Pat Townsend & Joan Gebhardt

A Service Quality Story

In mid-April, one of the co-authors of this column (Pat) took a trip on major U.S. airline that turned into a "trip from Hades." What follows is not simply a recitation of serial incompetence (and the sort of story that is very amusing if it happens to someone else), but also some ideas on the unique aspects of quality in the service sector.

 During the manufacturing of an item of any sort or size, multiple people have a chance to flaw the quality of the object, but all such errors (and the sequence in which they're made, or any other details) are usually invisible to the customer. In addition, there can always be double-checks (and, W. Edwards Deming forgive us, last chance quality control checks) to ensure that not only is the error-making invisible to the buyer, but so is the error-correction.

 Once the manufactured product is in the buyer's hands, the deal is done. If there are problems, oftentimes the only alternatives are expensive--such as complete refunds, repairs, etc. Even with quick-as-possible resolution, the relationship between the customer and the manufacturer is most likely damaged permanently.

 For most service providers--airlines, for instance--the process is far more open to view. The compensating factor is that there are more, far cheaper, and more permanent options for recovery.

 Now, the story. Well, a condensed (honest) version.


 Pat's intent was to fly from Dallas/Fort Worth to Atlanta to Worcester, Massachusetts. Having occasionally flown on the particular airline in the past, he had packed so that he wouldn't need to check any bags. The first leg of the trip went well, arriving just about 10 minutes late. But there was no announcement of connecting gates. There was also no gate agent. And, on the first big board Pat came to, the 9:30 p.m. flight to Worcester was not listed. The nearby service desk was closed but had a sign inviting folks to visit the next service desk, some distance down the corridor.

 There were more than 30 people in line at that service desk, so Pat headed for the phones to call the airline's toll-free number and ask about the flight to Worcester--whether it was still scheduled to go and, if so, out of which gate. It was then 9:00.

 After 10 minutes of listening to "hold on, please" music--and never hearing a live voice--when he spotted an agent at a nearby gate who wasn't busy, Pat abandoned the phone and hurried over to the gate agent. Yes, the flight to Worcester was definitely scheduled to leave from a gate two concourses away in 20 minutes.

 Pat arrived at the gate at 9:20, just in time to see the person to whom his ticket had been given (prior to the "must be here 10 minutes before flight time" restriction) get on the plane. Along with a healthy helping of attitude, the gate agent gave Pat a ticket on the next morning's 6:40 a.m. flight to Boston, a dinner voucher for $10, a breakfast voucher for $5, a voucher for the Clarion Hotel, a voucher for $350 on the same airline (in case he ever has to fly on that airline again), and a voucher for a taxi ride for the 65-plus miles from the Boston Airport to the Worcester Airport.

 It turned out that the Clarion Hotel was sold out for the night--something that Pat found out when he called for a shuttle ride from the stand outside the airport. A return to the airport and a long phone call by another airline customer agent later, Pat had assurances that the Clarion was waiting for him and he had more vouchers for taxi rides to the Clarion and back again in the morning. The taxi driver got lost (but Pat spotted the Clarion as they went whizzing past) and the Clarion was definitely sold out. He took a shuttle ride back to the airport.

 The same customer agent then booked Pat for the Hilton Airport. He even got the name of the person--Ricky--who would be waiting for him at the desk. Besides the voucher for the Hilton Airport, Pat received another dinner voucher (for $15), another breakfast voucher (for $8), and several phone cards--good for five minutes each.

 The Hilton Airport had never heard of Pat or Ricky. A few phone calls later, it was discovered that Ricky was waiting for Pat at the Hilton Downtown. Back to the airport--by Hilton Shuttle.

 Equipped with a new voucher for the Hilton Downtown and with vouchers for taxi rides to and from the Hilton Downtown, Pat bid farewell to the airport once again. He arrived at the Hilton Downtown at 1:15 a.m., dinner vouchers unused, to find a seven-person line at the check-in counter. When he got to his room at 1:25, he used the automated system for registering for a wake-up call at 4:15 and listened to the automated voice confirm that he'd done it right.

 At 4:21, Pat happened to roll over and look at the clock. The wake-up call mechanism hadn't worked. He arrived at the Airport shortly after 5:00, breakfast vouchers in hand. But nothing opens to serve food until after 6:00, at which time Pat was at the gate, cautiously guarding his ticket. Breakfast consisted of a cup of apple juice and two cookies on the flight to Boston. Not much, but more than dinner.

 The point of all this? If any of the several people who took part in the serial incompetence leading up to Pat's not getting on his flight had done their job, it would have overcome all other errors. If the connecting gate announcement had been made, if there had been a gate agent, if the Worcester flight had been listed on the board (the gate agent did mention that, "Yeah, we've been having some trouble with that"), if the service desks (either of them) had been properly staffed, if the phone lines were properly staffed, or if the gate agent had stuck by the rules, Pat would have been on his way to Worcester, mildly amused at any "glitches" that took place before all was made well.

 Likewise, if the agent who handled the hotel search had been careful about what he was doing, it would have led to a not-unpleasant good night's sleep in Atlanta for Pat--not such a bad thing. As it was, the airline gets "credit" for everything, including the taxi driver who didn't know where the Clarion Hotel was and the failed wake-up call.

 It would appear--based on the attitude and competence of the many airline employees who took part in this farce--that the airline, in the face of economic challenges, has followed the same proven-to-be-suicidal path blazed by so many other companies: when there is a need to save money, cut back on training and quality.

 Service quality is tough. No question about it. And it's tough precisely because there are so many people who have unmonitored moments of truth with customers or who, in some indirect way, impact customers. An organization does, however, have choices: training and an active effort at involving all employees in the continual improvement of the organization come to mind, for instance.

 Remember what Pal's Sudden Service--2001 Baldrige Winner in the small business category--uses as a response to skeptics who question the 120 hours of training they give to all new employees. When asked, "How can you train them so much; what if they leave?," they answer, "What if we didn't train them and they stay?" At too many organizations, the approach that Pal's disdains is, unfortunately, the norm.


About the authors

 Pat Townsend and Joan Gebhardt have written more than 200 articles and six books, including Commit to Quality (John Wiley & Sons, 1986); Quality in Action: 93 Lessons in Leadership, Participation, and Measurement (John Wiley & Sons, 1992); Five-Star Leadership: The Art and Strategy of Creating Leaders at Every Level (John Wiley & Sons, 1997); Recognition, Gratitude & Celebration (Crisp Publications, 1997); How Organizations Learn: Investigate, Identify, Institutionalize (Crisp Publications, 1999); and Quality Is Everybody's Business (CRC Press, 1999). Pat Townsend has recently re-entered the corporate world and is now dealing with "leadership.com" issues as a practitioner as well as an observer, writer and speaker. He is now chief quality officer for UICI, a diverse financial services corporation headquartered in the Dallas area. E-mail the authors at ptownsend@qualitydigest.com . Letters to the editor regarding this column can be e-mailed to letters@qualitydigest.com .


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