The “Low Bar” Mentality- Recognizing and overcoming mediocrity in customer service experience…

  • An appliance repairman or cable television technician shows up with just ten minutes remaining in his four-hour schedule window and we’re relieved.
  • A waitress makes no mistakes in our dinner order and we reward her exemplary service with an above-average tip.
  • We laboriously type our social security number and credit card information into an automated IVR system and then are unsurprised when asked to repeat it all again to the agent who answers the phone.
  • We stand in line at the grocery store, watching as the cashier leaves her station and walks back into the store to check a price.
  • We wait patiently at the hotel registration desk as the clerk takes a phone call even though she’s in the middle of checking us in.

What do all of these mind-numbingly familiar scenarios have in common? Several things actually. First, they are all examples of stunningly poor customer service, so commonplace that we scarcely bother to even remark about them to friends and families. Second, we, for the most part, allow them to happen without comment, recourse, or even recognition. We don’t get upset, switch away from the offending service providers, or even suggest alternatives. More insidiously, though, it has come to be what we expect. We have reached a point where we’ve concluded that nothing better is possible. We have lowered the bar so far on service providers that we frequently find ourselves in the ironic position of rewarding mediocrity.

Exhibit A for these diminished expectations is restaurant service. Our culture is one in which we expect to pay a fifteen-percent gratuity to wait staff who simply show up for work. The server who actually gets our order correct (i.e., who does their job) is thought to be astonishing and expects to receive more than this nominal amount. And we happily pay it.

Companies, almost without exception, will tell you that the reason for diminished customer service is cost containment. You can’t get an agent on the phone quickly because agents are expensive. You have to sit at home all day waiting on the technician because gas and trucks are expensive. Sorry, that’s just how things are these days.

But it isn’t really about cost at all. It’s about managing to the level of service that customers expect, and going no further. As a consequence, our expectations today are so minimal that on those rare occasions when we phone a business and a person answers instead of a machine, we’re momentarily stunned into silence while thinking of what to say. We feel guilty giving only ten percent to the waitress who gave us surly, inaccurate service at lunch.

It is not the purpose of this brief treatise to propose service solutions; these are addressed in plenty of other places. Rather, the point here is to simply acknowledge and make explicit the low (and falling) expectations we’ve all come to accept, the hope being that recognition of this fundamental state of affairs will, as consumers, make us just a little more willing to demand something better from those who provide us with service, or, as service providers, to rise to these heightened expectations. In a society where everyone settles, there is no incentive to improve.

But what are we, as service providers, to do? Most importantly, expect customers to expect more. Rather than benchmark our service performance against what the competition offers, evaluate it against what’s possible. This, in turn, requires an aspirational mindset that is not terribly common in American business.

On the flip side, we are all not only business people but consumers as well. Adopt the mindset that you deserve more than you’re currently getting from your service providers. The worst that can happen is that you get a reputation as someone who doesn’t settle. That certainly can’t be a bad thing.

Ultimately it becomes a virtuous circle. Heightened service expectations beget improved service. This, in turn, makes us expect even more. Heck, before you know it, that technician might show up at your house at exactly the time you want him there!

BKS

Guest Author: Brian Kenneth Swain is a Consultant with onVector Consulting Group, a privately held international management consulting organization specializing in the design and deployment of Performance Management tools, systems, and solutions. Brian has over 25 years of Performance Management experience and has consulted for numerous companies across a wide range of industries and geographies. Brian can be contacted at bswain2000@yahoo.com.

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  1. #1 by Huberto Garza on June 1, 2011 - 2:10 pm

    Your article really struck a chord since it reflects the attitude of people of my country towards government. We do not expect anything better from the government, so we do not demand better services, stronger law enforcement, alignment with our population’s needs, what have you. Great article.

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