How to Beat the 'Bad Service' Customer Blues
by Fred Gebhart /

Customer service is in meltdown mode. Just ask Raul Pupo, MBA, who opens his new book on customer service with an air travel horror story.

“The travel industry is no better, no worse, than any other service sector of the economy,” Pupo told Travel Market Report. “I have never seen service to the customer in as calamitous state as it is today.”

Customer service isn’t a new problem. Business analysts have been warning of a building service crisis for decades. A 2007 customer satisfaction survey by Accenture found only 5% of respondents describing service they received as “excellent,” Pupo noted. Bad service is actively driving dissatisfied customers into the arms of the competition.

Pupo started his first business as a teenager and is now CEO of Technology Infrastructure Solutions, Inc, a south Florida information technology provider to large corporations. His latest book, America’s Service Meltdown: Restoring Service Excellence in the Age of the Customer, was published in June 2010.

Pupo’s key point: Customer focused companies can operate more efficiently, more effectively, and more profitably in today’s service- and information-oriented business world than companies that focus on short-term financial results. Four key strategies make the difference between long term success and a lingering, painful corporate death.

Which leads back to Pupo’s opening horror story. It’s a familiar tale to anyone who sells travel: premium level frequent flier stuck in the back of the plane to make way for airline employees — and a cabin attendant announcing that the passenger was out of luck because first class seating for employees is hardwired into the union contract. 

Pupo shared his expertise and practical advice on what customers want and how travel sellers can improve their service levels.

What is the definition of good customer service?
Pupo:
The standard of performance is not good service but excellent service. It’s not my definition of excellent service, or the CEO’s definition that matters — it’s the customer’s definition that matters. The reality is that customer expectations are fluid. They constitute an ever-changing standard of performance. For that reason alone, we need to constantly and continuously reach out to our customer base and gauge their evaluation of the level of our service. At every touch point, we need to ask, “How are we doing?” Many businesses find it frustrating and confounding to deal with that phenomenon, but deal with it we must.

Do businesses forget to ask themselves how they are doing?
Pupo:
It has to do with leadership that believes they are in business for some purpose other than to serve the consuming public. They are in business to grow market share, to take their company public, to maximize returns to the shareholders. The current fixation with financial results this month, this quarter, this year, pretty much renders all other corporate priorities moot. It’s a rare company that has a service performance appraisal and an even rarer company that has a service management system that grades executives on how well they perform against four critical success factors.

What are the four critical success factors?
Pupo:
One, a leadership group that unequivocally believes they are in business to serve the customer.

Second, a planning process that begins, not ends, with the customer. Research needs to drive strategy, but many organizations have the sequence reversed. They concoct a strategy, then do market research to buttress the decisions they just made.

Thirdly, an organizational ethic of service up and down the ranks. If you and I have to be wary of political factions or steer clear of sacred cows in the organization, we will never get to the root cause of lousy service because we will be dancing around the untouchables. Organizations that knowingly over-commit, over-promise, and over-sell suffer ethical lapses more injurious to the customer base than any malfunction.

The final element is an empowered, trained, and motivated front-line organization with access to tools and information needed to deliver excellent service. Anyone in the enterprise who has regular contact with the customer is the front line. That includes field service personnel, call center staff, flight attendants, nurses, private bankers, bank tellers, travel agents. It challenges the conventional wisdom of the front line worker as a lowly paid person with modest skills on the fringes of the organization. The front line, human capital with intelligent skills properly supported and equipped, is the fundamental resource in the organization.

How does your travel agent provide excellent service?
Pupo:
I tell Nick what my expectations are and he delivers. If I were not to articulate my expectations, as the preponderance of customers fail to do, he would be well served to ask me, prod me, force me to tell him.

Can a travel company train its customers to be that proactive?
Pupo:
Yes, and that’s an important objective of service management. You actively manage, coordinate, report, and control service expectations and service delivery against those expectations. Part of a well-tuned service management function is reaching out to customers. It can be formal, say at the end of a trip; it can be episodic’ it can be informal. The business has to use them all to help the customer shape and express his expectations. Failure to do that will show the results that Accenture reported; 60% of customers walking for reasons having to do with poor service. If you don’t poke and prod and sit the customer down, you will never train the customer to tell you what the service expectations are.

The standard of performance is not good service but excellent service. It’s not my definition of excellent service, or the CEO’s definition that matters — it’s the customer’s definition that matters.

Raul Pupo, author