Employment Today – January 2003 issue      back to articles menu

“Customer Service – or not….”

As we lean into the front end of 2003, some of us having over-fed, over-drank and over-stressed ourselves during the so-called ‘festive’ season, I find myself writing on a topic I wrote about nearly ten years ago. Customer Service – or should I say – the appalling lack of it in general terms. Nothing seems to have changed in that time. I think the hour has come for us all to get tough. The Customer pays for service, but all too often doesn’t get it. The employer pays wages so that staff will provide service. All too often they don’t, but still accept their wages. The employment Agreement is a two-way document, providing rewards in return for performance. This article is a ‘Call to Action’.

The elderly lady, frail of bone and having suffered a heart attack and a stroke within days of each other, had fallen about a metre from the bed to the hard lino floor, and lain there for some 20 minutes or so before being discovered. Why did this happen? Because the sides of the bed had been left in the ‘down’ position, this despite a large notice sellotaped to the wall above her head which said, in un-missably large letters, ‘do not leave bedsides down’. This sign had been placed there by the patient’s family, after a similar event, in an effort to overcome the apathy of the nursing staff. The Charge Nurse, being called to account for it, said “Well, what do you suggest? We tell them. We train them. What else can I do?”  I dunno about you, but the words “FIRE THE CULPRIT, VERY PUBLICLY” come to mind. But of course, that didn’t happen. Which Hospital was it? It doesn’t matter. It could be any Hospital in NZ. Imagine a 747 pilot ‘forgetting’ to lower the landing gear prior to landing. Imagine the Air Accident Inspector on TV, shrugging his shoulders and saying “Ah hell. What can you do? We tell them, we train them. What else can we do?” Still, 300 dead passengers and crew (not forgetting an awfully expensive aircraft), is a little different than one defenceless old lady falling out of bed. Four years on, in a rest home, the same elderly lady has a fall, hurts her ankle, is examined by a Registered Nurse, and for the next four days is encouraged to walk on it. It was only when she could no longer bear the pain that the ankle was x-rayed and the broken bone revealed. Believe me, a lot of fuss was created at the time – once again initiated and driven along by the family. So called ‘hearings’ took place, but… the passage of time… the analogy of the bucket of water comes to mind, where you can stick your hand in, thrash it about as much as you like, but seconds after you take your hand out, the water is exactly the same as it was before. Which rest home was it? It doesn’t matter. It’s the third rest home this family have tried. To take it further, as in the Hospital case above, would mean contacting an Advocate, more hearings, a dubious outcome as to whether any real change would occur, and, in the background, fear of retaliation against the vulnerable patient. So life goes on. In a large retail store, part of a chain that spends millions in advertising, a young male checkout operator finished the current customer, never once having looked at her or acknowledged her in any way, picked up a ‘closed’ sign, smacked it down on the conveyor, told the last served customer to ‘tell the others I’ve closed’, and walked off. There were ten other customers in the queue. Nobody complained verbally, they all just shuffled off to join the back of another queue.  Which retailer was it? Would it change anything if I told you? His manager was told, and did nothing. Being aware of something doesn’t mean action will be taken. An airline decided  (for unexplained reasons) to change its flight schedule for a particular flight, and ‘instructed’ all travel agents, who then had to contact 250 passengers, who all then had to change their hotel bookings, other flights, security arrangements, work arrangements and in many cases, incurred additional costs in doing so. Does the Airline care? Apparently not, since yours truly is unable to elicit a response from its so-called ‘customer relations’ department.  Arriving in NZ, a plane-load of tired passengers entered the Customs hall, and were confronted with three ‘holding pens’ (what other label would you use for a system that pens Humans like cattle) – one labelled ‘Disabled & Parents with Children’, another marked ‘Express’ and another unmarked pen. Customs officials were waiting in the first two booths, the third was unattended. Most passengers, not fitting the description of the first two, filed along and formed a solid mass at the unattended booth. One wheelchair bound passenger arrived at the disabled booth and was processed. Some parents with kids turned up and were processed. Various special persons (I have no idea of the qualities one must possess to be this special) went through the ‘Express’ queue. Still the third booth remained empty, and the solid mass waited. And waited. And then the muttering started. And got louder. One of the customs officers picked up her phone and was heard to say ‘Tell (unidentifiable name) to get some help down here or come and deal with the complaints’. More waiting. Meanwhile another plane had landed and a new mass of passengers arrived, moving down to the other end of the hall where - you guessed it – customs officers appeared and started processing them. At this point people in the ‘ignored’ queue started to talk loudly about simply walking through the booths. Conditioned to obedience even in the face of raw stupidity, nobody did. Perhaps a night in the cells didn’t appeal – it didn’t to me but I was almost angry enough to give it a go - but when you have the kind of big stick that Customs have, you can wave it whenever and at whoever you like. Finally, the two existing officers having nothing else to do, they finally condescended to start taking people from the front of the ignored queue.

Why this happened is difficult to fathom. Airlines publish flight schedules and planes do not arrive unexpectedly. The maximum number of people that a plane can discharge is a known figure. It’s not rocket science – any school kid could work it out easily enough. If that’s the case, one is left to assume that this appalling treatment is the result of a compliance mind-set, going through Customs is required by law, you can’t get into the country without being ‘processed’ therefore there is no need to have any concept of Customer Service. Pen them up like cattle and treat them how you like – the victims have no option. Do unto others?

