I hate to kick a dog when it's down. But there are so many prostrate pooches in business today you can't walk a block without digging your toe into one of them.
Still, I had hoped to avoid a rant about customer service. Companies are bleeding people, and while theoretically that shouldn't make a big difference in service (fewer employees but also fewer customers, right?), deterioration is to be expected. Some companies are cutting staff faster than they're losing customers. Others are simply cutting in the wrong places. Employees' knees are knocking so hard they can't hear the words, "I need that by Thursday."
So I'm disappointed but not surprised when these days I feel like less than a valued customer. For example, during a recent stay at my favorite New York hotel I found the room a little dingy, with dried soap in the sink and a few scraps of tissue lingering in the wastebasket. An envelope propped up on the desk was addressed to Steve somebody, a member of the company's Frequent Guest program. Presumably Steve ended up in another room or decided he couldn't afford to be so frequent.
Similarly, when I went to the movies several weeks ago lines stretched out the door because two out of three ticket booths were closed and two out of three ticket machines were broken. The same situation prevailed at the concession counters, which were slick with the residue of spilled popcorn. Despite arriving 20 minutes early I got into the theater ten minutes after the feature had started. (That actually worked out well because I was taking a bunch of fifth graders to see Adam Sandler's "Bedtime Stories.)
Companies that provided crap customer service in good times have gotten even worse. I won't be so churlish as to name names. But I'm thinking of a cable company—let's call it "Bombast." And an airline—let's call it "Benighted."
Of course when all around is dark, companies still in search of excellence shine even brighter. I've encountered several unexpected high-performers over the last two months while coping with a parent who is not aging gracefully. For example, I would never consider using Peapod for myself (I like to shop) but its help staff were efficient and solicitous when I set up an account for my father; orders have been error-free and on-time; and delivery-folk have been endlessly accommodating and courteous with an often-difficult customer. I'd also like to give a shout-out to House Works, an always-there-always-comforting home-health service, and Gentle Giants Moving Company, which deftly and cheerfully crammed four rooms of furniture into two much smaller rooms in an assisted living residence. No matter how deep the economic slough, these businesses have earned my unswerving loyalty.
As companies puzzle over where to trim—people, hours, and offerings--they will obviously consider the effects on service. CEOs may hope customers will be forgiving—and many will. But slack is not in endless supply. People will cut you only so much of it. Here then are things to keep in mind as you ratchet down performance from platinum to silver to—god-forbid—lead.
Unpleasantness is intensified by surprise: No business wants to say something that might discourage customers. But it's worse to make promises you can't keep. If your company is known for 30-minutes-or-less delivery or one-hour-cleaning and that's changed, then your marketing should reflect that. If you've cut 25% of the dishes on your menu, print a new menu.
Stripped-down is OK. Shabby isn't: In general, it's better to offer less than to reduce the quality of what's on offer. If customers visit your business, you can't afford to cut back on cleaning staff or postpone changing light bulbs. A 14-hour call-center with waits of less than three minutes is preferable to a 24-hour service that keeps customers on hold long enough to make pot roast.
Pain-sharing is not permissible: Can you blame an employee for acting surly when her best friend just got canned, her 401(k) looks increasingly spectral, and she can't get her computer fixed because the IT department has been reduced to the boss's kid who was forced to take a job when dad couldn't scrounge up tuition? Maybe not—but you can't put up with it either.
Love is easier to win: Some companies, especially those loath to reduce headcount, are lavishing attention on what's left of their loyal and solvent clientele. Those customers appreciate the sliver of silver lining, especially when so many others are letting them down. I suppose there's some risk that customers might grow disaffected if vendors can't maintain that level of personal attention when business revives. But with standards sinking everywhere, raising your own will never have greater effect.
Kicking your tires is critical: This is a great time to drop in on your company's outposts, call its help lines, and learn what it's like to be a customer of the new, skimpier you. "Please excuse our appearance" levels of inconvenience may be acceptable. "To hell with you" levels aren't.
Last updated: May 22, 2009
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan