Customer Service: Better or Worse?

Gap en Cimes 2009 photos Josette (2)The ‘50’s version of Dilbert was a very popular comic strip called Mutt and Jeff. The clever “tongue in cheek” style made many a reader chuckle over their eggs and bacon before rushing off to the office. One strip had Mutt and Jeff enjoying a bit of verbal sparring.

“If everyone saw like I did,” boasted Jeff, “Everyone would want my wife.”

“If everyone saw like I did,” quipped Mutt, “No one would want your wife.”

It provided a humorous lesson on the “eye of the beholder” side of understanding relationships and experiences. When someone asks us, “Why has service gotten so bad,” we think of that comic strip.

Remember the scene in the movie Back to the Future when a customer pulled into a gas station and two squeaky clean attendants cheerfully washed the windshield and carefully checked the engine fluids? Audiences laughed at the obvious spoof.

Was that great service? We do not remember thinking it was back then. It was typical neighborly care by local employees with plenty of time to leisurely serve one customer at a time. They worked for an enterprise with reasonably healthy margins, friendly competition; and without the scrutiny of regulators, the screams of litigious consumers, or the impatience of shareholders. They served customers with limited choices, relatively low expectations, and plenty of time to wait.

Perhaps the gap between good and bad service is less about how far the bottom has dropped and more about how high the ceiling has been raised. As customers, we are a lot smarted than we have ever been. Recall buying your last car? You probably had more information than the sales person had tactics. Additionally, we customers have witnessed great service in pockets of our lives. When the FedEx or UPS delivery person walks fast, we assume the postal service person should do likewise. When we get a company to answer our phone call quickly with smart people we can understand, we get irritated with all those who provide us with less.

It is true that as the landscape of business has changed from the sixties. And, some companies have given us a glimpse of the global economy up close and person by outsourcing call centers to foreign soil with operators who struggle with English or requests that deviate from the script. There are companies that have cut the budget for the frontline, leaving customers to spar with an overworked, indifferent idiot. But a growing number of companies have learned that happy employees make happy customers and are zeroing in on cultural enrichment to increase employee morale.

More and more companies are getting better at communicating with customers so their expectations are more realistic. They are finding better tools to gather customer intelligence so they can be more precise in their offerings. They are helping customers become more knowledgeable customers. And, they are using service hiccups as tools for learning and improvement, not just as alarms for cosmetic damage control.

The payoff is as unmistakable as the message is clear. Look at the bottom lines of Nordstrom, Target, Publix,, Zappo’ and Costco. As customers rave about the great service they receive, investors rave about increasing business growth and profits. Companies in the top 20% of the American Customer Satisfaction Index conducted by the University of Michigan outperformed the Dow Jones Industrial Average by 93%, Standard & Poor’s by 201%, and the NASDAQ by 355%. These companies yielded an average return of 40%.

So, has customer service deteriorated or gotten better? It depends on whether you are asking Mutt or Jeff!

Writer Bio: Chip Bell and John Patterson are customer loyalty consultants and the authors of the best-selling book Take Their Breath Away:  How Imaginative Service Creates Devoted Customers.  They can be reached at

photo credit: akunamatata

One Response to “Customer Service: Better or Worse?”

  1. CustServ: Customer Relations: The New Competitive Edge said:

    Oct 19, 09 at 5:48 am

    […] Service Untitled takes us back to the basic, and show us what is good and bad customer service. Perhaps the gap between good and bad service is less about how far the bottom has dropped and more about how high the ceiling has been raised. Read on… […]