One of the first things I did upon taking on AP as a client, many years ago, was to revamp the customer-service department. Employing models of other customer-service systems I’d established in the past, 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 every aspect of customer service, from call waiting through problem solving.

Within six months, our service went from embarrassing to best of show. With a hand-selected customer-service person to continue the program, I diverted my attention to other problems. Three years later, I got a call from a colleague who, 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 top-notch operation I had worked so hard to set up had somehow slipped back to the horrendously bad level of service I had first found it in.

I studied what had happened and learned two important things: Operational and technical things tend to fall apart — and they fall apart twice as fast if the boss isn’t looking.

1. The natural entropy of operational activities. I don’t know whether it is because people are inherently lazy, inconsiderate, or dense, but if you don’t have an active program to combat it, your operations will slowly but surely go to pot. Set, for example, a two-ring standard for answering the phone. Spend a week or two working with your people to get them up to, say, a 90% compliance rate. Then leave them alone for a year. What will you see when you check back with them? The phone will be ringing, on the average, three or four times and the number of dropped calls will have skyrocketed.

2. The effect of giving operational activities a shrug. Although everyone gave lip service to the high standards I had set, everyone also knew that AP’s CEO didn’t really pay attention to customer service. He didn’t read the reports. He didn’t check in with the managers. He neither rewarded good work nor fired poor performers. He supported my efforts to improve this part of the business and was willing to sign his name to memos that enunciated our high goals, but all understood his lack of real commitment. That was a fault that cracked the foundation of the program. You can see how this plays out with many airline carriers, hotel chains, and franchise fast-food restaurants.

Although the standards and procedures for customer service are all top-notch and state-of-the art, the actual service is often miserable. This is not solely the fault of the individuals providing the crappy service. Equal blame has to be placed on their managers. When you walk into a filthy McDonald’s staffed by insolent, inarticulate 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 has 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, indolent, or even abusive service at a Marriott or Holiday Inn. Yes, the receptionist or valet may be a lunk — but the real problem is with the higher-paid people managing them. I don’t think these managers are creating all this bad service on purpose, although I admit to having had that suspicion on occasion. Many of them — in such cases as we are talking about — have gone through interviews and training programs and so on. At one time, at least, 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 those standards, 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 now. 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, so my smoking doesn’t disturb anyone.” She seemed upset with me for asking. She answered, almost rudely, “I’ll see what I can do.”

For five minutes, I waited there for her to return, feeling like a homeless bum with open sores. 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 I had been for some time, that I had always received impeccable service, and that now, for the first time, I was being treated “almost rudely.” Realizing that I wasn’t whatever kind of monster the young lady had taken me for and recognizing how short his future would be with the hotel had he continued to treat me in this sort of Holiday-Inn-level sort of way, he led me to a tented pavilion by the pool, gave me complimentary beverages, and apologized profusely for the girl’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 to know that what you do is better than the rest. You must have — in your heart — a commitment to customer service that goes beyond good sense and the desire for profits. It must be deep and it must be strong and it must endure. 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 deteriorates. And that means it must be constantly paid attention to. As I write this, 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 that 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 now, maybe 85 degrees in the sun. One of them takes a silk 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 really 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 on an inside slat of the table. And to the customers who come here — to the people who pay $350 and $450 and $950 per room to stay at the Peninsula — it does matter.