The gold standard Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2007

I’m standing in line at the airport, suffering through the usual delays and hassles that accompany air travel, when a woman starts making a fuss.

“I’m a first-class passenger,” she cries, looking for the better service that’s supposed to come with the higher price.

I just laughed to myself, because I, too, was a first-class passenger and wasn’t being treated any differently than those flying coach, despite the premium ticket cost. People from the main line had already slid to the desk that was supposedly for first-class passengers only.

Once on the plane, the “exclusive” first-class bathroom was frequented by coach customers. I think I got a better meal, but who knows for sure.

Maybe I got a garnish and the people behind the curtain in coach didn’t. Drinks were served in the first-class cabin before they were served elsewhere, but that perk hardly justified the ticket price.

After exiting the plane — and the disappointing experience with the airline — I met up with friends and family at a top restaurant, only to be served by what must have been an airline employee on loan from the attitude desk at the airport. We ordered king crab legs but weren’t given any butter or nutcrackers to break open the legs. I flagged down the waitress.

“I need to take this other table’s order,” she said.

Meanwhile, we’re looking at a table full of crab legs that we can’t do anything with, except watch them cool.

Both the airline and the restaurant built their brands on customer service. The problem is, the customer service only exists in the companies’ marketing materials. The restaurant delivered great food but failed in the service department, making it a disappointing experience.

What I realized in both cases was that I was supposed to be a first-class VIP to these companies, but the only thing first class about the experiences was the bills.

It was all a sham. Glossy brochures, expensive television ads and glitzy decor are all nice, but where’s the actual experience?

I don’t blame the waitress, the person behind the ticket counter or even the managers. I blame the CEOs.

The CEO is the one responsible for setting the tone of the organization and for creating a culture where customers are taken care of. Nordstrom stores and Ritz-Carlton hotels are well-known for their customer service, but it didn’t happen by accident.

Those companies are built on a customer-centric model, where employees are selected based on how well they fit that model, where customer service training is an ongoing process and where people are measured and rewarded on customer-centric behaviors. They are committed to the customer and do whatever it takes to create a great experience.

For example, the average Ritz-Carlton employee receives 232 hours of training per year, about four times as much as their peers at other hotels. The company constantly measures customer and employee loyalty, and employs continuous improvement initiatives. It pays more than the competition does and spends a lot of effort recognizing employees for their customer service efforts, which combine to keep turnover low and enthusiasm high.

Nordstrom recognizes great customer service with cash awards, extra discounts and favorable work assignments. Employees and departments are singled out for praise during morning intercom announcements before the doors open. And the company monitors sales performance and encourages competition by posting every person’s and every department’s sales figures from across the chain.

These companies got where they are by putting the customer at the center of the organization, building everything around that, and doing whatever it takes to ensure the customer is always happy. When that happens, the customer becomes your best marketing tool because they tell others about the experience, driving company growth.

Don’t be a company that promises a first-class experience but delivers disappointment, the way the airline and restaurant did to me. If you are going to promise a certain standard to your customers, you’d better be doing everything you can to deliver on it.

FRED KOURY is president and CEO of Smart Business Network Inc. Reach him with your comments at (800) 988-4726 or