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 Guest Editorial by Elizabeth R. Larson

The Give and Take
of Customer Service

Service employees tend to take the majority
of blame whenever something goes wrong.

by Elizabeth R. Larson

In January and March, our First Word column touched upon the lack of quality in customer service. Customer service is a frequent -- and frequently heated -- point of discussion in the business world, and with good reason. As we enter into a technologically advanced age, where automated teller machines and automated phone systems prevail, the human element of service becomes more cherished and, therefore, more crucial. At the same time, we mustn't think that the customer service issue is new; it must certainly be as old as business itself.

Service personnel are the link between management and customers; their role is therefore understandably precarious and difficult. As the frontpeople of the organization, service employees tend to take the majority of blame whenever something goes wrong. While they certainly should bear a fair share of responsibility, they are by no means the entire cause of the problem. I suggest that it goes much deeper.

To get to the bottom of the issue of quality in customer service, I believe that all those who are concerned -- employees, managers and customers -- must actively participate in improving processes and dismissing the unspoken, adversarial relationship that sometimes exists between customers and businesses. Let me offer the merest outline of what the responsibilities of each should include:

 Managers. Businesses must choose their managers carefully. At their best and at their worst, managers must be capable of exhibiting a great deal of character because they must ultimately take responsibility for what goes on around them. When receiving complaints, managers must ask themselves how the situation can be improved and what part they played in failing the customer. When receiving compliments, they must learn to reward employees in a way that encourages continued excellence.

Poor service springs from poor training and lack of proper communication. At the same time, excellent service isn't possible with service employees who are disillusioned, taken for granted and underpaid. As long as a hierarchy of occupations exists, some jobs will be considered humiliating, resulting in employees carrying out their duties in a half-hearted, discouraged way.

This is where a manager should be egalitarian. Managers must not neglect any element of the work force when it comes to training, rewards or value; in effect, they should see every new employee as a future CEO. They should strive to construct an environment where employees can both successfully carry out their jobs and find that precious amount of satisfaction in their work.

  Employees. Unfortunately, many people -- especially those in low-paying jobs -- do not see the importance of doing their jobs well. Being faithful in the little things, working their way up in the organization and not trying to make yesterday's hits win today's ballgame are all part of the learning process in any profession.

     Despite our society's emphasis on education, we also have a history of honoring hard work and persistence. Employees would do well to heed the advice of Ecclesiastes 9:10: "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might."

 Customers. Customers must exhibit understanding when things go wrong and appreciation when things go right. Pliny the Elder said that "Criticism is easier than craftsmanship"; customers should keep that in mind and aim to be as constructive as possible when suggesting ways service might be improved.

As well, customers should tune their voices with a note of compassion and respect when facing difficult circumstances. It is easy to take for granted those behind the counter. The teenager fumbling at the cash register in the fast food restaurant is less an issue of laziness or incompetence than a clue to a lack of interest by management in taking responsibility for properly training all of its personnel.

At the same time, customers have a right to expect good service. Only by insisting on the best -- in a diplomatic way -- will they ever get it.

Business interactions are based on human relationships, and the most successful human relationships are rooted in compassion and a genuine, mutual interest in a common goal. By working cooperatively, customers and businesses will be able to reach greater levels of customer service and customer/employee satisfaction.

It all seems so simple, really. And when looked at from a distance, without having to consider the ebb and flow of human nature, it is. But all of these guidelines are suggested with a caveat: When it comes to emotional issues, it is best not to err on the side of dogmatism, of being too rigid one way or the other. Customer service is a give-and-take situation, and customers and businesses must constantly adjust to each other's demands, needs and expectations. That's the everyday adventure of a quality undertaking.

About the author

Elizabeth R. Larson is news editor of Quality Digest.


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