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Francis Wade | Customer service must become more than ‘personal’ service

Published:Sunday | June 5, 2016 | 6:00 AM

Jamaicans experience a daily struggle to receive a consistent, high level of customer service.

This happens, in part, because quality service is allowed to devolve into a personal matter between an individual provider and his/her customer. Instead, it should be about a business relationship.

In a Gleaner column a few years ago, I shared that there are three kinds of service experienced in Jamaica. Now, there is a fourth. Here is a summary of each one.

VIP service the latest addition is extended to the powerful few, whether government minister, big CEO, or well-known pastor. The individual service provider lives in fear of making a mistake but quietly hopes to please the VIP in order to gain a future benefit.

Tourist service is received only by foreigners. It's the extra effort we make to give outsiders a special experience that makes them want to return with their friends. Delivered routinely in north coast tourist enclaves, it has led to improved service across the island. Incidentally, in Trinidad & Tobago, I see this kind of service being actively suppressed. The late Dr Eric Williams once stated that "tourism is whore-ism".

Friend service is the extra courtesy we extend to people we know. Even the worst service worker with the nastiest attitude knows how to turn on the charm when the recipient turns out to be related in some way.

As a result, Caribbean people know that long before they enter an establishment, they need to scope out "someone who knows someone". It's the only way to bypass a long line or a rude demeanour.

Res'-a-Dem service is doled out to those unfortunates unable to secure VIP, Tourist, or Friend service. Its prevalence explains why no company that serves local customers has developed a strong reputation for good service.

From insurance companies, government agencies, banks, and schools, everyone has horror stories to tell. The tough question is, in a country that provides great service at the other levels, why does Res'-a-Dem service persist?

 

A THROWN WAY OF BEING

 

While we often blame a lack of motivation or training, my work across the region points to a different cause - what philosophers call 'a thrown way of being'. It's a simple idea. We all wake up into the same fixed attitude and mindset each day without realising it, much in the way that a fish lives in water without knowing any other medium.

The Jamaican service provider wakes up into a worldview shaped by our historical legacy of slavery. To keep the institution alive over the centuries, its creators infused it with themes of superiority and inferiority, which reverberate. Today, we continue to seek opportunities to look down on each other a 'thrown way of being'.

This propensity has an obvious flip-side: we despise the feeling of being scorned. Customer-facing employees are especially vulnerable because they are instructed to extend a warm, kind, helpful hand. A customer is, therefore, in a position to reject this overture, leaving the provider feeling victimised, abused, and disrespected.

To prevent this from happening, workers toughen up, effecting an unfriendly, sullen demeanour. It informs their facial expression, tone of voice, and body language in ways that most of us would recognise in an instant. Unfortunately, it contrasts badly with the confident, smiley, 'How can I help you?' perfected by their counterparts in North America.

For local business owners, this aspect is bad for the bottom line. Customers who receive Res'-a-Dem service feel little loyalty, especially when they see other people receiving VIP, Tourist, or Friend service. Perhaps we have all noticed the provider who instantly transforms once the "right" customer shows up. It's led me to ask myself, Who am I ... ?, because in that moment, it hits like a personal insult.

This body blow is one that many top executives are immune from. Having long ago outsourced these daily transactions to others, only extreme measures such as those portrayed on TV's Undercover Boss come close to giving them a real experience.

It's a pity because service workers who become lifeless and resentful aren't being ignorant ... they are caught in a dynamic that's invisible, but powerful. It's one that their external environment supports, but their internal state also keeps it in place. The end result is a slip into a personal world far removed from corporate objectives.

In my next column, I will look at some solutions to help individual service providers disrupt this 'thrown way of being'. Needless to say, this isn't an easy topic, but it's a must.

Good service shouldn't be a personal affair that defaults to Res'-a-Dem service. We all lose out when this is allowed to happen.

- Francis Wade is a management consultant and author. To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email: columns@fwconsulting.com.