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William is an Assistant Professor at Mount Saint Vincent University in the Department of Business Administration and Tourism and Hospitality Management. He is fascinated by research around how individuals construct and create their social realities, intrigued with the powers of creativity and innovation, and an avid proponent of outstanding service experiences. When not teaching, writing, or researching, he tries to spend time with his family and occasionally paint. He is currently completing his PhD in Management at Saint Mary’s University.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Customer service is how you operate your business.

Most of this week, I’ve been having conversations with people about customer service. Ok, this week it’s been more like debates about what service is and how to treat customers. You see, there seems to be a group of people who think that customer service is all about giving customers free stuff. That’s it, just giving them free stuff.

As if customers really walk out of a store and say, “Honey! You wouldn’t believe the service I just received! They gave me a 10% discount – that’s amazing service!” This isn’t service. It’s pricing. There is NO service going on here at all.

Giving amazing service is about listening to your customers, paying attention to how they behave and what they want, then enacting that as well as communicating it to them. My wife went into our local big box bookstore this week to complete an exchange. She didn’t have a receipt, just the unread book given to her as a gift. It costs the bookstore absolutely nothing for this transaction. Zero. Nevertheless, she needed to fill out forms and answer questions. Why? So that the store felt comfortable that they weren’t being ripped off. The unintended consequence is that store is actually saying they naturally distrust their customers. This is a bad process, clearly showing how tied service is to operations.

If you are in the business of dealing with people, how you interact with them and move them through their experiences with you needs to be viewed as service. This became crystal clear tonight when I took the kids to McDonald's.

Anyone who has been to a newly renovated McDonald's can appreciate the time invested in designing a restaurant that is attractive for both senior and junior clientele. New colours, patterns, and textures scream out, “This is not the fast food restaurant of the 1980’s.” For this they should be congratulated.

But which architectural genius forgot to include a proper queue system? You see, at these new McDonald's, people randomly gather en masse in front of the order counter without any indication of how to line up. Is it one line per cashier? One common line up? Really, it is just a mass of people constructing their own ‘line’ waiting for the next cashier to yell out, ‘I can help the next person in line!”

This is not nuclear physics. We are not splitting atoms.

Yet without an established structure that serves customers through the wait, the order, and the pickup, McDonald's has created disservice. That’s right. Customers stand around confused, bumping into each other, not knowing when to advance or how to pick up their food. The basic food service delivery system fails to acknowledge how customers behave and what they need. At a quick service restaurant, no one wants to feel stupid or awkward. Do the basic operations of your business help customers connect with you or create disharmony?

Service isn’t about the free-bees. It is about listening, paying attention, and doing things that help the customer. Period. If your operations are poorly organized or poorly executed, your service suffers and the relationship you have with your customers break down.


  1. If you get truly exceptional service, I urge you to complement it. I asked a waiter at the Westin Hotel if there were any mayonnaise-free sandwiches in the lunch buffet. The answer was no, but he asked me my preference and minutes later appeared with a grilled vegetable wrap–no mayonnaise–for me. I was so impressed I told management and he received a service award. We are all quick to complain about bad service, but if you experience the other, when someone goes above and beyond to meet your needs, tell his or her superiors. You're right, it's not about discounts or giveaways; I really believe people will pay a little more and return to an establishment when the service has been good.

  2. I absolutely agree 100%; the more people express their appreciation around these moments of listening and response, the better chance we have of shifting outdated business assumptions. When the youngest spilled a hot chocolate at Starbucks, they not only replaced it free but took the time to make him feel better & less embarrassed. Just this week, we forgot to take away some vitamins at WalMart, only realizing our error once we went home. A quick trip back to the store and we were told to just go get another bottle - no questions asked. I just purchased plane tickets to Ontario, spending more money to fly Porter Airlines because their service is so much better.

    Service is not the frosting on the cake. It is one of the fundamental ingredients.

  3. I don't think the secret to good customer service is all that mysterious. Just ask yourself what experience the customer would like to have during the transaction and give it to them - or exceed it. The antithesis is to ask yourself how you can extract money from the customer while doing as little as possible for them. That's the starting point of companies that provide crappy customer service - "my profit is more important than your experience".


  4. Barry - I'm borrowing your last sentence. It's beautiful!

  5. Funny, we really don't frequent McD's, but I was there this weekend with the non-birthday party attending girl. As I stood, looking at the non-lines, I thought, "wow, Bill's absolutely right! How frustrating is this!".

    I don't comment often, but I am reading your blog Bill, and enjoying it. Finding it helpful as I continue to develop my "style" teaching Theatre at a college. My goal is to figure it out before I retire (or not long thereafter).


  6. Laura - I'm glad that my blog is connecting. Finding that style takes some time but can be a fun exploration. Always happy to talk teaching!


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