By Frank J. Rich
Few of us need to recount the times we heard a service worker bellow that unforgivable phrase that either tickles the sardonic side of our funny bone or curies the ire that maddens. You’ve heard them, and if you’re anything like me, twice the first time. The rude, the crass, the indifferent. The cashier, who seems to have much to do besides checking out the goods of those waiting on line; the waiter who blithely chats in the corner of the restaurant as though attending to you was a tertiary function of his job; those who treat your questions as though guns and knives were the choice of weapon, should they be on hand. And, not least, those policy-bound lemmings that can devise no solution, nor even lend themselves to the idea, but who are the artifices of policy—the “I cant’s” following with lockstep precision.
Many have spoken of them, but the need to do so pales by comparison to the need to do something about them. Why? Because they can destroy your business. These unfortunate “representatives” of your organization are slaying sales and driving customers away. As with the jawbone of an ass, every day millions of dollars in sales and goodwill are slain by it. And, it seems to be growing worse by the increasing dependency on service workers in America. Hell itself has delivered them it seems; will none among the duty bound to the principles of best practices do anything about it? Alas, the excuses for inaction are as familiar as the nocuous cause for them. “I can’t find good people in a booming economy. Schools have done a poor job of preparing a solutions ethic in people. We are training but people don’t seem to get it. I haven’t the time to worry about what my people say to customers; I can’t even keep up with demand. If it weren’t for the customers, this would be a great business.”
Let’s take a look at the literature on the subject. As part of The Wall Street Journal’s 1999 centennial survey, pollster Peter Hart asked 1,034 consumers what irked them most about service people. The number one complaint, chosen by 40 percent of respondents, was sales and delivery people who say they’ll be at your home or office at a certain time but never show up. Other complaints on the list revolved around face-to-face encounters: “poorly informed salespeople” (37 percent); “sales clerks who are on the phone while waiting on you” (25 percent); “sales clerks who say, ‘It’s not my department.’” (25 percent); “salespeople who talk down to you” (1 percent); “sales clerks who can’t describe how a product works” (16 percent). My nemesis is the service worker who will say anything, and with authority, as though “it” were truth simply by the expression of it. They not only don’t know what they are talking about, but also don’t have any idea that the customer is on to them.
In his book At America’s Service, San Diego-based consultant Karl Albrecht (a favorite business behaviorist of mine) contends that service workers exhibit seven categories or types of behavior to return.
• Apathy: an attitude that tells you the server could not care less about serving you. One distinguishing feature is what comedian George Carlin called the DILLIGAD look: the one that says, “Do I Look Like I Give A Damn?”
• Brush-off: trying to get rid of the customer by brushing off his problem. Practitioners try to “slam dunk” the customer with some standard procedure that doesn’t solve the problem but lets the service person off the hook in doing anything special.
• Coldness: hostility, curtness, unfriendliness, and thoughtlessness–any behavior that says to the customer, “You’re a nuisance; please go away.”
• Condescension: a patronizing attitude toward the customer. Nurses, for instance, are notorious for this. They call the physician “Dr. Jones,” but they call you by your first name and talk to you as if you were four years old. They check your blood pressure but don’t believe you are intelligent or mature enough to be told the result: “Dr. Jones will tell you if he thinks you need to know.”
• Robotism: the unfocused stare, the pasted-on smile that tells you nobody’s home upstairs. The fully mechanized worker puts every customer through the same pale routine, with no trace of warmth or individuality: “Thank-you-for-shopping-with-us-have-a-nice-day. Next”
• Rulebook: the service worker trapped by (or hiding behind) a set of company policies that leave no room for discretion in the name of customer satisfaction or even common sense. Any customer problem with more than one moving part confounds the system.
• Runaround: “Sorry, you’ll have to speak to so-and-so. We don’t handle that here.” The airlines have turned this into an art form. The ticket agent tells you the gate people will take care of it; the gate people tell you to see the ticket agent when you get to your destination; the agent at your destination tells you to talk to your travel agent. Ever had a computer problem? The hardware manufacturer tells you it’s a software problem, so you call Microsoft. You can guess where they tell you to go—back to the hardware manufacturer.
However you see them, service workers from hell are every bit as real and challenging as customers from hell. In fact, it’s likely that if you have the former you also have the latter. It just works that way. The good news—there are ways to break the cycle of madness for any organization that is willing. And, you have a lot more power to change the behavior of your own people than that of your customers.
Frank Rich is founder and CEO of Encore Príst International, an organizational development company that helps individuals
and organizations reach their full potential through the practice of effective business fundamentals. You may reach him at
email@example.com, or by phone at 866/858-4EPI.