At Your Service: July 30, 2008

A recent turn in my mother’s health put me on the road and gave me a chance to see some interesting approaches to service quality. On the first leg of my trip, I stopped at a roadside diner to grab a quick bite. The hostess greeted me with a smile and, pointing toward a nearby table, asked if it would be OK. She did not move until I said yes, and then pulled out the chair for me to sit down. The service was otherwise like any other diner, but the welcome secured a hefty tip.
Volatility in fuel markets is creating some more interesting approaches to gasoline pricing. My personal survey of stations in the Northern quadrant of the nation shows an increasing number of stations changing their pricing according to the customer’s payment method. Many stations offer as much as a 25 cent per gallon discount for cash. Some consider debit cards to be the same as cash, while others want to see a dead president’s face before they honor any discount.
As a traveler, holding onto my cash for that anticipated unknown emergency, the choice was sometimes difficult (learned I was very willing to lose the cash for 25 cents, but not for five). A cash discount also required prepayment at a counter inside a store or cubicle, adding time (seconds or minutes depending upon who was behind the counter). At one station, I decided to forego the discount to avoid the long cash-payment line.
At one of a chain of nationwide tourist oriented store/restaurants, I was dismayed to find that no one knew who was responsible for taking a certain food-to-go order. I asked the cashier, who referred me to the server of my meal, who referred me to the door greeter who referred me to the cashier. A different cashier ultimately took the order. I was quite ready to leave when I walked out of their door. Nonetheless, the layout of the store and availability of other forms of assistance encouraged me to make a few impulse gift purchases for my mom’s birthday.
One of the conclusions I have drawn about the current state of service is that it is almost wholly dependent upon the quality of the hiring decision. The waitress in that diner seemed to be friendly by nature, her interactions with the wait staff also seemed positive. The person who hired her made a very smart choice.
The gas station attendant causing the long line was so entranced by whatever was on his I-pod that there was little attention left over for customers. I saw one customer leave without getting gas at all and others bore the face of angered frustration as they waited to pay cash for inflated gasoline prices. I couldn’t help thinking he was a relative of an uninterested manager.
No matter how well you hire, you are making a mistake by not properly training staff. The store that didn’t train for follow-through on a service offered on their menu and signs in the window, made a mistake that led to a decrease in sales. By the time someone was willing to take my to-go order, I had thought of good reasons to place a smaller one.
Whatever the reason, no matter the season, the decisions we make about the quality of care we provide customers makes a difference to our business. There are frequent examples of the best and worst both here and on the road. It is easier to judge those strangers afar, but easy to find parallels at home.