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The Whiteboard: Service and simple processes are critical for customer satisfaction

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It is interesting and a bit discouraging to see an employee trying hard to be a courteous representative of an organization that presents a nice facade but really doesn't get it.

Sometimes the results are more maddening than if the employee had just been clueless and rude.

One day this week, I was working in Reading, a good one-hour drive from my home in York. For several days I had been feeling subpar. Near the end of the day, I decided to call my family doctor to try to make an appointment for the next morning. I called and listened to the usual lengthy lineup of messages from the auto-attendant, starting with, "Listen carefully!"

The auto-attendant goes right into put-you-in-your-place mode, but it does it nicely. "If you are not a health care professional, DO NOT PRESS ONE," it intones in a pleasant but commanding voice. I once did it by accident and found out why they don't want patients doing that — a human nurse picks up immediately.

When I got to the part where I was allowed to press a button, I did, and in short order a pleasant woman answered. I explained that I was calling because I was concerned about a condition that had lasted several days and hoped she could fit me in for an appointment in the morning. She responded sweetly saying, "You can't call today to make an appointment for tomorrow if you think you are sick."

My response, "You're kidding, right?" didn't faze her.

"No, sir. I'm sorry, but that is what we call a same-day sick appointment." She instructed me to call first thing in the morning when my illness and the doctors' schedules would reach conjunction, coexisting in the same box on the calendar.

When I described this to my wife that evening, she responded like a veteran. "That's what they do," she said. "They make you call first thing, along with every other sick person in town. You might get through after half an hour or longer on hold."

I didn't have time in the morning to be on hold. I knew I might beat the system by pressing "one," but I decided I would rather see if nature would take its course without the doctor than face retribution for not being a health care professional.

This encounter was a great example of an organization with little or no concern for customer satisfaction putting nice people on the front lines to execute its cold and impersonal policies. Apparently the chance that I might get better overnight without medical care and might not need an appointment, made one day in advance, places an unacceptable scheduling burden on the practice. What better way to solve that problem than to transfer the burden to me, the customer?

Here is the real message: "We do things our way around here. Scheduling is to suit us, and you must conform. There is no appeal, because that's how this organization rolls. Have a nice day. "

It is really disturbing, but for me, covering it with a thin veneer of niceness provided by the front desk is really depressing. Putting an officious crank on the desk would be more honest.

A second encounter with customer dissatisfaction in the same week was a different case — an organization that wants to satisfy but doesn't know how.

I went to a department store to buy a few things. The cashier told me there would be a coupon in the paper the next day for a 20 percent discount. She asked if I would like a "pre-sale" discount. I accepted.

It sounded good, but then she rang up the sale and told me to return to the register the next day with a newspaper coupon to claim my bag. Granting a "pre-sale" discount and making me return during the sale didn't make sense to me, but what do I know?

The next morning, I bought a newspaper I didn't need for the coupon. There was no coupon, just an ad for a 20 percent discount. The cashier had been misinformed. When I arrived at the store, my bag wasn't at the register; it had been taken to some manager's office.

I waited 20 minutes while watching the cashiers alternately try to raise the manager while checking out other customers. The discount wasn't worth the hassle.

This organization isn't cold and impersonal. It just makes simple things difficult. Its front-line people try, but there is nothing to back them up.

Nice, courteous front-line people are the last piece of the customer satisfaction puzzle, not the first. The foundations of customer satisfaction are an organization with customer satisfaction as a core value and smart, simple processes that make sense to the customer and deliver value.

Without those, being nice doesn't do much good.

Richard Randall is founder and president of management-consulting firm New Level Advisors in Springettsbury Township, York County. Email him at

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