Maybe it was because I knew I had this story coming up. Maybe it was coincidence. But in the last several weeks, some examples of poor service have stood out:
-I spent an entire Saturday waiting for an appliance repairman who did not come, despite assurances from the company when I called that they were running a bit behind, but he would be there soon. Nor did I ever hear from the company with an explanation.-When our of town for meetings recently, I had asked for breakfast to be delivered to my hotel room between 7:15 and 7:30. It arrived at 8:10. Eating it in time to get to my 8:30 meeting was no problem: it was barely lukewarm.
-The wake-up call I asked for at another hotel did not come at all. Luckily, I woke up on my own in time to get to the airport.
-And then there was the ironic fact that one of the people I called to get information for this story promised to get back to me with information I needed. When I hadn't heard from him and called back, i found he had gone for the weekend.
Everyone has a bad day: something can come up: these things happen. All legitimate excuses. And everyone can handle poor service once in awhile. But it is the cumulative effect of such incidences that fosters a growing cynicism on the part of consumers, who are wondering more and more often, just how good is the service out there?
A cover story in Time magazine last year noted, "personal service has become a maddeningly rare commodity in the American marketplace."
And that has become a concern to a lot of consumers, government officials and businesses alike.
Service is a crucial part of the marketplace. The service sector accounts for 60 percent of our gross national product and provides some 70 percent of American jobs. Of the new jobs created since the end of the last (1982) recession, almost 85 percent have been in service-related industries as opposed to goods-producing fields.
Because of the importance of service in the economy and to consumers, it was chosen as the focus of 1988 National Consumers Week. "Across our nation and around the world, consumers are sending business an important message: there is no substitute for good service, the kind on which companies make their reputation," notes Ronald Reagan in the consumer week proclamation. "Under free enterprise, we consumers express our views through our everyday marketplace decisions and require business to adapt to our changing consumer choices.
"Whether the transaction involves goods, services or both, quality of customer service is a crucial ingredient in the interaction between customer and business before, during, and after the sale. Service quality is often the factor that distinguishes businesses from one another."
The theme of National Consumer Week is "Consumers buy service." Governor Norman Bangerter was one of many governors across the nation who joined in the observance by proclaiming April 24-30 National Consumers Week in Utah. "The service sector accounts for 80 percent of Utah jobs," he noted. "Communications, transportation, utilities, banking, accounting, health care and home maintenance are but a few examples of service industries indispensible to our way of life."
A number of activities will be held throughout the state in honor of National Consumers Week and to focus attention on the importance of service.
A luncheon/seminar sponsored by the Utah League of Consumers focused on service from various different perspectives. Featured speakers included Fred Rollins, district director/marketing for Delta Airlines; William E. Dunn, director of the Utah State Department of Business Regulations; Craig Wirth, KTVX personality; and John Serfustini, director of public relations for Utah Power and Light.
Customer service is alive and well, says Fred Rollins. And it is very important in his industry. "All airlines are basically alike- they fly the same planes, they have competitive rates, so it it service and people that make the difference."
Delta, he says, starts internally in building good service. "We believe that happy employees are productive employees. If we take good care of them, they will in turn take good care of customers."
It is a philosophy that is apparently working. Since 1984, Delta has had the least number of consumer complaints of all the airlines, he says.
Service is a little different from the perspective of government agencies. "We don't depend on market forces to drive customers to or away from us," says William E. Dunn. "We function many times as 'the only game in town'."
But, he says, the rules of good business apply equally to governmental bodies. Better service reaps better rewards. "Like business, government too faces the bottom line, and the challenge is the same as it is for business. The constant bugaboo with government is how to continue to do more with less. Our staff is decreasing at at time when the services we provide are expanding."
These tight times often mean changing the way things are done, he says. "It takes creativity and courage to change a bureaucracy, but it can be done." An example, he says, is the Corporations Division. "If someone wants to have a company name registered to do business in Utah, he or she must contact the Division of Corporations and Commercial Code. In the past, this division has provided as many stumbling blocks to the process as it has assistance to the new business owner. Over the past year or so, a completely different notion has emerged that says, "Lets encourage economic development by making it as easy as possible for the new business owner to get going." A number of changes are being implemented, he says, that will accomplish this goal.
Speaking from the typical consumer's point of view, Craig Wirth notes that we are lucky to be living in Utah where the overall level of good service seems to be higher than in many places.
"In the larger cities like New York and L.A., you can expect great adrenalin-charged fights every day- particularly when you go into banks and hotels."
Despite the fact that he has lived on the East and West Coasts for a number of years, he says, he has kept a bank account in Salt Lake- "just because the bank is so nice to me, I come up and buy my cars in Utah because they are so much nicer to deal with."
But, he says, it doesn't have to be us vs. them. "There are ways to prevent the battle. Your basic smile and a bit of humor can go a long way in preventing problems.
"Consumers can do as much as businesses to create a pleasant business atmosphere. A basic truth to remember is: Expect to get what you pay for-- and be realistic.
"On the other hand, businesses will not win customers with Muzak and fancy trappings. They have to deliver, too."
Service is an important part of any business strategy. But the customer has responsibilities, too. Consumers need to be informed, to ask questions necessary to receive the product or service they want or need.
And consumers should evaluate their role in the service they receive. Have they been demanding, impatient or made unreasonable requests of the business? Can the consumer's attitude have had something to do with the service they receive?
If not, and the service has been poor, consumers should also complain. Michael LeBoeuf in "How to win customers and keep them for life" notes: "A typical business hears from only four percent of its dissatisfied customers. The other 96 percent just quietly go away, and 91 percent never return."
It all comes back, says Virginia H. Knauer, special adviser to the President for Consumer Affairs, to the fact that "consumers buy service." And that's what this year's National Consumers Week theme is all about. "Our message," says Knauer, "is that consumers appreciate good service and businesses profit by paying attention to service. In fact, customer service is emerging as a key competitive advantage today, not only in the domestic marketplace, but also in the expanding international arena."
Tips on service
In honor of National Consumers Week, the Utah Division of Consumer Protection and the Better Business Bureau have published a Consumer's Calendar that gives month-by-month tips on getting better service and finding the best buys. Included are such things as:
-Stores are entitled to set their own policies for refunds. Be sure you know the policy before you buy. However, if you can prove the item is defective or that it was misrepresented to you, you are entitled to a refund.
-Before authorizing repairs on your car or your home, always request a written estimate. Request all information about warranties on those repairs.
-Be wary of any offers of a "free" vacation. Be sure you know who is offering the vacation and what conditions might apply.
-The average gratuity tip is 15 percent. If you receive special service, 20 percent would be appropriate.
-The best protection you have against fraud is your own consumer knowledge. Remember, the majority of business want repeat customers and are anxious to solve any problems that arise.
Copies of the calendar can be picked up at the Division of Consumer Protection, 4th floor, Heber Wells Building, 160 E. Third South; or at the Better Business Bureau, 1588 South Main. Or, you can send a legal-sized, stamped, self-addressed envelope to: Consumer Calendar, Division of Consumer Protection, P.O. Box 45802, Salt Lake City, Utah 84145-0801. There is no charge for this calendar.