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Bill Kalmar

Quality Insider

Does Being Cheap Get You Great Service?


Published: Monday, October 1, 2007 - 21:00

Since 1994, the American Customer Satisfaction Index, under the auspices of the National Quality Resource Center at the University of Michigan, has been the standard for measuring consumer satisfaction. The index measures satisfaction with 200 companies in 43 industries and is the most comprehensive system in place to reflect our likes and dislikes in the marketplace.

Second quarter results for 2007 indicate an overall score of 75.3 out of 100 with gains in service satisfaction outnumbering declines. In addition, overall satisfaction has risen for nine consecutive quarters, the longest period since measurement began in 1994.

I suspect that each of us has our own opinion on the state of quality and customer service based on personal experiences. In that regard, I agree with the current numbers from ACSI. Because they seem to parallel my own experiences, I thought it would be interesting to scroll through some of the companies reflected in the index and offer my own reaction and reflections.

  • It was no surprise to me that Marriott ranked at the top of the list for providing exceptional service in the very competitive hotel industry. Overall scores for hotels came in at 71, with Marriott scoring 79. Having been a member of the Marriott Rewards Club for years, I can personally attest to the high level of service afforded by this worldwide chain. Readers of Business Travelers magazine have consistently voted the Marriott Reward Program tops in the nation. I’m a former Platinum Member of the club (75 nights a year) and now a Gold Member (50 nights a year—retirement will do that to you), and all of our stays at Marriott have been flawless. Maybe the free welcoming gift, the complimentary upgrades, and a private reservations line—or the monogrammed travel pillow I received on one trip—have something to do with my opinion, but suffice it to say the staff is well trained, personable, and caring.

Another aspect that I’m sure places Marriott at the top of the ACSI chart are the e-mails confirming reservations that provide details on weather and activities in the city and surrounding areas. This company knows how to treat its customers, and the rankings demonstrate that.

  • As for restaurants, one of my neighborhood favorite haunts— the Olive Garden—is at the top of the list with a score of 81. Waiting for a table can sometimes be trying no matter the restaurant, but at the Olive Garden you can count on receiving small portions of hors d’oeuvres. And being able to wait outside (weather permitting) is a plus because everyone receives a beeper when they make a reservation. It’s a given that entrees will be delectable, but what makes this chain so special is the service. When our neighborhood Olive Garden opened, I remarked to the manager that we were blown away with the high level of service. His secret? He refused to hire anyone from another Olive Garden, because he felt that mixing that staff with new staff would present problems of seniority with the resulting discussions about vacations and days-off. On the contrary, his team consisted of people from other restaurants, people with limited restaurant experience, and those with no experience. With intense training, he was able to meld a cohesive team of energetic, hard-working people who exemplify great customer service. From the results of the ACSI survey, many customers feel that he and the other managers of Olive Garden restaurants have done a pretty good job.
  • According to the ACSI survey, fast food establishments overall came in at 77 with McDonalds bringing up the rear with a score of 64. I suppose you Big Mac fans will argue with that. At the top of the list is an institution established by Dave Thomas many years ago with the aim of providing a good meal surrounded by great customer service. Based on the survey results, Thomas’s plan is still in effect, because Wendy’s scored a 78 on the survey. What makes this establishment so special for me is something you will experience only if you’re old like me or, in the current vernacular, a senior citizen. Next time you’re in a Wendy’s, ask for the “senior soda.” Depending on whether the store is a franchise or company-owned you will pay either a nominal price or nothing at all. Being the frugal, judicious—OK, cheap—person I am, I usually enter a Wendy’s and just ask for a senior soda without making any other purchase, much to the chagrin of my wife. My response is that I’m testing their customer service.

Speaking of restaurants, I have been a mystery shopper for a number of years for several restaurants (not Wendy’s or Olive Garden). It’s interesting that the management of the survey assumes that the food will always be prepared properly and their focus is on customer service and cleanliness in the restaurant. Being frugal—OK, OK, cheap—this is a good way to stay involved in the quality field by preparing reports on customer service and have my meal paid for.

