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Beware of the Natural Entropy in Customer Service

How to Prevent Incremental Degradation

One of the first things I did upon taking on AP as a client was call his customer service line, pretending to be a customer. The phone rang eight times before it was picked up. Then I was put on hold. Then someone answered by saying, “What?”

This was an $8 million company.

Businesses hire me to help them grow. But growing a company with terrible customer service is like building a house on quicksand. It just doesn’t work.

So I postponed any marketing discussions while I revamped AP’s entire customer service process.

I replaced most of the staff with better-educated, more articulate, and more conscientious workers. I introduced a training program. I implemented automated monitoring and reporting systems. And I established progressively higher standards for everything from call waiting through problem solving.

Within six months, service went from embarrassing to best of show. Then I hired a very good manager to continue the program. With her in place, I was able to do the job I was hired to do: improve marketing and increase sales.

I wish that were the end of the story. It is not. About four years later, a colleague, in the midst of a conversation about something else, made a comment about how everyone in the industry believed that AP’s customer service was “a joke.”

I was shocked. And when I checked into it, I was floored. The person I’d hired had left. And the top-notch operation I had worked so hard to set up was back to providing horrendously bad service.

Nothing had gone dramatically wrong. The new customer service manager had been given my guidelines but wasn’t as careful about implementing them. The college-educated people I’d hired had moved up in the company and been replaced with less qualified people. Other standards were relaxed – just a bit – to save money.

It was a classic case of incremental degradation. Physicists call this entropy – the natural tendency of things in the universe to move from order to disorder.

It is true of all aspects business (and life). But none as surely and with more damaging consequences than customer service. Unless you constantly strive to improve service all the time, it will degenerate. Not in leaps and bounds but in small, sometimes imperceptible degrees. Only after several years will the difference be obvious.

Why does it happen?

I don’t know. Admittedly, people are inherently lazy. So that’s part of it. But I think another reason is that many business owners simply don’t care about customer service.

So let’s pin it on laziness and apathy. But identifying the cause doesn’t eliminate the problem.

To combat incremental degradation in your organization you must make a very active and sustained effort. And the best way to do this is to initiate a culture of incremental augmentation.

By incremental augmentation I mean constantly making good things better. When it comes to customer service, that means consistently asking yourself, “How can we provide even better service?”

Constantly making good service better. That is a high standard, indeed. One that must be embraced by everyone in your organization. And responsibility starts at the top.

The customer service manager who’d replaced the woman I hired talked a great game. But I could tell by his actions that he didn’t really care. And why didn’t he care? Because his boss at the time, AP’s CEO, didn’t care. He didn’t read the reports. He didn’t check in with the managers. He neither rewarded good work nor fired poor performers. That was what cracked the foundation of the program.

You can see how this plays out with many airline carriers, hotel chains, and fast-food franchises. Although the standards and procedures for customer service are top-notch and state-of-the art, the actual service is often miserable.

This is not the fault of the individuals providing the crappy service. The blame has to be placed on their managers.

When you walk into a filthy McDonald’s staffed by insolent kids who handle your food after sneezing or coughing into their hands – you can be absolutely sure that they are NOT meeting the standards established by the parent company. Something bad happened between the time protocols were established and what is currently happening. That thing is bad management.

The same is true when you get inattentive or even abusive service at a Marriott or Holiday Inn. Yes, the receptionist or valet may be a lunkhead. But the real problem is with the higher-paid people managing them.

I don’t believe these managers are creating bad service on purpose (although I admit to having had that suspicion on occasion). They have gone through interviews and training programs. And at one time, they knew and practiced the high standards their employers want to meet. But because they were (a) not personally committed to those standards and/or (b) did nothing active to maintain them, things gradually and progressively fell apart.

I’m staying at the upscale Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills as I write this. I have been here at least a half-dozen times. Today, for the first time ever, I experienced an instant of bad customer service. I came up to the rooftop terrace and told the hostess I wanted to smoke my cigar and work on my laptop. She said, “We have no tables now. We are booked.”

I said, “Can you find something for me? I just need a chair and a table in a corner somewhere. I don’t want to disturb anyone with the smoke.” She seemed upset with me for asking. She answered, almost rudely, “I’ll see what I can do.”

For five minutes, I waited for her to return, feeling like a homeless bum. Finally, a young man approached. “Can I help you?” he asked. But with a guarded, almost defensive, tone. I said, “What?” He replied, “I’m sorry, are you staying with us?” I told him that I had been for some time. That I had always received impeccable service. But that now, for the first time, I was being treated “almost rudely.”

Realizing that I wasn’t whatever kind of monster the hostess had taken me for – and recognizing that this was not how patrons of the Peninsula Hotel expected to be treated – he led me to a tented pavilion by the pool, gave me complimentary beverages, and apologized profusely for the woman’s behavior. (It was, he said, her first day.) By doing all of this, he restored my opinion of the hotel to its former, lofty perch.

There is only one way you can provide top-quality service to your customers. First… and most important… you must want to provide it. You must want to do so not only because you believe it is good business but also because it gives you pride.

The other thing you must do is to apply your standards with persistence. It is not enough to set up a good program and hire a good person and then let it go. That didn’t work for me. It doesn’t work for McDonald’s. And it wouldn’t work at the Peninsula Hotel either. You must view customer service as something that, if left alone, will deteriorate. And that means it must be constantly paid attention to.

At the moment, I am watching two men in suits hovering over one of the teak tables in the Peninsula’s rooftop restaurant. They are examining, almost microscopically, the slats of the wood. They are running their fingers over the surface to make sure there are no splinters. And they are crouching down to look at the sides of the slats to make sure no particles of food have accumulated there. They are fussing over the cleanliness and functionality of these tables much like you might expect Michelangelo to have fussed over the Pieta.

It is hot. Maybe 85 degrees in the sun. One of them takes a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe the perspiration from his forehead. They are discussing the table as if it matters. As if it would be a terrible thing if one of their guests got a splinter reaching for his fork or if, glancing down from his paper, he noticed a smudge of yesterday’s Eggs Benedict.

And to the people who come here – to the people who pay $350 and $450 and $950 per night to stay at the Peninsula – it does matter.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]


Mark Morgan Ford

Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Wealth Builders Club. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.