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Improving Customer Service in
Tough Times

By Dan Bobinski

Ever hear that the heat of a crucible helps purify its contents? Such has been the case with the nation’s airlines. Despite all the bankruptcies and the decline in business, a report released last week states that almost all of the nation’s airlines scored higher in customer satisfaction over the last year.

The report, put out by the University of Nebraska's Aviation Institute and Wichita State University, states that both US Airways and United managed to be on time more often, mishandle fewer bags and generate fewer consumer complaints than they did the previous year. In fact every airline except one (American Eagle) showed improvements in service.

So what lessons can be drawn from this?

The largest lesson appears to be that companies may have a tendency to get lazy when business is good. In other words, why go the extra mile in customer service when plenty of business is available? Why bother improving customer service if customers keep coming? It’s a dangerous mindset believing that customers just want the product or service provided, and it doesn’t make any difference how those are delivered.

In addition to adopting this mindset when business is booming, this way of thinking is hazardous when a company has little or no competition. “We’ve got what you want, we don’t care about treating you nicely—we’re the only game in town.”

How naive and how foolish.

Granted, the only game in town may own the market now, but when competition comes – and it will – the company that’s been treating its customers poorly will have a much smaller pool of customers. Buyers will flock to someone who treats them with respect.

Improving customer service needs to be an ongoing activity, not just something considered at a business meeting or thrown into an annual report. Regular feedback can be gathered in many ways, and this information must be used to assess and, if necessary, modify operations. Don’t spurn negative feedback as coming from people who don’t understand your business. Customers drive sales, which keep companies alive. Your customer’s thoughts and perceptions affect your business!

Down the street from my office is a Mail Boxes-type store, and the customer service is terrible. Within fifteen seconds of walking in the door I feel like I’ve just interrupted someone’s day. Feeling welcome doesn’t happen there. At first I thought it was me, but a few associates have noticed the same thing.

So what’s the big deal? A few dollars for postage or packaging materials isn’t the same as a few hundred dollars for an airline ticket. It’s just the business of doing business. Deal with it, right?

Poppycock. Employees at the Mail Center a mile down the street greet me with an enthusiastic smile and a warm “Hello” each time I walk in. They practically fall over themselves trying to help me. Guess what? I drive the extra mile because they go the extra mile. Times are tough, but I’ll spend the extra time and gas money in return for better treatment.

Customer service is what makes the world go around. Occasionally the world appears to be moving along well despite ignoring service quality, but foundations may be cracking under the radar. Now that the airlines are struggling for survival, they’ve reopened their eyes and realized that customer service is an absolute necessity.

As a lesson we can all learn from, Southwest Airlines, which has been on top of the customer service charts for years, was the only airline to make a profit last year. That ought to tell us something. Like maybe, “Good customer service brings greater rewards, no matter what the economy.”

© 2003 Dan Bobinski / Leadership Development. Dan Bobinski is President of Leadership Development. He can be reached at (208) 375-7606 or by Email at dan@leadershipanswers.com.
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