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This article by E.E. Whiting was prepared for the April 16, 2008 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved. For the complete calendar of business meetings and arts events in central New Jersey, go to www.princetoninfo.com/us1evts.html
Serve Us. Don’t Kill Us with Kindness
Customer service: two words that raise the blood pressure of every consumer. By customer service I in no way mean common courtesy, simple civility or another other form of polite interaction. These cardinal conditions are in dire straits of becoming extinct and must be given emergency care and feeding before disappearing all together.
On the contrary, what I maintain must be crushed are the insincere attempts at exaggerated civility that somehow have become the substitute for real service. Like air pollution, electronic pollution, and noise pollution, sincerity pollution, the empty assurances of attention, clogs commercial transactions daily.
Merchants and vendors of all kinds have somehow become convinced that superlative declarations of intentions to "provide superior service" will take the place of actually satisfying the clients’ wishes. This obsequious lip service pervades banks, restaurants, retail shops and almost every other place where business is conducted.
At some point, someone must have realized that sales were being lost because customers were put off by being ignored or treated as though their desires were of little importance. Fair enough and high time too. But that same someone decided to kill the customer with kindness. Apparently that must have been cheaper to implement than actually doing what the customer wanted. As a result, we are now besieged with empty pledges to provide "extraordinary dining experiences," "exceptional banking services," and the ever popular "your call is extremely important to us" repeated ad nauseum.
A local chain restaurant even declares on its coasters that they have employees who are "passionate" about "creating a memorable dining experience". As a customer of that restaurant, what I really want is a wait staff knowledgeable about the menu, polite without becoming my best friend, intelligent enough to take a substitution to an entree and conscientious enough to ensure that my meal arrives as I requested and still hot. Passion has absolutely nothing to do with good service. In fact, I’d prefer good food, well prepared and promptly served even if delivered by a server who was a cold fish. Passion is something to be reserved for good causes or the bedroom. It is a step short of zealotry and burning desire, both of which are terrifying concepts when asking for Buffalo wings.
I also find I am no longer a dining customer. This same coaster declares me a "guest" of this passionate employee! Now, Lucrezia Borgia was a passionate hostess.
One of the biggest banks in the country has now decided that instead of actually having enough staff on hand to keep lines down, they will teach each of the people who are on duty to chant ritualistically a chirpy mantra at each who walks in. This mantra consists of a preternaturally enthusiastic "How can I provide you with superior service today" from the floor manager and is echoed by a similar canned speech is delivered by the Stepford tellers. I have begun to wonder if each teller is wired and if she doesn’t utter the prescribed magic words "I’ll be delighted to help you" within the requisite time allotted she will be vaporized by unseen lasers.
Superior service is not required to cash a check or make a deposit. Save the superior efforts for times when the bank has missed a mortgage payment and my credit rating has just been trashed. Then I want heroics.
While on hold recently with a kitchen remodeling company, I was treated to a self-serving paean to their reputation that included painfully long quotes from supposedly satisfied customers like Mrs. D. Snodgrass whose marriage had been saved by her new kitchen cabinets. This long-winded exercise in self-congratulations was a loop that I heard three times before a human being answered. Of course, this was not the human being who could help me and before I could stop her, I was put into hold hell again to listen to the profoundly self serving rhetoric.
Calling a company has become an exercise in behavioral studies. Automated answering systems now present such a multitude of options, each of which lead to more options, that you begin to believe it is Darwinian. Only the customer who is the strongest and who can push buttons the longest, deserves to be heard. Nine times out of ten, I would not call a company unless I had a very unusual issue, one which no systems technologist could every have anticipated and assigned an option number.
This condition has even spawned a website – www.gethuman.com – which provides the cheats that get a live person immediately: a boon to customers but a very sad commentary on the triumph of technology.
Even companies that opt for a human operator have succumbed to the lure of thinking I bring joy to their employees just by calling. Almost nowhere can you be connected to your party with a simple "Certainly, just a moment, please." Now I have to be informed that connecting me is the operator’s "sincere pleasure." I feel sorry for such a soul for whom that is a high point in the day. Perhaps she should meet the passionate waiter.
A pleasant hello, please and thank you will get to the heart of the transaction. Simply asking employees to do the job with a minimum of fuss is thanks enough to those of us who want to bring our custom in the door. Competence, not compliments are what customers want. – E.E. Whiting
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