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What is Customer Service? (1st Place: Essay Contest Winners).

The business war has shifted onto a new battlefield. With each decade, a new focal point evolves. To achieve the competitive advantage in the 1960s, marketing became the area of concentration. Manufacturing replaced marketing as the hot topic for the 1970s, and quality and quality assurance were paramount in the 1980s. For the decade of the 1990s and into the new millennium, service to the customer has reasserted itself as the number-one factor leading to business success and continued growth. So the story goes--at least on paper.

Picture this. A taxi pulls up to a prestigious hotel. The door is opened, the trunk is emptied of its baggage, and the passenger is escorted to the registration desk. So far, so good. But wait. Upon arriving at the desk, the customer is totally ignored by the two attendants, who are engaged in lively conversation while sharing comments over a magazine and discussing their love lives.

Better yet, an employee is on her lunch hour and has a must-attend-to banking transaction. She stands in the line at the bank for 20 minutes; when her turn finally comes, the teller informs her that she cannot cash the employee's check until the loan officer, who is out to lunch, approves it. The customer is then unceremoniously dismissed with a terse "Next person in line."

Two stories, perhaps with a familiar ring. What is missing? In a word, SERVICE. In two words, CUSTOMER SERVICE. The old axiom the customer is always right has long since lost its place in the customer-vendor relationship. The campaign and necessity to bring this ever-increasing problem to the surface peaked on September 11, 2001; and in the days that have followed, how we treat and respect each other has been critically examined and challenged. The repair, re-creation, and restoration of the American value system are a great start point to develop or restore goals of customer service to the forefront in each organization, company, and workplace.

Yet, too frequently customer service remains substandard. The business world today is in the midst of a service crisis, while too many managers are unaware of it. Even those who do recognize this issue seldom understand how, or are simply unwilling, to cope with it. The price of this inattentiveness and complacency can be monumental; countless organizations have been shattered because of their inability or failure to render the quality and timely service their customers deserve and expect.

What is customer service? To dispel a misconception, it is not a mechanical process of handling a transaction. It mandates a relationship with people who are an essential part of everything we do. In the broadest sense of the term, customer service should be viewed as whatever reasonably maximizes customer satisfaction. Service and satisfaction are inseparable in the development of a customer service strategic plan.

We have seen this mandate play out many times over the last several months. As our nation responds to its new challenges, the future will certainly hold many more displays of courage, with the needs of the "customers" and America (or on a smaller scale, our company or organization) prevailing. Thus, the analogy of the vendor and customer. What is missing? The establishment of the need, that is, the real demand of the customer.

It is equally important to know why it is so vital that we be concerned with customer service. We read about the importance of serving customers well, but poor service is still too common. Without recognizing that excellent business results directly relate to excellent customer service, there is a fallacy of not understanding that there is an inextricable connection between organizational success and customer satisfaction (service).

Managers cannot necessarily affect their organization's (company's) culture or its way of operating; however, they can understand how critical it is to improve their ability to continuously help customers fulfill their needs by doing business with their organization. A dedicated effort to accomplish this can translate an operating procedure into an attitude and a set of actions that will result in mutually beneficial relationships between the organization and its customers.

The overwhelming issue facing humanity today--and in the future--is the fate of our society and organizations. Every other issue depends on it. Individuals start revolutions. Agencies in the United States government, large corporations or systems, or small businesses contain these individuals. Their campaign-their revolution-is under way. Each triumph may be small, but when combined, they can lead to many possibilities. Individuals recruit other "revolutionaries," and more power is realized to achieve the ultimate goal of service...service to the customer.

Customer service must begin with a real, sincere plan, including a concept for its execution. Most companies and organizations have strategic plans, but their failures lie in poor execution. To secure a decisive competitive edge, companies and organizations must devise service strategies, behave like customer service fanatics, create a massive concentration on motivating and properly training their employees, and design products and services that make good customer service achievable.

Active leader involvement is instrumental in converting strategy to reality. Unless leaders profess the "religion" of customer service, employees will view the most elegant strategy as just another easily ignored public relations campaign. This is best supported by another universally accepted axiom: actions speak louder than words. When leaders of organizations insist on outstanding customer service, they pronounce their beliefs and back up their strategies with actions.

When contributing to the September 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review Report on one of the nation's top goals, transformation, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said, "Transformation is not a goal of tomorrow, but an endeavor that must be embraced in earnest today." The same words apply to customer service--replace transformation with customer service--that is, customer service is not a goal of tomorrow, but an endeavor that must be embraced in earnest today.

So, what should be our customer service goal? For starters, a service culture must be nurtured that will shape employee attitudes and behavior more effectively than mere rules, regulations, quotas, and the like. It must insist that service is everybody's business. Others must be empowered to make on-the-spot, positive decisions in the customer's interest. Cutting through the red tape and eliminating bureaucracy are absolute musts in delivering great customer service.

The icing on the cake is to invest in a service infrastructure and constantly monitor the achievement of customer service goals. Remember, too, that as an organization embarks on its campaign, customers want, expect, and need recognition. The fact is that service providers want recognition, as do managers; we all do. It is when customer service goals are tantamount to an organization's goals that these factors can be executed to attain excellent service to the customer.

With the right focus and the right set of beliefs and strategies, organizations (whether a part of corporate America or in the United States government) can have the best years ever ahead. Quality customer service can return to America's battlefield, just as loyalty, pride, and patriotism have returned and continue to grow. The renowned, certified speaking professional Mrs. Emory Austin cleverly states in her signature presentation (and I have paraphrased) that yes, perhaps your customer is NOT always right; however, your customer is always your customer.

The ultimate start point begins with you and me!

Debra Crandol Nicolai is in the CP-11 career field. She is currently a management and program analyst in the Commercial Activities Directorate of the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Resource Management at Headquarters, US. Army Training and Doctrine Command. Ms. Nicolai has served in a variety of positions spanning a 25-year civil service career Most recently, she graduated from the Sustaining Base Leadership and Management (SBLM) Course 00-1 ("First of the Twenty-First") at the Army Management Staff College and completed Organizational Leadership for Executives. Her professional article requirement in SBLM was later published as a feature article in Resource Management (3rd Quarter, 2000). She is a member in good standing of the American Society of Military Comptrollers, Hampton Roads Chapter.
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Author:Nicolai, Debra C.
Publication:Armed Forces Comptroller
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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