Do Tough Economic Times Result in Customer Service Improvements?

Do Tough Economic Times Result in Customer Service Improvements?

A business acquaintance recently asked my opinion on the current state of customer service in this tough economy. The reason? She had just returned from some routine business travel and found the customer service, from beginning to end, to be nothing short of effusive. I could not stop her as she sang the praises of the taxi driver, the airline gate agent, the flight attendants, the bell staff, the concierge, the restaurant servers, and on and on. She reported that she felt an obvious, heartfelt appreciation of her patronage from many employees.

What was her explanation of this phenomenon? Perhaps the current economic circumstances have made the service workers increasingly grateful for their continued employment. Surely those who are grateful for their jobs would be grateful for the customers who make their jobs possible. Perhaps this could be the return of unilateral great customer service, where customers feel truly appreciated.

I pondered her observation and tried to find similar situations in my own hometown, to explore her theory in consumer perception on a local level. I found her theory played out well in some businesses, and in others, the opposite effect seemed to be true. Customers were ignored while employees debated who would be given more working hours that week, or discussed the fate of their colleagues who had recently been laid off, speculating about who would “be next,” even guessing how long the establishment would remain open for business. What could account for the differences in scenario?

I suggest: Leadership. Optimistic managers can turn our economic circumstance into opportunity for teaching the true value of customer satisfaction in terms of retention, word of mouth advertising, repeat business, recovery opportunities when something goes wrong, and other possibly positive domino effects. These optimistic employees are really “feeling it”: that appreciation of customers, who are a beginning of all good things that can happen for a business.

The customers themselves are a variable in the economic downturn. Those harder-earned dollars are won and parted with less quickly. This means that an employee’s genuine thank you, a “little-something-extra” attention, or an establishment’s real, heartfelt care for detail really resonates with the customer. Show extra service and appreciation at just the time the customer needs it: what a tremendous opportunity to win customers!

Of course, there is still the dark side of leadership on this economic coin. On this side, managers fear for their jobs; poor internal communication results in rumors and speculation, which further feeds uncertainty. Devalued employees find it difficult to respect customers. By the same token, customers are less willing to part with their dollars these days, and thus, needier of respect. Today’s customer is more likely to take business elsewhere if not satisfied immediately. Choices abound. Who wants to spend money on “the dark side” when one can feel welcomed and appreciated elsewhere?

A healthy respect for reality is always in order; however, we have a choice of how to view this economic climate. Now is the right time for all leaders to evaluate the stance we model, the attitudes we display and the pessimism we cannot afford to tolerate.

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