The new books on customer service set a bad example

Here's what happened on a recent rainy Wednesday:

The dishwasher, which had been repaired on Monday, flooded the kitchen floor again. Not to worry, said the helpful person at the appliance store, someone will be over "between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m." Tuesday. With my shoes still squishing, I head to the office -- or try to. The train is late. When it shows up, there aren't enough seats, and the heater has gone berserk. I want to complain, but no one answers the transit department's toll-free customer-service number. Things aren't any better when I finally get to work. The copier is out again; I can't get anyone at our Boston office to answer the phone; and my lunch plans go awry when the fancy French restaurant "loses" my reservation.

Welcome to the service economy, where lousy service is now the norm. This sad fact hasn't escaped the notice of publishers. They have recently put out dozens of books, all promising to give your company the customer-pleasing powers of a Disney, a McDonald's, or a Scandinavian Airlines System. But like most other promises of the service economy, this one doesn't hold up very well. The first problem is that these books aren't written by the likes of Walt Disney, Ray Kroc, or Jan Carlzon. They're almost always written by consultants. The information is secondhand. The writing is second-rate. Short sentences, active verbs, and clear images are as hard to come by as a friendly banker. That would be tolerable if the authors provided good examples or practical tips -- say, 10 things you can do to keep customers coming back. But they don't. Their cop-out is that each business is different so their advice has to be general.


I have pretty much the same expectations when my recently repaired dishwasher breaks as when I'm forced to stand on an overcrowded train: I want to get what I've paid for. And when I buy a book, I like it to live up to the promise in its title.

It seems to me that the essence of customer service is simple: treat the customer with respect, give him more than he expects, and make the experience of dealing with your company as easy as possible. While some of these books are OK at explaining one aspect, none is particularly good at explaining how to do all three. So what's a reader to do?

I'm tempted to suggest you simply reread the Golden Rule. It remains the best short description of customer service ever written. But magazines, too, are part of the service economy. To provide good customer service, we have to be more than just glib. So here's our suggestion. Don't buy any of these books. Instead, go to your local library and construct your own customer-service manual by mixing and matching various chapters.

Before you begin, however, read Philip Crosby's Quality Is Free (McGraw-Hill, 1979). Yes, you can find better-written books, but Crosby will remind you that it's always cheaper to do the job right the first time. Next, crack the spine on Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr.'s In Search of Excellence (Harper & Row, 1982). If you are in a hurry, just read Chapter 6. You'll learn that the easiest way to find out what customers want is to be there when they want to tell you.

With the background out of the way, begin your customer-service book with the first three chapters (47 pages) of Service America! by Karl Albrecht and Ron Zemke (Dow Jones-Irwin, 1985). There is much to hate about this book. The authors quote themselves at the beginning of most chapters. They also draw the bulk of their material from consulting work they've done, and it's hard to see the relevance of many examples if you're not in the amusement park business. As far as I can tell, moreover, the authors lack any sense of humor.

Still, the opening chapters explain clearly why this customer-service stuff is important and will become more so in coming years. Competing on price takes you only so far, after all. And the automation of almost everything (soda dispensers, airplane ticket vending machines, automatic teller machines, and so on) gives greater significance to each encounter between a customer and a real live customer-service person. What all this means, argue Albrecht (a consultant) and Zemke (an editor at Training magazine), is that your company's approach to customer service has to change.

But how should you change it? Start with The Customer Is Key by Milind M. Lele (John Wiley & Sons, 1987) -- or rather start with two small parts of it. Lele desperately needs an editor. For one thing, he uses the same example over and over again. The fact that Jaguar used to make terrible cars and had a miserable service organization is pointed out eight separate times. What's more, Lele's economic graphs are a joke: he plots out the cost of customer service as a commodity, which it can't be by definition. Finally, his writing could cure insomnia. I could provide a quote or two, but trust me.

Nevertheless, Lele makes some good points. He clearly explains the economic benefits of good customer service: 1) people will pay more for good service; 2) they'll buy again, so your marketing costs are lower; and 3) happy customers will tell their friends, so you spend less on advertising. In addition, Lele points out that good customer service is meaningless if you don't start out with a good product. So study pages 24 through 27 (the economic advantages) and Chapter 5 (product). Ignore the rest, and move on to training. After all, it is one thing to tell people to give good customer service; it is quite another to tell them how.

Bernard Katz, author of How to Turn Customer Service into Customer Sales (NTC Business Books, 1988), understands the difference. In pages 75 through 92, he gives you the nuts and bolts of setting up a training program. How detailed does he get? Well, after writing that you should never have more than 15 people in a training group, he tells you to have them arrange their chairs in a U, with the trainer standing in the open part of the U.

Not surprisingly, consultant Katz, who wrote a book called How to Win More Business by Phone, is equally methodical in Chapter 6, in which he explains telephone manners. His discussion takes up 10% of the book, which I thought a bit excessive, until I called Continental Airlines Inc.'s frequent-flyer number -- the one reserved for people who fly at least 25,000 miles a year. After being snarled at by the person who answered, I decided that too much on phone manners is better than too little.

Linda M. Lash's book is also good on training, although its title is misleading. This is not The Complete Guide to Customer Service (John Wiley & Sons, 1989). The tone of the writing leaves something to be desired as well. You know how some Americans in London end up sounding more British than the Queen? Lash, director of customer satisfaction at Avis Europe, is one of them. Two examples: "I've had a lot of encouragement from friends . . . who receive my custom." And: " . . . says Sir Colin Marshall (the title was conferred following a highly successful public flotation.)'

Public flotation?

That's the bad news. The good news is that Lash understands training. Look at pages 26 through 29, where she provides an excellent checklist for all front-line service employees. (Examples: "Do I believe in the company I work for, its product, and the service I am giving? Do I do everything within my power to satisfy the needs of each and every customer, and treat each and every customer as an individual?') Also read Chapter 5, where Lash explains how to conduct role-playing sessions. At first, she advises, the instructor should play the customer; new employees won't know what customers will say. Lash also discusses the pitfalls of training adult employees: "Standard lecture techniques . . . often give adults the feeling that they are being talked down to.'

With a good product in hand and your staff properly trained, you need only make sure that the customer finds it easy to give you his money. This point is made effectively in The Customer Connection by John Guaspari (Amacom, 1988). I like this book, because Guaspari -- yes, he too is a consultant -- understands that we are not dealing with rocket science here. The book opens with a cartoon; it contains what I suspect are deliberately bad poems; and Guaspari includes a list of his pet customer-ser-vice peeves. Here's one: "I think that it's a nice touch when garage mechanics put one of those cardboard floor mats down to help keep my car clean while they service it. I really do. But I'm willing to make a trade. You can forget about the floor mat if you promise not to leave the volume control on my radio cranked up to threshold of pain levels.'

It's not at all painful to read this book the whole way through. And if you do, you'll probably remember that customers are not an interruption in all the paperwork you have to get done; they're the reason the check comes on Friday. So don't force them to figure out who handles returns. Don't make them search through all your sales literature to figure out whether you sell what they want. Keep it simple. If you do, and you're nice to them, they just might come back.