Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Customer is Always Wrong - Passive Bad Customer Service

Charles Cezar who owned the Ritz Hotel in Paris back in 1898 became famous for saying  "le client n'a jamais tort" (the client is never wrong). Granted he may well have said this because his Parisian employees treated the hotel’s clients poorly because they were not Parisians and thus in the staff's minds wrong all the time, but the motto became the standard by which he ran the hotel.  Harry Gordon Selfridge remade the phrase to make it more emphatically positive with the better known “the customer is always right”.

Now considering the state of customer service in the country today’s phrase might well combine the two mottos to become “the customer is always wrong”. This seems to be the operative concept of most companies if they even think of the customer at all.

This was obviously the operative belief of United Airlines when it dragged a paying and seated passenger down the aisle on his back injuring him enough to put him in the hospital.  This action was taken because United wanted to get some of its employees on board to another destination. The employees could have taken another flight on another airline to get to their destination but it was United’s belief that this would cost them money and inconvenience the flight crew they wanted to board so the passenger had to go.

This is an egregious example but there are many instances of “the customer is always wrong” or what I think is the most common belief  “the customer does not matter” that we all run into everyday life. The waiter who ignored us at the restaurant; the bagger at our local grocery store who complained about working there and snarled at us, the person who answered the phone with “what”? But those are all examples of actively bad customer service.

It is the passive bad customer service that has enabled the negative attitudes toward customers and encouraged active disparaging service. Passive bad service does not have another individual included but you are provided bad service just the same.

Airlines are among the worst offenders with passive terrible customer service even if they do not drag all customers off of planes. They have taken an attitude that the customer does not matter at all. Just this morning I received an email from American Airlines telling me they had changed my times and flights for a trip I was to make. The new flight times puts me to my destination late for a meeting I was going for. No reason given.  No concern at all for the customer.

Passive poor customer service is the result of changes in business models and technology. The new business model takes customer service completely out of the equation and has the customer supply his or her own service.

For example, there once was a time when if you went to get gas for your car, an attendant would come out, fill the tank, wash the windshield and check your oil. When the business model changed to self-attending gas stations where you did all the work yourself at no cost savings, this was a step to passive bad service.

The same change in business model affects the way we shop too. Companies have replaced customer service with either “do it yourself” or technology. When stores started to lay off sales people and having the customer do all the shopping work him or herself such as at a TJ Maxx, Macy’s or most any retail outlet, this is passively poor, or actually non-existent service. Amazon is testing stores that do not have any service at all. The customer finds the item, takes it to the check-out counter and checks himself out just like many big box and supermarket self-checkout-out lines.

McDonalds has taught us how to be our own waiters and  bus our own tables and many food chains have caught onto having the customers do the work. Panera has taken this one step further by removing the counter server who might say hello and thank you out of the equation completely. Now they have computer stations at which customers enter their order and wait for a bag of food to be brought out or taken to the eating area.

When you try to contact a company with a problem but are not given a customer service number to call but are told to “open a ticket online”. This passive bad service again. Or when you get a phone number, call it and get lost in the labyrinth of technology not allowing you to talk to a person just an android voice who never quite understands what you are saying, again passive poor customer service.

Or now it is not considered rude or bad service to not return letters our phone calls from customers. Three weeks ago, I wrote two letters to two different companies about bad service and false advertising I received at two stores. No one has written back. I left three voice mail messages at another company but no one has called me back.

What companies have realized is that we will put up with passive bad service and not say anything about it primarily because there is no one to say it to. Companies claim that they are replacing people with technology to “enhance the buyer’s experience and speed up the interaction” but in so doing they have taken customer service out of the interaction.  Kiosks for instance have replaced sales attendants in airports supposedly for our convenience but really for the airline company’s fiscal gain.

In replacing service with self-serve they have been training us to not expect customer service at all and we have been much too acquiescent. We accept the lack of service and have been taught to feel as if we are being independent serving ourselves.  This is a false belief. By serving ourselves, we are encouraging passive bad service and hurrying customer service to the point at which when we go into a fast food restaurant we will make our own burgers and pull ourselves of a United flight.