  • Cable companies scored a 62. This isn’t surprising to me, because in our town there’s only one cable company—Comcast—and without any competition, customer service isn’t one of their talents, and it scored a dismal 56. Keep in mind the average score for all 200 participants in the ACSI was 75.3. Currently, AT & T is preparing to invade our area, and I suspect that prices will be lower, and customer service will be better. Competition will do that.
  • Cell phone companies came in with a score of 70, and not one of the many services seemed to emerge as a leader. Something that has annoyed me for quite some time are the iron-clad contracts one has to sign with these companies. I just received a free upgrade on my phone from Verizon and, as a matter of policy, had to sign a two-year agreement with a hefty penalty should I decide to leave. Frankly, I think that these contracts are punitive and preclude customers from leaving if dissatisfaction with customer service becomes the norm. This may sound short-sighted on my part, but would you sign such a contract say with your dry cleaners, your airline, your oil-change depot, or your physician? I think not. Consumers should be allowed to gravitate where they receive the best service and not be fenced in by restrictive contracts.
  • It should come as no surprise that, when considering airlines, Southwest Airlines continues to be the belle of the ball with a score of 76. I’m totally enamored with their exemplary, low-cost, on-time service. In fact, we are so loyal to Southwest that, instead of taking a direct flight from Detroit to Tampa on another airline several years ago, we booked a flight that routed us from Detroit to Chicago to Nashville and then to Tampa with plane changes at each stop. Sure, being frugal—OK! Cheap!—was one of the factors, but who can resist bags and bags of free peanuts?

Something out of the ordinary that you may not know about Southwest: There’s no way to contact them via e-mail. Not only do they frown on e-mail, they don’t provide you with an e-mail address. They prefer personal contact and, from my experience, will answer each letter personally—no form letters.

  • Being from the Motor City and an aficionado of domestic cars, I hesitate to comment on this next category, but once again at the top of the customer satisfaction list is Lexus. While this automobile is out of my price range, one of my sons-in-law, Alan, drives a Lexus (I always told our daughters to marry rich). Enjoying a Lexus vicariously through Alan demonstrates to me why this company continues to rank high in the minds and hearts of consumers. If you need an oil change, just call the dealership. Someone will pick up your car and provide you with a loaner. When Alan took the car in for a tire rotation, the dealer decided that after two years the front leather seats weren’t wearing properly, so he ordered new seats. I once received only a free road map from my dealer, but Yugo wasn’t at the top of the ACSI list.
  • U.S. newspapers continue to get low marks for customer service. ACSI has them coming in at 66. Now I don’t know if that has to do with home delivery or just billing practices. Recently, I was appointed a member of the Oakland Press Reader Advisory Panel, for which we provided input to the publisher about our concerns. Based on that experience, I know that newspaper management is aware that the Internet is eroding their readership and thus I’m confident that customer service is now on the top of their to-do lists. The alternative is to go out of business, which no one relishes.

While on the topic of newspapers, I have to leave you with a Yogi Berra story. It seems Ernest Hemingway was once introduced to Yogi as an “important writer.” Yogi is reported to have responded, “Good to meet you. What paper are you with, Ernie?”

Well, now I’m off to the airport for a Southwest flight to anywhere they fly. Along the way, I’ll pick up a USA Today paper, a free soda from Wendy’s, and I’ll make sure to call Marriott on my Verizon cell phone to confirm my reservation. Life is good. Now if there were only a way to parlay this into a free trip. I am cheap, you know!

The health care industry continues to see the Baldrige process as a way to improve efficiencies and differentiate oneself from the competition. This year there are a total of 84 Baldrige award applications in the following categories: two from manufacturing, four from service, seven small businesses, 16 from education, 13 nonprofits, and 42 from health care. Of the nine applicants for Michigan’s top quality award for this year, six are from health care. The Baldrige judges recently decided to make site visits to 14 applicants—2 small businesses, 4 nonprofits, 1 school, and 7 health care organizations. The winners will be announced in November.

Now it’s time for manufacturers and service industries to quit focusing on short-term, quarterly results and begin looking at a long-term strategy and the effect of quality and customer service on the workforce, and to use the Baldrige process to facilitate that effort.


About The Author

Bill Kalmar’s picture

Bill Kalmar

William J. Kalmar has extensive business experience, including service with a Fortune 500 bank and the Michigan Quality Council, of which he served as director from 1993 through 2003. He served on the Board of Overseers of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program and has been a Baldrige examiner. He was also named quality professional of the year by the ASQ Detroit chapter. Now semiretired, Kalmar does freelance writing for several publications. He is a member of the USA Today Vacation Panel, a mystery shopper for several companies, and a frequent presenter and lecturer.