By now you will have sensed that yours truly was in the ignored queue, at the front of it, and while my waiting time was shorter than those behind me, I have filed a letter of complaint with the Customs Department. Unlike the Airline mentioned above, at least Customs have had the courtesy to respond and say they will investigate the matter, although since a month has gone by one wonders how long it takes to ask a few simple questions and get some answers.

These are just a few examples; I have many more, as I’m sure you do too. There is another side to this picture that at first would seem to soften it but in fact makes it even more perplexing. Inside each of the offending organisations are people who do care, and who shine a faintly flickering light, like a grain of gold glimpsed at the bottom of the prospector’s pan, shyly peeking through gaps in the dirt on top. The same airline that treated its passenger with complete disregard in Sydney after destroying his suitcase, has a gold nugget at its Auckland service desk who did everything the cretin in Sydney could and should have done. Since our two dominant airlines seem determined to merge despite the objections of the majority, the fate of what passes for Customer Service in our air industry appears to be that of a discarded boarding pass in a strong breeze. It was competition from Ansett that finally drove the slothful beast that was Air New Zealand into finally, reluctantly, giving us air bridges to board aircraft with, after years of forcing the hapless customer to stand in the pouring (horizontal) rain at the bottom of a boarding ladder. How quickly some forget what a monopoly does. With United’s planned exit from the playing field, it can only get worse. One can only hope the Commerce Commission has the testicular fortitude to stand up for the fate of the Customer. In my chosen profession we are supposed to be in the business of providing skills and knowledge that will allow positive behavioural change, but the thing that I am constantly being confronted with is that, in some cases, Customer Service training fails miserably in the attempt and I am having to admit to myself, albeit reluctantly, that there are bigger forces at play that I cannot reasonably influence. One of them is the organisation’s Leadership as it cascades down through the Organisation, that if the Leadership is apathetic about Customer Service then there really is no point in applying training at the operator level, since the Leaders will either not provide the role modelling required and/or will not provide the resources necessary to supply the service. Simply put, if there are 50 customers at the Supermarket checkout, only two checkout operators on duty, and the Manager doesn’t care, then no amount of training applied to the checkout operators will solve the problem. Another force I cannot influence is that of apathy in the so-called service person. Customer Service, when you come right down to it, can be simplistically defined as ‘Do Unto Others As You Would Have Done To You’. If the service provider really doesn’t give a rat’s backside for his/her fellow Human, then training is not going to fix it. I really do believe that those ‘gold nuggets’ mentioned above have something inside them that others simply don’t have – a genuine desire to help other people, and who ‘get their kicks’ from having an appreciative customer. Give me a bunch of people like that, give me management who believe, are prepared to role-model and resource the team properly, I’ll supply the skills and knowledges, and together we’ll create a Customer Service team that can’t be beaten.

 If all the above seems a bit of a moan, it isn’t intended to be. I’d like it to be a ‘call to action’. If I could, I’d start an action group called something like ‘Customers against Crappy Service’, where members undertake to fight tooth and boarding pass against apathy and bad treatment, and do it by speaking out, publicly, right there where the action is. Not waiting to moan to your partner when you get home. A friend of mine at NZ Post said to me – in answer to my point about long queues – ‘You’ve only got to ask you know. They’ll open another counter’. One assumes from this that the staff at Post Shops are all vision-impaired. Why were ATM Machines so well received in NZ? Perhaps because a machine is less likely to abuse you. You don’t expect an ATM to treat you with anything other than impersonal machine efficiency, which it does very well, therefore your expectations are satisfied. Ask around and see how many people have embraced Internet banking. You may be surprised, and the reason is the same. Join me in the checkout queue, or the bank queue (if I ever have to go there), or the one at NZ Post (same) – by chanting loudly “open another checkout, open another checkout” – and keep it up until embarrassment finally forces the offenders to do that which they should have done willingly, under their own initiative, and before it became a problem. The next time you receive casual, indifferent or negligent ‘service’, join me in not accepting it. Either that, or stand accused of the same indifference which, of course, perpetuates it.

If you’re a manager or an employer reading this, perhaps you need to reflect on the comment I made about Employment Agreements in the introductory paragraph above. The Law requires that you treat staff fairly. It does not require you to continue to employ people who cannot, or will not, perform to the standard you require. Recruit well, train well, motivate well, then expect and demand results. Your staff would soon complain if you only paid them 80% of their wages, so why should you accept anything less than 100% output? I am a little weary of managers moaning to me ‘you can’t get rid of staff these days’.  I teach employment law and I represent people up to and including Tribunal/Authority level. If you’ve got a staff member who is not performing despite strenuous efforts including retraining and performance counselling, and despite informal warnings you still cannot get a result, give me a call. If you’ve got an Agreement that complies with the ERA and a clear disciplinary process, I’ll show you how to do it fairly, within the law, and in a surprisingly short time. If you haven’t got those documents, I’ll show you where to start. It’ll just take a little longer, that’s all.  I’m a trainer by profession, with a penchant for supporting and defending the underdog. However I have also learned from experience that there are some things even training can’t fix, and I know when to call it a day.

Carpe Diem

Steve Punter ANZIM, Dip Bus (PMER), FHRINZ
Staff Training Associates Ltd, Auckland, New Zealand.
© Steve Punter 2002 All rights reserved by the author.

steve@sta.co.nz                                                                                                                       back to articles menu