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SERVICE OPERATIONS: SPEED AND STAFF

by Rene T. Domingo (email comments to rtd@aim.edu)

In the busy domestic ticketing offices of Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways in Tokyo, there are no chairs nor sofas where customers can sit and wait on. There is no need: it is company policy that a customer should get his airline ticket and finish all necessary transactions (reservation, payment, issuance) within 3 minutes flat. The hospital is another example of a service institution that should render quick service to its patient-customers. Generally, the longer the patient stays in the hospital the more ineffective and inefficient it is. As patients, we all want the hospital to let us out as fast as possible - preferably well and alive.

In service industries, in contrast to manufacturing industries, customers mind very much not only the speed, but also the quality of the service and server. We care a lot about how well and how fast the flight stewardess, bank teller, or supermarket cashier serves us, but we are not that fussy on which factory workers made our television sets and electric fans and how they assembled these products.

What is the difference? In service industries, there is direct interaction between the customer and the producer (provider) of the service, whereas in the case of manufactured goods, there is no such direct contact - the customer confronts, not the producer, but the inanimate product, which cannot communicate and answer complaints. In getting service, the customer can observe the service being rendered; more importantly, he takes part in the service process as he himself is the product being processed. The customer can affect the quality and outcome of the service. In the case of manufacturing, the customer does not and cannot observe and participate in the production process. His role is immediate usage or consumption of the commodity. In case of quality problems, the most he can do is return the product, have it replaced, or get a refund. In service industries, he can establish rapport with the service provider such that he gets just the kind of service he likes. In case of problems - gross mistakes or negligence - he can complain directly to the server, react violently, and get the message or warning across immediately. Manufacturers seldom get such valuable customer feedback information that quick.

What then do we mean by quality and efficient service? There is only one criterion: customer satisfaction. Customers in service industries want good and prompt service. In other words, they want to get out of that bank or department store as soon as possible as satisfied customers. But it is very common to see long queues of tired customers who are willing to get served, pay, and give business to various service industries. It is ironic that people who are willing to give business are made to line up for a long time. But this long processing time is often due not to an increase in business but more due to poor capacity planning by management, inefficient back room operations, and untrained and indifferent front office employees. Examples of front-office staff we deal with regularly are tellers, cashiers, stewardess, waiters, hotel receptionists, desk clerks, nurses, etc. A survey of passengers in the airline industry shows that next to airfares, the stewardess (her work attitude and efficiency), is the most important criterion of passengers for choosing and patronizing an airline. It would not be surprising if similar surveys done on other service industries would indicate that the efficiency of front line employees is one of the critical if not the most critical indicators of repeat business by customers.

How many times have we been irritated by inefficient service personnel. Customers can fight back and have many ways to counter the poor service. First they could start a quarrel and create a scene, or demand their money back. Others would reduce business with that company or go there less frequently. But their strongest reaction would be to stop going there at all, tell their friends how badly they were treated and discourage them from experiencing the same agony, and lastly, go and patronize a competitor. Many front line employees do not realize that it is the customers who eventually pay their salaries and not the company. And they have direct and daily contact with this very sensitive and very important people. Front line employees, especially the poorly motivated and improperly trained ones which abound, can actually break and cripple the company's business or at least stunt its growth. Without the knowledge of management, they can be shooing away customers and driving them to the arms of the competitors.

Another important activity of service industries is the back room operations which support the front office operations. Examples of back room staff are the ground and maintenance crew of airlines, accounting clerks and signature verifiers in banks, cooks in restaurants, and stockroom personnel of department stores and supermarkets. Though these employees do not have face to face contact with the customers, they are as important if not more important in determining the final quality and promptness of customer service rendered. If the back room operation is inefficient and slow, the front operations cannot deliver the required service on time. The real customers of the back room people are the front office staff. The good looks and big smiles of the front office employees cannot make up for the resulting long delays nor soothe the impatience and irritation of customers who may have more important things to do in life than wait. Back room people deserve the same kind and degree of training and motivation as front office staff so that they may serve the customers efficiently and promptly.

An illustrative case of bad service occurred when I was withdrawing some cash from my account in a bank. All forms were properly accomplished. There was no queue. After 25 minutes of waiting, the bank teller finally asked me if I could wait a little longer for the cash because one of the signatories was having her early 11:45 a.m. lunch inside one of the stockrooms. Unamused, I asked if there were no substitutes or if that lady in the stockroom could be requested for a few seconds to come out and process my account. The helpless teller retorted that she was the only one available and she was incommunicado: the stockroom was locked. This bank employee was hesitant to knock and disturb her because I presume she was higher-ranking. They finally got her out after I feigned that I had an important luncheon meeting.

The service staff should also be trained to always thank the customer. A customer who feels that he is given importance will come back again and again. The company and its employees should thank the customer because of his patronage and not because of the size of his transaction. Thank the customer whether he is depositing, withdrawing, borrowing money, buying an expensive or bargain item, staying for one day or 3 weeks, having a banquet or just drinking a glass of juice. The Japanese are well known for thanking their customers profusely. In fact, in most big department stores in Japan, there are full-time staff near the entrance who do nothing but welcome every customer who comes in and thank every one who goes out - with or without a purchase.

Some managers, in their cozy isolated executive rooms at the top floor, do not realize the tremendous potential power of their rank and file employees to make and unmake business for the company. The only time these company executives see the ground floor operations is in the morning when they have to take the elevator to get to their suites on top. Others who are more allergic to seeing their people work, use the back room elevator so that they don't see a trace of their employees. The other time you see these executives and managers on the ground floor is when the PR staff are taking pictures for the annual report or newspaper showing them "mixing" with the employees and "intently" concerned with operation and service efficiency. You also see them when they have important guests and dignitaries to show around the company; but their subordinates do the talking and explaining because these highly paid executives do not really understand the company's operations and business - they are either too aloof and/or incapable of appreciating and comprehending ground operations, the lifeblood of the company. Lastly, you see them on the first floor when a crisis occurs: a big and angry client is about to pull out his account, a bank run is in progress, a fire or theft has occurred, etc. You see them giving confused directions and instructions, and of course, blaming everybody else except themselves.

In conclusion, customer service is the concern of both management and the employees. Service operations should not waste the customer's valuable time. The faster he gets in and gets out, the better.


 

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