Top-Down Service

fast foodWorking the late-night shift in an American fast-food restaurant can, understandably, lead to boredom.  The cleaning is done, there are few customers to attend to, and the staff – the minimum-wage cook, cashier, and busboy on duty – will easily find unproductive ways to amuse themselves.

There were customer comment forms on all the tables, a former employee recalls. When things were slow and no supervisor was present, the staff would open the box that held completed forms and read the comments.

“They were very critical,” the woman said, “so we discarded them.”

What did they do with the positive comments?  “Nobody ever wrote anything nice,” she said. “At least, I don’t remember any compliments.”

Advertisements for the franchise promised service with a smile, but delivered far less.  There’s nothing like low pay, undesirable hours and a generally thankless job to take employee morale and the attitude toward providing good service to the lowest possible depths.  If managers aren’t proactive in their effort to provide a better environment, the business will ultimately wither.

Developing countries have no monopoly on bad service or poor employee attitudes, just as western nations haven’t cornered the market for great service.  Few people are born with the desire to serve others. An employee has to want to provide a good service experience for customers, and that desire must be fed and nurtured through training, compensation, and other inducements.  It isn’t enough for a supervisor to growl, “Smile, damn it!  It’s your job!”

Though it doesn’t take a huge training budget to transform a business from customer-averse to customer-friendly, training can be a good idea that is well worth the initial investment. 

Companies need to emphasize the importance of customer service in their strategic documents. Making customer-focused service the hallmark that defines decision-making at every level helps employee to understand that the boss doesn’t pay their salaries, but customers do.

Does top management really believe in great service?  Look at who gets the best parking spaces: Are they reserved for customers or senior managers?

“Top management must be an active conductor and foster the culture of service.  They need to be models in their attitudes toward clients. 

Building a strong service culture requires more than giving lectures and issuing memos.  A dialog with employees is necessary, if for no other reason than to ensure that they define “great service” the same way that management does.

Teaching by example is important, too.  Progressive employers urge staff to share their customer service stories, giving others a chance to see how the service culture works in real-life situations.

Often, these stories are communicated via internal service newsletters, training sessions and during employee-recognition events.

trainingTraining – for senior staff as well as front-line employees – is important as well.  Despite the initial cost, effective training, like any worthwhile education, is an investment.  A notable turnaround in service attitudes can pay immediate dividends.

In the rush to train front-line workers to interact more positively with the public, many companies overlook an important group of customers: the employees themselves.   Training a front-line worker to provide great service will amount to nothing if support personnel don’t give great service as well.  If a cook ignores a special request or a designer misses a deadline, those actions impact the service ultimately delivered by the waiter or account executive.  In short, it takes the whole company to ensure excellence.

Is having a reputation for providing great customer service enough?  Probably not.  People enjoy being recognized for doing great work.  Recognition may take the form of recognition in an employee newsletter, a small cash bonus, or a pair of concert tickets.  Look for new, interesting ways to congratulate the employees who are building and maintaining the company’s reputation for customer service excellence.


Scott H. Lewis is managing director for the CIS region of Signature Europe. A former journalist and public relations counselor, he has provided crisis, public speaking and presentation training to senior executives across Russia, Ukraine and Turkey. He is the author of “60 Seconds to ‘Wow!’,” a book on presentation skills.  An American, he has lived in Kyiv, Ukraine for more than a decade.

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