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In pursuit of excellent service

JULY 2000

By Dr. Carol McCoy

People today are rushed, pushed, hurrying to keep up with E-this and I-that, increasingly barraged by mass marketing. What impresses them? The answer is surprisingly old-fashioned: Respect, prompt service and value for their money. Yet excellent or even satisfactory service is a rare treat. See if you can relate to some of my recent experiences:

  • After my favorite dry cleaner suffered a disaster and closed temporarily, I had to use another service which I had previously rejected for poor service. This company had an opportunity to win back my loyalty. Yet when I asked if I could pick my clothes up the next day, the clerk told me: "You can - IF there are no stains!" Will I stick with the new dry cleaner once my old favorite has returned? I don't think so.

  • At a hotel restaurant, my waiter was friendly, but seemed to get lost trying to find sparkling water. Later he told me that he wished that the cook would make the balsamic vinaigrette dressing which was so much better than what he was serving me.
    While waiting for my waiter to return, I overheard a waitress exerting herself to chat with an elderly couple who didn’t seem to be responding to her overtures. After they left, the waitress picked up her tip and she muttered, "All this for a lousy two bucks!" Maybe the couple didn't believe in big tips, or maybe they would have given a more generous tip if the waitress had been more attuned to serving their real needs and wishes.

  • I took my film to the one-hour developer only to discover that my panoramic snapshots have been printed as regular photos with black, ugly lines on the top and bottom. When I asked the sales clerk to reprint them as panoramic, she said, "I can't get your pictures to print that way, I have no control over what the machine does."

Have you ever waited patiently while being ignored by tellers who seem to prefer counting money to waiting on customers? Have you ever heard, "I can't tell you your balance because the system is down"? Why is poor service so common?

Customer service representatives are often poorly paid, under-trained and ignored by their managers. They are asked to learn endless new procedures, which make it difficult to give customers what they want. Yet organizations expect service reps to serve customers with enthusiasm, work overtime, and take the heat for things they don’t control.

Amid mergers, reorganizations and technological changes, customer service reps may be expected to relearn procedures, tolerate the loss of personal benefits, watch friends lose their livelihoods, learn the quirks of new bosses, and even reapply for jobs they have held for many years. As the pressure for constant learning increases, customer service reps and their managers can become preoccupied with getting procedures right, installing new systems, unpacking boxes in their relocated cubicles, and finding the new forms.

In all this chaos, it’s all too easy to lose sight of the customer-- the lifeblood of their business. Over time, as customers expect more for their money, they complain and become irritated with service glitches.

Workers who initially want to give excellent service can become worn down and lose their enthusiasm in a frustrating and negative environment. Sooner or later they may even see the customer not as their source of income, but as an interruption, irritant, or even an enemy.

Excellent service is an ongoing effort, not an afterthought. Whether you’re a manager or an employee, there are things you can do to promote service excellence.

Excellent service is different for every organization, because each organization has different customers. How much do you know about your customers? Why do they buy from you? What keeps them loyal? In a service-oriented business, employees and managers alike need to know these answers.

In some industries, responsiveness means returning a phone call by the end of the day; in others, it means answering an e-mail within minutes. What are the standards your customers expect you to meet? What more can you do to exceed those standards? Often, the people who know the answers best are the ones at the front lines. Listening to their experiences can yield valuable information about your customer base.

Regardless of the type of business, most models of good service include several basic elements. A professional, courteous greeting sets a positive tone for the interaction. Asking questions helps to uncover what customers are really looking for. Empowering your service reps lets them take responsibility for helping customers even when they don't have all the answers. Saying "I can help you with that" or “Let me find you that answer” reassures customers that someone is working on solving their problem, and is all the more impressive when the answer comes promptly.

A good hiring process can help build a service staff with enthusiasm and energy, but it takes more than a smile to give good service. Thoughtful employers provide training, coaching, and tools so service workers have the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and resources to do their jobs well. Promotion-minded employees can seek out this information on their own if it’s not available where they work.

Most people can recognize a disgruntled customer, but far fewer recognize that even the lowest-level employee can win that customer back. Recently, when I had a slight delay getting my French fries at a drive-in window, the service rep saw my irritated expression and offered me two coupons for free fries in the future. Now that will keep me coming back.

Companies and service workers alike can keep an eye on their own performance, recognizing what’s going well and working to get back on track in other areas. Some companies use "mystery shoppers" who visit organizations to see how they treat customers. Others tape phone calls or send customer survey.

If you’re a manager considering these measures, give employees every chance to succeed: Let them know what you’re doing ahead of time, and tell them what criteria you’ll use to evaluate them. After all, you’re doing this to improve their performance, not to make them targets.

Most people want to be able to offer good service. Keep employees informed during organizational changes and provide them with solutions to help them serve customers during times of transition. Uninformed employees feel helpless when faced with unhappy customers.

Research shows that close to 75% of the work climate is based on how employees are treated by their supervisors. In today's competitive market, with all-time low unemployment, it's important to create the type of organization that will attract good people. Workers are looking for ways to improve their skills, and to win acknowledgement and rewards for a job well done.

Money is almost always appreciated, but simple gestures – ice cream Fridays, or small prizes for employees “caught” doing good work – can do a lot. Even a simple “thank you” for going the extra mile goes a long way in building a motivating work environment.

In the next few months, I’ll be writing more about this issue and other ways to improve your performance and your organization. I welcome your ideas and comments.

Dr. Carol P. McCoy is President of McCoy Training and Development Resources, which provides coaching, consulting and training to individuals and organizations to help them thrive in a constantly changing environment. A frequent conference presenter, Dr. McCoy is the author of "Managing a Small HRD Department: You Can Do More Than You Think" and editor of "In Action: Managing the Small Training Staff." She welcomes your questions and comments through her Web site.

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