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What is customer service? (2nd Place: Essay Contest Winners).

Tired of horrific customer service? Frustrated by wrong answers, bad attitudes, patronizing explanations, and just plain rudeness? Although poor customer service has crept into many American institutions, there is hops!

So, what is this illusive thing that irritates us so? How do we fix in organizations we manage?

Few descriptors serve to define it. Some say quality customer service stems from a positive attitude, an innate desire to serve, a calling to a higher purpose, a genuine like of people, or the outward manifestation of self-assuredness.

In its most fundamental form, customer service is really nothing more than treating customers with respect. Though this over-simplistic definition may well be the crown jewel of customer service axioms, one should have no illusions-organizational implementation requires much more than a proclamation.

Implementing quality customer service depends upon several key ingredients: a commitment by management, employee incentives based upon service, continual oversight of customer operations, and engaged follow-up. Customer service is not overhead; it is operational and should warrant our most talented employees. After all, the reputation of the entire organization rests squarely on the shoulders of customer service-the only interface between customers and the product is customer service.

And, like it or not, customer service personnel speak for the agency.

Okay, by now you are probably convinced that enhanced customer service would materially improve an organization. The question becomes, What is it and how do I get some?

Let's start by breaking it down into its fundamental pieces.

Quality customer service begins long before the employee interfaces with the customer and ends long after their encounter. Each element of the customer service equation builds upon the previous and serves as a catalyst to the next. There are five basic elements of customer service that warrant consideration:

* An environment that fosters an expectation of quality service

* Managing the queue

* The customer service experience

* Follow-up

* Analysis and feedback

The Environment

The expectation of quality customer service is established long before the customer ever meets the clerk. Even from outside the building, the customer formulates the expectation of service. If the building is old and unkempt, and paper signs are taped to the door and glass, then the expectation is suboptimized. How many people expect a convenience store environment when they enter their doctor's or lawyer's office? The same holds true for those involved in financial management.

The comptroller's office is the primary advisor to the commander on financial matters. Money is the single most important ingredient in a soldier/sailor/sirman's security and when he or she needs customer service, the expectation of quality is paramount. An uncluttered environment adorned with professional signs and a clean, upscale waiting area are the expectation-anything less creates an anxiety before the customer is ever waited on. This is job one; start here. Customer service can't be fixed in the middle.

Two other points on facilities: One is that a commitment to enhancing customer waiting areas sends a powerful message throughout the organization on management's expectations and priorities. The job of "selling" customer service to customer service personnel will be materially enhanced by management's up-front facility commitment.

The second point is this: Allow customers personal space for personal conversations. Customer service in a financial management environment often involves very personal issues (divorce decress, bad checks, liens, etc.). Enhance facilities to allow customers a quiet enclave to discuss personal issues.

This should not be at someone's desk where kids' pictures are all around, the desk is cluttered, and printers are going. An uninhabited desk in a secluded, private, and clean area is appropriate. The clerk can meet the customer there instead of having him or her come to the clerk's desk. In no case should the customer have to discuss private matters at the front counter.

Managing the Queue

Waiting customers create a huge vulnerability to quality customer service. If the organization has made a good impression with its facilities, it can quickly lose momentum if customers are kept waiting. Three points here: Keep customers productive; barring that, keep them entertained; and in all cases stay engaged with them.

The best technique to employ waiting customers is the self-help option. If someone chooses to use it, it takes him or her out of the waiting queue, and the organization satisfies the customer without ever having to wait on him or her. If customers choose not to use self-help, they are at least flattered that the option is available and can spend idle waiting time exploring self-help options. Continually enhance self-help capabilities to reduce the customer pool awaiting personal service.

Another important technique is an electronic sign-in that tees up the waiting population. A lobby monitor that shows how many are in the queue and the average waiting time is readily available commercially.

This system can be further enhanced by placing computer screens adjacent to staff personnel that show the waiting queue and change colors or audibly signal when the waiting line exceeds pre-described limits. This provides a surge capability from within that can stabilize peak customer service periods and thwart anyone's having to wait extended periods.

If self-help is not appropriate, then a battery of options are available to keep customers entertained. Everything from lobby TVs to looped instructional video to magazines (current and nor torn) will displace the tension created by a long wait.

