary.

The best leaders ‘own’ the business beyond having their name on the letterhead or on their office door. They see to it that their employees own the customer’s as well as the company’s problems; not blaming the economy, the technology, the competition, or the customer.

The great majority of client companies I’m working with are having an excellent year, because they realize they can’t say, ‘That’s above my pay-grade.’

Teachers, soccer mom’s and dad’s; How about a game of ‘dodge-ball’?

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