Service with a smile

Sep 04 2009 by Bob Selden Print This Article

As we all know, getting front line staff to provide excellent, even good customer service seems to be the perennial management challenge. This appears even more challenging when times are tough and businesses are scrambling for that extra sale.

So what are the latest attempts at meeting this challenge?

The first is an old one that has been tried before and is now being trotted out once again. In the US, Delta Airlines has revived its "Red Coats" customer support service (dropped in 2005 when Delta was in Chapter 11).

For those in the US old enough to remember, "Red Coats" was probably named after the US railway's "Red Caps" – the porters who provided excellent service to rail passengers (they're still around in some places, but who travels by rail anymore?)

The idea behind the Red Coats service is that these people will be out with the customers answering questions and helping out, rather than behind the counter. And they will be able to issue boarding passes from hand-held machines. All in all, they won't have any more responsibility than their counter-staff colleagues, but they will be paid more!

Along similar lines, American Airlines are to give bonuses of $100 to $200 to customer service representatives who meet certain service satisfaction goals (perhaps this is tipping by another name?)

A different approach is being tried in Japan. Tokyo railway workers at Keihin Express Railway Co. have the option of checking the degree of their smile on a "smile meter". Using a digital camera on top of their PCs, customer service staff are able to get a reading on how well they are smiling before they start their service shift.

The smiling rating goes from "0" (grim faced) to "100" (a very broad smile). Company managers (who can also test their smiles) believe that "a smile goes a long way" to providing excellent service (anyone who has traveled on the Tokyo subway can attest to the service challenges these staff face).

By now you can no doubt spot the different management philosophies at play in these two approaches. The first is once again, bribing people to perform. And they are not being given any more responsibility than others who are not being bribed. The second, which is optional, leaves it to the individual to take direct responsibility for his or her performance.

Which will be more successful?

Well, if history can be any gauge, US airlines have been notoriously poor performers in the area of customer service. For instance, in the most recent airline surveys (Skytrax), there are 34 airlines rated higher than Delta or American – both of whom, only get a 3-star ranking. In comparison the six 5-star service airlines are all Asian, as are 12 of the 29 4-star airlines.

What underpins these differing results? As any well-read student of customer service will tell you, service starts with management. If managers treat their staff the way they want their staff to treat the customer, then they will get good service results. Are Delta and American managers to be rewarded for treating their staff better?

Now, you could say that there are cultural issues that impact the differing results here. And you'd be right. But there is also a very important management principle that seems to have been overlooked by the US airlines – what really motivates people to perform at their best?

You might think that I am being rather hard on the US airlines. Well, those Asia airlines who have tried the "bribery" approach have also failed. One such attempt was tried by Garuda with fatal (yes, cost of human life) results. Garuda, by the way still only rates as a 3-star airline.

Until the US airline managers and others with similar mindsets can work out what motivates people, their latest efforts at improving customer service will have no greater impact than what has been tried before. There's no substitute for good management and authentic leadership.

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About The Author

Bob Selden
Bob Selden

Bob Selden, is an author, management consultant and coach based in New Zealand and working internationally. Much of his time currently is spent working with family businesses. He's the author of the best-selling What To Do When You Become The Boss. His new book, What To Do When Leadership Is Needed, was released in July 2022.