Monday, April 17, 2017

People Make Success

The following is from an abstract of a paper Twenty Years of First-Year Student Success: An Inventory of Strategies and Programs That Work by DeLaine Priest, Stephanie Gisler and Maribeth Ebasz of the University of Central Florida's Student Development & Enrollment Services. In it they recount and explain what UCF has dome of the last twenty years to increase their retention from 70% in 1994 to 87.5% in 2014 as the school grew from 25,000 t0 61,000. The authors write:

This paper describes strategies and programs that have been crucial drivers for the increase in retention as well as contributors to overall academic achievement in first-year students. Tutoring, academic advising, coaching, career readiness, and student engagement are among the strategies and programs that will be examined in this paper. Additionally, specific programs offered through offices such as the Office of Student Involvement, the Recreation and Wellness Center, and Housing and Residence Life will be described

The paper goes on to describe the particulars of what the University did to achieve that success. What it did in an nutshell l was provide excellent academic customer service to its students.They focused on delivering excellent services to students to keep them in the University and make others want to enroll in it.

Re-reading the section above and the rest of the paper makes one point absolutely clear. What works is engagement and specifically, engagement with people; not technology but people delivering great customer service in areas such as advising.In every activity described in the section from the abstract and in the full paper, a human being is involved in the interaction with the student. People make or break a retention and enrollment program's success.

Much of the enrollment growth at UCF comes from their strength in providing the academic customer service that keeps students at the University. ,They are adding more students each year rather than making up for attrition losses with the incoming freshman and transfer classes as was
discussed  in the piece called Zeno's Paradox, I Love Lucy and Admissions. They have built a solid base of retention to build upon and that has led to a significant part iof their stellar population, and thus revenue, growth.

And yet, when colleges run into financial difficulty what do they cut? People. This is especially so in the areas that provide the very services that keep students enrolled in college and attract them in the first place. People in student services are often cut before say faculty, generally because the president does not have the intestinal fortitude to cut dead or dying programs and save student service programs that lead to retention and population growth.

The success of UCF shows that people are needed to  succeed in retention so the last people who should be cut are they who create population growth.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Don't Overlook the Physical Aspects of Customer Service

A customer service facet that is often overlooked is the “objective correlative" aspects of a college. The phrase objective correlative is one taken from my English background and was discussed
primarily with literature. But I find it has numerous applications to colleges. Besides, using the phrase helps justify all those years of English study.

The phrase was popularized by the American poet TS Elliot to explain emotional reactions to literature. Objective correlative refers to a physical object or more likely a grouping or combination of objects, images, or visual descriptions that create(s) an emotional response to piece of literature. For example, if a poem has images of grey things, a tumbledown house and crows sitting on a broken fence, these physical allusions and objects set a tone, an emotional metaphoric response, of gloom and foreboding. Try an Edgar Alan Poe poem for examples and pleasure.

In a college, the objective correlatives are visual and physical aspects of the school - websites, the grounds, the buildings themselves, the colors we choose in the buildings, walkways, signs, offices, lobbies, etc. These all have a very powerful response on a potential student’s emotional reaction to the school and do affect his or her decision to enroll and/or stay. These all create a visual metaphor of the school and its potential to meet the three returns on investment all students bring with them. The three ROI’s – fiscal, emotional and affective – are what help determine if a student enrolls and will definitely be the determining factors in whether a student stays at a school, transfers or steps out.. (The three ROI’s are discussed in Customer Service Increases Retention)

We are aware that one of the most important parts of the enrollment process is the first contact with the school, followed by the tour. In fact, 12% of potential enrollment is lost when a student makes the first contact with the school. Notoriously poor telephone, email or voicemail habits turn potential students off enough to have them cross the college off their list of possible school to enroll in. First impressions matter a great deal which is also why school websites can turn off a student thinking of enrolling.

The appearance of the college and parking also make a great impact on potential students. If a student is turned off by the way the school looks, the landscaping and things like parking and signage, that student could be one of the 12% that will cross the school of his or her list. Most people don’t realize that students start creating a visual metaphor of the school as soon as they make contact with the objective correlatives of that school. The tour is generally simply that which polishes or corrupts the metaphor through what students see and hear while on the tour.

Metaphors are very powerful. They become emblematic of the institution and are very hard to shake loose or change. It is important to realize that students think not in words, but in pictures, in metaphors of their world as Gerald Altman discusses in How Customers Think. Students live in a visual environment which has them “read” and value objects emotionally. They trust their images much more powerfully than any words, which are the coin or our realm. They make amazingly quick and assertive metaphoric leaps of judgment and embed them deeply in their belief systems. We view the world intellectually in words and numbers that we want to make some logical sense. We wish to have rationality be the basis for decisions. They use visual objective correlatives and the metaphors they generate.

Therefore it is very important to tend to and understand how your college's objective correlatives affect students when they encounter them for the first time and while on campus.

If you want to learn more about how you can be assured that the objectives correlatives and all other aspects of customer service help or hinder enrollment and retention click here for additional information.