Finally, and most importantly, stay engaged with the waiting population--they are customers, too. The savvy clerk will say, "For those of you waiting, we do offer allotments on our self-help machines; otherwise, we will be with you shortly." When the clerk notices someone particularly anxious, he or she can simply greet the person or smile. All of these reassurances tend to quiet the experience and improve satisfaction.

The Customer Experience

More don'ts than do's here. Do nor let the customer view the work area from the lobby--nothing frustrates customers more than to see someone in the back" doing nothing while they are waiting. Do not let clerks chitchat among themselves while customers wait.

Customers are to be greeted, not just glared at. A slight tip of the head signifying the clerk is ready to assist them is not a greeting! Customer exchanges should start with a recognition of the customers sacrifice if he or she had to wait: "Thank you for waiting; may I help you?"

Do not allow food, drink, or gum at the counter. Film and record all customer service--this protects clerks, holds customers accountable, and maintains professionalism. Also, customer service supervisors should stay connected to the counter (phone, bell, or personal communication device). Personnel should not leave the counter to go looking for supervisors.

Additionally, engage the customers in customer service; don't let the clerk fill out 5 forms in triplicate, with the only role for the customers being to "sign here." Explain what results to expect and when. Tell customers what to do if they don't get expected results, thank them with sincerity for coming in, and ask them to fill out a customer feedback form.


Nothing puts the bow around a quality customer experience more than follow-up. Clerks should always do what they say they are going to do. "I will give you a call" sets up an expectation that is either fulfilled or unrealized. If unrealized, then credibility suffers.

An e-mail that is automatically generated from the electronic sign-in can be a no-cost, highly effective follow-up method. The e-mail can be as simple as this: "Thank you for visiting your Pentagon Financial Services Office on 2 Feb 02. I hope your service was satisfactory. If you need additional service, please call...."

Always have management personally respond to handwritten surveys that document poor customer service--word travels fast!

Analysis and Feedback

The only way to measure success in customer service is to do the homework. Closely monitor customer service trends, specific feedback, operational limitations, and customer impressions. Take swift action to remove incompatible personnel from interfacing with customers. Hold weekly sessions on customer service; demonstrate a commitment. Set the expectation, hold clerks accountable for satisfaction rates, and hold standards high.

Someone said that a pessimist has no motor, but an optimist has no brakes. Do not let the clerk's motivation create the organization's performance ceiling. Employee incentives should be directly tied to satisfaction rates--feedback should document success and shortcomings.

So, Again, What Is Customer Service?

Customer service is a set of guiding principles that, if properly implemented, can change the organizations reputation. There is nothing illusive about the concept, nothing mysterious about its implementation. Properly implemented and monitored, it becomes a catalyst to success.

So the next time you get the rude stare, the wrong answer, or the bad attitude, stop and reflect on the five tools of service. First ask yourself if the agency could benefit from these principles; then share them with the manager. Customer service is a target-rich environment. One agency at a time, one step at a time, customer service can be improved. Our warriors certainly deserve it!

Colonel Roger A. Bick is Chief, Personnel and Training Division, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Budget Operations. He enlisted in the Air Force on July 29, 1977 In 1979 he was selected for Officer Training School and was commissioned as a distinguished graduate in January 1980. He has held numerous financial management positions at Air Force bases, including AFO at Mother, Budget Officer at Keesler, and MAJCOM analyst at Randolph, and two Air Staff tours. Cal. Bick served in a joint assignment at Geilenkirchen and was commander of the 16th Comptroller Squadron at Hurlburt. He has served as base inspector general and was selected as a Joint Services Officer. Col. Sick attended SOS, ACSC, AFSC, and AWC in residence. He has earned numerous awards, including Best Comptroller in the Air Force, Best Comptroller Organization in the Air Force, and the ASMC Distinguished Award for Best Comptroller in DoD, Best FM Team in DoD, and Best AFO in DoD. Col. Sick was assigned to his current position o n July 5,2000, and was recently selected as a candidate for Support Group Command during the 2002 -2003 cycle.
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Author:Bick, Colonel Roger A.
Publication:Armed Forces Comptroller
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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