Downward slide Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2009

Everyone has a horror story.

You go to a high-end restaurant expecting the best of everything and are completely underwhelmed by the lack of service. You are paying for a five-star experience, but you end up with a two-star entree and a server with a one-star attitude. In the end, you wonder if you wouldn’t have been better off at a local bar and grill.

And the issues with service aren’t limited to just the restaurant industry. How many times have you gone into a retail establishment and seen the employees spending more time chatting with each other than helping customers? You’re often either ignored or you get to watch employees scurry away as they sense that a customer may have a question for them. The environment in some stores is so poor that you feel bad asking employees for help even though you know it’s their job.

Unfortunately, the lack of customer service is a reflection of our society. Things that should be taught at home, like basic manners and courtesy, aren’t. This means companies have to start their service training at a much more basic level, and you can never assume that an employee will know that being nice to customers is the first rule of business.

The other challenge when it comes to customer service is that you really can’t fake it. All the training in the world can’t make someone care about taking care of customers. There has to be some inward desire on the part of the employee to be the best he or she can be, regardless of position. If that basic motivation is missing, it is very difficult to get excellent customer service from that person because, at some level, he or she just doesn’t care.

Even if an employee does have some inner motivation toward doing a good job, a national Smart Business survey of CEOs indicated that only 31 percent of companies offer formal customer service training for front-line employees — meaning that 69 percent have no formal program for the people who will make the biggest impression on your customers about your company. Is a brief orientation and a pat on the back a good way to send employees out to deal with the people who will make or break your business?

In addition, 19 percent of respondents indicated that they do not measure their customer service efforts at all. If customers are leaving those businesses because of bad customer service, how would the CEO ever find out in time to react if it’s not being measured?

Customer service programs don’t have to cost a lot of money. In fact, of those CEOs surveyed, 43 percent indicated they spend a minimal amount per client annually.

In this rough economy, you might be leaning toward cutting back in the customer service department — 21 percent of those surveyed indicated that was the case. This could be a costly mistake. Customer service can be a major differentiator between you and the competition.

A lot of customer service comes from the tone set by the CEO, and that doesn’t cost you anything other than some effort. Terrible customer service is a poor reflection of not just the company but the CEO, as well. So start by setting a good example. Set a no-tolerance policy for poor customer service and get rid of people who refuse to follow your guidelines and, conversely, reward those who take customer service to a high level. Create a strong service message and do everything you can to make sure everyone in the organization understands it.

You need to spend some time on service. Otherwise it won’t be employees running from customers, but it will be customers running from you.

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