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Keep Service Up in a Down Economy

by Steve Curtin
June 2008

Yesterday, I brought my family to a quick service Mexican grill.  While I was providing my order to the prep person behind the counter, I observed the sales transaction of the customer who was ahead of me.  At no point during the transaction did the cashier smile or even make eye contact with the customer.  In fact, the irony was that the customer said “thank you” as he accepted his receipt.  Even so, she still did not acknowledge him.

We have all experienced this level of apathy from “service providers” at restaurants, hotels, supermarkets, etc.  In fact, we may have just become accustomed to it.  Our expectations, in some cases, may have been dulled by the frequency of mediocre service that we encounter as we dine, travel, and shop.

This was a reminder to me that it would have cost nothing more for the cashier to make eye contact with her customer, to smile, and (with “life” in her voice) to say, “We appreciate your business.  Thank you for coming in.”  Or, a bit more daring, “Thank you for coming in.  If those burritos don’t fill you up, come on back.  We’ll make more!”

You see, that would have been interesting.  That would have been unique.  That would have brought a smile to the customer’s face and the experience would have been memorable.  But, instead, the cashier just went through the motions, touched each transactional base (e.g., input order, process payment, provide receipt), and robotically, dispassionately moved on to the next functional sequence to satisfactorily process the next transaction.

It brings to mind what I would expect on an assembly line.  Imagine an assembly line worker producing a children’s doll.  Let’s say the final step in the process is to attach the doll’s head.  The worker lifts a doll’s head from a large box, pops the head on the doll’s torso, and twists it firmly until it locks into place.  One by one, the assembler “lifts, pops, and twists” and the dolls’ heads until his quota is met or his shift ends.  Tomorrow he will return and repeat the process over and over again (i.e., “Lift, pop, twist…Lift, pop, twist…) until the end of another workday.

The restaurant cashier may not have been working on a doll assembly line but the behavior was the same (i.e., Order, payment, receipt…Order, payment, receipt, etc.).  Expressionless, robotic behavior devoid of any personality may be permissible in a factory environment or warehouse where there are no signs of a real, live customer—as long as certain production quotas and delivery schedules are met.  

In a customer-facing position, however, the behavior must be different.  

In the current economy, while costs are increasing, pricing pressure is forcing businesses to reexamine their pricing strategies.  In the case of restaurants, that may mean reducing portions, prices, or both.  In the case of hotels, it may mean lowering their rates to increase market share, reducing amenities, trimming labor hours, and other “profit protection” strategies.

These are tough decisions that are indicative of difficult economic times.

Most operators seem to accept that the answers to navigating a recession are found in budgets, productivity reports, and P&L statements.  While fiscal responsibility is necessary regardless of the economic landscape, the real key to sustained rapid improvement is to focus your people on focusing on customers.  It costs nothing but a little proactive thinking and your time—which, especially in this economy, is time well spent.

Here are some examples:

  • Create awareness at pre-shift meetings:
    • “Who would like to describe for the group, in your own words, the difference between the role of an assembly line worker and your role as customer service providers?”
  • Reinforce standards through positive feedback:
    • “Emily, I noticed the way that customer responded to you after you thanked him personally by name.  That’s just the sort of reaction we’re hoping to get with every customer.  Great job!”
  • Reinforce standards through corrective feedback:
    • “Oscar, your eye contact and smile are great and your use of guests’ names is coming along.  How can I help you to get better?”
  • Model desired behavior at all times:
    • As managers and supervisors, your decisions and behaviors (verbal and non-verbal) are constantly being scrutinized by others. As author Bob Ferrell says in his book, Leadership Pickles, “What they see is what you’ll get.”  If employees detect management’s skepticism about a corporate initiative, then they too will be skeptical.  If management acts with indifference toward customers, then employees will feel justified in doing so as well.  What they see is what you’ll get.
Superior service doesn’t cost anymore to provide than mediocre service.  Oh sure, it may require a few minutes of dialogue here and there as well as a concerted effort on the part of managers and supervisors to model the behaviors that are expected from their employees, but that’s no more than is already expected from a competent leader.  I recall reading a Gallup statistic that revealed 65% of US employees surveyed claimed to have received no praise or recognition for their job performance in the previous year.  Consistent, informal feedback from a credible source (i.e., one who practices what he or she preaches) will address this.

By applying these informal suggestions frequently, a service-based business will create more goodwill with its customers that will translate into enhanced loyalty, referrals, and repeat business.  And here’s the best part: there are no buttons or banners or expensive, large-scale rollouts required.  The only requirement is for managers to consistently apply the basic principles of communication, feedback, and recognition that embody leadership.



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Steve Curtin is a customer service, training, and public speaking enthusiast based in Denver, CO.  www.stevecurtin.com
 
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Contact:

Steve Curtin
www.stevecurtin.com

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