Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Service Gap; One Clerk Too Many; The Most Important Job You'll Ever Have

Everything I know about service, I learned as a teenager, from my father and grandfather, working in our family store. I mean that literally. I can't think of a single thing I've learned since. I've been reminded of one thing or another over the years, but always with the reaction, "Oh yeah, I knew that."

Greet the customer when they walk through the door. Smile and say hello. Always ask if you can help them find something--even the folks you know probably know the store better than you. If you don't know the answer, tell them you'll find out--and do. If you're busy with something at the moment that you can't stop, acknowledge their presence and tell them you'll be right with them--people will wait patiently longer than you would think possible so long as they know you're aware of their existence. There is always something to do--stock shelves, pull items to the front, dust, sweep, put away carts, clean windows--in most service industries, you are paid for your time, not the tasks you accomplish; the sooner you learn this, the more valuable you will be. Employers, whether you know it or not, are constantly keeping tabs on what your time is worth versus your co-workers. And finally, the customer is always right.

The nuances of that last one are hard for many to grasp. Someone gives you a five, and as you count their change, they protest that they gave you a ten. Maybe you're dead certain it was a five. Maybe you're certain they're merely confused, or maybe you're certain they're scamming you. You have only one question to answer: Do you want them to continue to be a customer? If yes, then they're right--no questions asked. If no, then the rule that ended the last paragraph doesn't apply anyway does it? The awareness is key. You need to be aware that contradicting them, sticking to your guns on that five spot, may very well mean they're no longer a customer. Is it worth five bucks? Not likely. That applies to almost any situation where you and your customer may disagree. Giving in may cost a little in the short run from time to time, but it will almost always pay dividends in the long haul. This rule was the beginning, I think, of my awareness that truth will often fight its own battles, and that allowing it do so, after you've stated it quietly and clearly (see the previous post on Prof Kirkpatrick), will almost always raise your estimation in the other person's eyes far above what your skills at debate might. The next time you disagree, they will remember the outcome, and they will give your words more weight. If they don't, then they are simply slow learners and their opinion of you should have no bearing on your opinion of yourself.

The Service Gap

What, you may be wondering, got me started before I'd even finished my second cup of coffee this morning? An article on the front page of today's Gazette put a name to a frustration I and others have been experiencing more and more lately: "the Service Gap."

If you’re older than 50, you’ve probably had this experience:

You’re standing at a checkout counter, ready to pay, and the twentysomething behind the register is talking on her cell phone. So you wait, and wait, and wait, and when the clerk finally finishes her conversation, she offers not an apology, but a grimace that suggests you’ve interrupted.

Sound familiar? It has a name: the Service Gap. It’s business-speak to describe a phenomenon fueling plenty of holiday-shopping frustration: the difference in the way baby boomers and members of the “millennial generation” define the concept of customer service.
I disagree with just one thing. I think this has little to do with differences in definition. I think the clerks we're talking about here, the frustrating ones, have simply never been introduced to the concept at all.

This disagreement extends to the article itself. There are older persons quoted, both consumers and managers alike, who seem to blame it on the younger generation as a whole. Then there are hard working younger folk who disagree:
“They’re clueless,” said Franni Segal, 55, a travel agent with a degree in retailing. “They’re more interested in talking to their friends.”

When she was in her 20s, working on commission as an assistant manager at Bonwit Teller, she recalled, she and her colleagues eagerly courted customers. “Today when you go into a store, they’re not interested in your needs . . . With the kind of service you get now, you might as well be on the Internet.”

But Sarah Collier, a 20-yearold Arcadia University junior who has worked in retail sales, said she thought her peers’ customer-service skills depended on their background and training, not their age.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily the entire generation. I think it’s just the individual,” said Collier, a hard worker who now sells time-share vacations for a Poconos resort. “I know how to give good customer service.”
Folks, Franni should just retire now. Sarah is going places. Sarah is going places for at least two reasons. First, if she's right and she does give good customer service, then she has a leg up on many of her peers. Second, her attitude recognizes that the Service Gap is fixable--Franni's fatalism is damning. I'll hire Sarah to supervise Franni in a heartbeat. Sarah will train her peers. Franni will just whine in the break room about how "untrainable" Sarah's peers are.

Franni has lots of company though. The world is full of whiners and fixers. The whiners drag us all down; the fixers help make it a better place.

My world is no different. I work at an institution of higher learning that likes to bill itself as "The nation's premier institution for developing leaders of character." Every program, every class, every activity gets examined for, must justify its existence through, its contribution to that goal. The problem with placing such intense focus on programs, classes, and activities through this "lens" of character development is that we lose sight of the most important factor of all: the people holding the lens. Leadership suffers from a belief that if we just keep raising the lens itself to the status of holy touchstone, and keep tweaking the programs under finer and finer focus, then eventually we'll get the output we desire: "leaders of character." Sorry. It will never work that way.

Leaders of character are molded through example and correction. All those classes and programs and activities matter, but they mean nothing without daily exposure to the right examples and daily correction and explanation of why what matters, matters. It takes me twice as long to walk across our campus as anyone else I know. Why? Because I am busy, as I walk, teaching. A salute is not a thing to be rendered silently. Proper courtesy demands that it be rendered with "an appropriate greeting." Being absorbed in your own thoughts or in a conversation to the point that you don't notice an approaching or passing officer is not okay. Lack of situational awareness in battle or flight will get you killed. The same lack, crossing my path, will simply get you an opportunity to have a conversation with someone much your senior.

