07 May 2015 12:05:12 IST

Why is customer service so boring?

There is no escaping the fact that serving customers is all about adhering to repetitive and humdrum tasks

Last week I was in Chennai to attend the Board Meeting of a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to promoting customer service in the country. The meeting was scheduled from 10 am to 1 pm. Either because the Directors were too smart or the agenda too thin, the meeting wound up by 12. I wish I were part of more board meetings like this! The Chairman decided to reward us by taking us to lunch at a premier five-star hotel. Let me quickly tell you that I have been a great admirer of this hotel and speak about it in some of my presentations. They had ‘wowed’ me a couple of years ago when I stayed with them by giving me an iPad to take care of the controls in my room which enabled me to switch off lights, see who was at the door, switch on the bathroom light, and so on.

With that experience still in my memory, we reached the restaurant at 12.30 pm, only to find the place still reluctant to take guests. A surly looking lady made us wait for 15 minutes before she found a place in the then empty restaurant. Breakfast litter was still around and someone apologetically told us that the IPL teams who were staying at the hotel had come in late for breakfast. Poor MS Dhoni, he is blamed if children do poorly in exams or if the restaurant is not ready for lunch. How much burden can the broad shoulders of the Indian Captain take!

Oh, the days of the Empire!

Though the lunch buffet was quite expensive, since I was being hosted, I decided I must enjoy it to the hilt. But the problem was the poor service — like serving one person at the table and leaving the others unattended, a failure to remove anything that was consumed; stone-cold herb tea… the list goes on.

When I drew the attention of a senior hotel official dining at the next table, he just sent someone else instead of coming up directly to understand what the issue was. To me, one of the greatest things about the hospitality business is that even if a General Manager comes to your table, he will pick up the dishes because he is a service provider, however high his designation might be, and I find that particularly stimulating. But here we had soiled napkins, dirty dishes and plates that no one even thought of clearing away. Since we had a service expert in our midst (not me) we asked to see the Food and Beverage Manager.

Whither service retrieval?

Without going into a long harangue of whatever went wrong, let me quickly tell you that we told the F&B person everything in graphic detail. He listened patiently, made all the sympathetic noises, apologised profusely and thanked us for the feedback. Could he have handled the situation differently? Certainly.

The people at the table were fairly important corporate clients running large corporations. Could he have given them each a piece of cake as a gesture of goodwill, or a discount voucher for the next meal, or a bunch of flowers even? I am hardly a service expert but we were left severely disappointed even as we kept discussing it on the way to the airport.

So what is the learning?

Service is all about expectations. Was our expectation high because it was a top 5-star hotel? Did our experience seem worse than it actually was because they did not meet the basic “hygiene factors” that such a luxury hotel should attain? Customer expectations are rising by the moment and is our organisation being left behind in the shifting sands of expectation?

Have people forgotten the importance of a smile, an apology or a gesture? Are they painstakingly adhering to the boring repetitive aspects of consumer service — like cleaning the tables immediately after someone finishes eating? It is non-adherence to these basic routines that both irritate and turn away customers. And, finally, one sobering thought. If this is the situation with a reputed hotel, where does it place the ordinary mortals?

Thankfully, every day is a new day and you can start afresh. But like we say in advertising “you are only as good as your current campaign”, every service organisation needs to remember that it cannot sit back on its former achievements and has to begin every service day with a completely new slate. Have fun serving!

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