There's just no substitute for good customer service

ON EXCELLENCE

January 24, 1994|By TOM PETERS

This is the nanosecond '90s. The pace of change is dizzying. Unfortunately, some things never change. The fact is, it's about as hard as it ever was to get through a week (a day?) without confronting rotten service.

While on a post-Christmas trip to Manhattan, I popped into the new Barney's department store at 61st and Madison Avenue. The product offerings were eye-popping.

Though mainly there to look, I did need an old-fashioned wool watch cap; the weather had turned much colder than expected. To my delight, I found one. To my horror, it appeared to be made of cashmere. I'm loath to admit it, but I was desperate enough to pay anything for warm ears. (Hey, there aren't many Army-Navy surplus stores in midtown Manhattan.)

I went to the closest counter, but the cap had no price tag, and the clerk, though sure that it cost $45, wouldn't ring it up. He eventually did catch the eye of a co-worker, who sauntered over to the display rack to look for the missing information.

After a couple of minutes, she came back and told him (pointedly not looking at me -- or so it felt): "I couldn't figure it out. I've called the manager. She's checking."

"How long will that take?" nonperson I gently interjected. She silently turned and walked away.

Another few minutes passed (no exact count -- I didn't have my Shoddy Customer Service Gotcha Stopwatch with me). Nothing happened. The cash-register clerk disappeared.

I left.

Four days later, New Year's Day, I was staying at the Radisson Hotel in Burlington, Vt., after going to a friend's 50th birthday party. Wanting to catch the last half of the Orange Bowl, I xTC switched the cable TV in my room to the local NBC station. The reception was unwatchably fuzzy. I called the front desk, and the clerk said she'd send up an engineer.

None came. (My wife and I watched Clint Eastwood in "Line of Fire" instead.)

Early the next afternoon, I wanted to watch another football game on NBC. Turned on the TV. Same trouble.

I called downstairs, and, after I explained the previous night's problem and its continuation, the desk clerk apologized. Said she'd send an engineer "right up." By the time I checked out, two hours later, he hadn't made it to the sixth floor.

You've heard such tales before, from me and others. And your own are just as gory.

So what's the problem? As the late Dr. W. Edwards Deming told us again and again, screwed up management. And the answer?

"It's not that hard, folks."

I think I'll throw up the next time I hear Ross Perot say that, while discussing (if that's the right word) an intractable national policy issue. But he does have a point when it comes to managing the average enterprise.

In fact, that Perotism came to mind while I was shopping at my local Grand Union grocery in Manchester, Vt. With a winter storm predicted to hit, it was crowded as all get out. So I quickly $H gathered a few emergency items and headed for the express checkouts.

What a mess! The two lines for the two lanes crossed each other at least once, then snaked down an aisle, making shopping all but impossible. People were cutting in front of each other. Tempers flared.

As I stood there, alternately moving toward and then away from my distant goal, I wondered, "Where is the store manager?"

No, it's not that hard. I'd love the job of store manager, even in a chain like Grand Union. You could make over a store in your own image -- no matter what kind of ninnies ran the corporation.

Take my sorry experience.

A store manager with a grain of imagination could have turned it into a plus. He or she could have gotten out on the floor and played traffic cop/entertainer/talk-show host:

Sorted out the line. Greeted customers. (He or she should know many of them by name.) Helped people in the jammed aisles find an item they're looking for. Given the cash-register clerks a hand (e.g., bagged for them for a moment or two).

I'm not a rose-colored-glasses type. But, believe me, this was not problem. It was a golden opportunity. A chance to show one's face, for just 10 or 15 minutes, at a critical juncture and set the tone for customers and employees alike. The whole world (of that store, at any rate) would have started spinning in the opposite direction.

Last week's column championed the use of high-tech tools to develop lifelong customer relationships. I stand by every word. But don't forget the basics, either. Too many managers think that glitzy products and a spiffy data base are substitutes for scintillating customer service. And pay an awful price: i.e., eventually, their jobs.

Tom Peters' column is distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; (407) 420-6200.

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