Does that make me an ass? William Withers, "a communications professor at Wartburg College in Iowa who, with his colleague Patrick Langan, has spent years studying customer service," would argue that it does:
What’s the answer for peeved holiday shoppers?

Adjust your expectations — down, Withers said. Or be willing to pay more to shop and dine at establishments that have the time, interest and money to train their employees.

Nobody should waste their breath berating a young clerk or waiter, he said.

“Calling over the manager isn’t going to matter,” Withers said. “The server may still not look you in face. And they’ll be texting their friends about what an ass you are.”
Well, yes, if my conversation with these future leaders or current clerks took the form of "berating" then I would have to agree, even I would look in the mirror and see an ass. But as the candles on my birthday cakes more and more resemble a small bonfire and as the testosterone levels in my blood taper off, I find myself finally able to have conversations with clerks and cadets alike where my vocal cords don't tighten, my blood pressure doesn't change, and in consequence, my young charges defenses don't immediately swing to red alert. A significant factor in that capability rests in recognizing that the problem doesn't lie in the person, as fatalists like Franni would have us believe, or in the culture, as Withers would have us believe. We are the culture. We make it.

Culture is shaped by our own expectations and what we are willing to accept. If we follow Withers' advice and adjust our expectations down, then culture will head the same way, down. Is there anyone who believes that minimized human contact and interaction is an improvement? That interfacing with is preferable to the smiling face and twinkling eyes of the young clerk who made my eggnog latte the other morning and asked how my day was going? Maybe she really cared; maybe she didn't. Maybe she watches Rules of Engagement and took a lesson from the waitress at the corner diner who rebuffed Adam's hilarious rejection by telling him, "I'm a waitress. I work for tips. I flirt with all my customers." I tipped my barista well. If you tip servers who give you gruff service (the rules are different in NYC, I know, which is why I hope I never live there), then for God's sake, stop it! You're in the same class with those other officers who walk across my campus or through the halls of my institution and plop into a chair in the break room and complain about how cadets never greet them properly any more. "What did you do about it?" I ask. "What do you mean?" is the response I get.

Do something! Don't be willing to accept poor service. Do talk to the clerk, nicely, if you're the kind of person who can. Talk to the manager if you're not the kind of person who can talk to the clerk without feeling like an ass. If you're not the kind of person who can do either, or if you talk to the manager and get a blank stare, then talk with your feet and shop elsewhere. But don't complain and do nothing. You have the power to change your world. Use it. Whining just drags mine down too.

Listening to people complain is actually my job these days. It's not just tolerable; I even like it. Why? Because it doesn't stop with listening. If the injustice is real (and it isn't always), I get to fix things or to help people through the steps of fixing things themselves. Give a man a fish vs teach a man to fish. Sometimes the fish is a whale, sometimes a shark. That's okay too. I have a rack of harpoons. But, as usual, I digress . . .

One Clerk Too Many

Two final thoughts, mostly for whatever young readers I might have, beginning their journey through the world of employment, whatever form it may take. First, one of the best lessons my grandfather ever taught me in that family store came one day when I was leaning against the soda box chatting it up with a classmate that Grandpa had hired (probably against his better judgment because he would have anticipated exactly the scene before him). He came over to us and said simply, "You know, when I was a young man working in a shop over in town, I was talking to another clerk one day when the owner came over, looked at us both, and said simply, 'You know, I was told long ago, if you've got two clerks talking to each other, you've got one clerk too many.'" Grandpa walked away. Keith and I found work to do. I never forgot that line and all that it conveyed.

The Most Important Job You'll Ever Have

Lastly, I lied, when I said everything I learned about service was learned in that store. At some point after I'd left to don the uniform I still wear, I did pick up one other line that has stuck and is worth repeating here. Either as a cadet or as a young butter bar, I must have complained about the futility of some Mickey Mouse "additional duty" I had been assigned--pubs monitor, unit historian, who knows. "Let me tell you something," the mentor had said, "the most important job you will ever have is the job you have right now." Clichéd? Maybe, but I think not. By definition, a cliché has "lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse." That particular little nugget of wisdom, it seems to me, isn't used enough. It may even be that it needs explanation here, but I think I'll just let it simmer. You either get it or you don't. And in a society where "authorities" like Withers would argue that our disappointment is a result of unrealistic expectations rather than lackadaisical performance, maybe it's not useful anymore in society as a whole.

I can only tell you this. It's been useful for me. It was useful for my grandfather and father before me. I hope it will be useful for my daughters. And it will damned sure be useful for anyone who ever works for me.

“I’m not seeing the Service Gap,” said Susan Magee, an adjunct professor at Chestnut Hill College who has studied the millennial generation. “I just think they’re kids.”

Remember, she said, it’s the holiday season, and store clerks of all ages are busy and stressed like everyone else. “I think at Christmas, if the person can manage to say, ‘Hi,’ get my item in the bag, and not forget my gift receipt, I’m satisfied.”
She's right and she's wrong. They are just kids. No one is born knowing what customer service is. But if we're willing to accept poor service and call ourselves "satisfied," nothing is likely to get better. The world and the people in it have a way of living up to or down to our expectations. I'm pretty sure that's what The Secret is all about, albeit centered on our expectations for ourselves. It works that way for others too. By expecting more of them, you can help them become better. What's difficult to master is the subtle difference between expecting things to be better from the outset and finding them so versus thinking they should be but not being surprised that they aren't. There's your homework. Good luck.

Update: Here's a link to the original article by Jeff Gammage, published in The Philadelphia Inquirer on 20 Dec. All block quotes above are from that article.