KASFAA Oz-Sociated Press, Fall 2002
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"It's the Process, Stupid!"

Submitted by Dan Brent
Citibank

Most of good customer service is attitude. If you're being served by someone who cares about you, listens to understand your need, and is willing to go the extra mile for you, you know it. And you appreciate it.

The same chemistry holds true, of course, when you are the service provider. Your students know it - and appreciate it - when you are enthusiastically working to address their needs. I do workshops on the skills involved in good customer service. But none of the skills will mask attitude. Someone who sees the customer as an interruption of her or his real work will not be able to hide that attitude behind service techniques.

But sometimes the system and procedures make it impossible for even a good attitude to reach customers. One of my business heroes was W. Edwards Deming. He was the man who, in the 1950's and 1960's, taught the Japanese carmakers to build cars with customer needs in mind. The American carmakers brought him back to the United States in the early 1990's so he could teach them to be competitive. The old curmudgeon would say, "You can't blame the workers if the cars don't perform or hold up. That's because 95% of the problems are the fault of management. That's where the decisions get made about design and materials and procedures. And that's what causes the problems!"

Deming died about eight years ago. And with his death, it seems, came the death of the impetus to focus on quality. Too bad. Because I think there was great wisdom in his insights. Sometimes you want to give good service but the systems and procedures and rules get in the way. So?

So when the rules and procedures are getting in the way, think about the who and how of challenging them. Rules and procedures are made mostly to benefit or protect the service provider, not the customer.

Recently in Houston I stopped into a Walgreen drug store to buy cigars. "I'd like a pack of those and a pack of those." The cashier scanned the first pack into the register and then said, "I need to see ID." I laughed. I won't tell you how old I am but I have wrinkles and gray hair to testify that it's been a very long time since I passed 18. I gave her my driver's license. She looked at it and returned it. Then she scanned the other pack. "I'll need to see your ID." Like I'd gotten younger standing there!

I don't know whether it's Texas law or Walgreen policy. But it certainly isn't a process designed to be customer-friendly nor to communicate trust in the good judgement of the cashier. Deming would have said, "See. What'd I tell you?" There is a food chain in upstate New York that has the same system for requiring birth information when tobacco products are purchased. When I buy cigars there, they look at me and punch 111111 into the register. If anyone ever used their data to do a demographic study, they'd wonder why so many people were born on November 11, 1911!

Making cumbersome procedures more user-friendly requires identifying what they are and being creative about finding alternative ways of doing things. Finding the problems is usually the province of the front-line customer-service person who's willing to say, "Can't we do something about this?" And finding alternative solutions is usually the job of the manager.

So look at what hat you're wearing and go do it!

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