Tip of the cap to good service: Tom Peters On excellence

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THESE ARE the Nanosecond Nineties. The pace of change is dizzying. But, unfortunately, some things never change. The fact is, it's about as hard as it ever was to get through a week (or a day) without confronting rotten service.

While on a post-Christmas trip to Manhattan, I popped into a relatively new uptown department store. The products on offer were eye-popping. I was mainly there just to look, but I did want to buy an old-fashioned woollen cap, because the weather in New York had turned much colder than had been expected.

To my delight, I found one. To my horror, it appeared to be made of cashmere. I hate to admit it but I was desperate enough to pay almost anything for warm ears. (And there aren't many stores selling cheap military surplus clothing in Manhattan.)

I took my expensive purchase to the nearest cashier's counter, but the cap had no price-tag. The clerk, while he said he was sure it cost dollars 45, wouldn't ring it up without the tag. He looked round for help and eventually caught the eye of a co-worker, who then sauntered over to the hat display rack to look for the missing price information.

She came over after a couple of minutes, and - pointedly not looking at me, or so it felt - told the cash-register clerk: 'I couldn't figure it out - so I've called the manager, and she's going to check on it.'

'How long will that take?' I gently interjected, non- person though I was. She just turned and walked away.

Another few minutes passed - no exact count (I didn't have my Shoddy Customer Service Gotcha Stopwatch with me). Nothing happened. Then the cash-register clerk disappeared. I left.

Four days later, New Year's Day, I was staying at a hotel in Burlington, Vermont, after attending a friend's birthday party. Hoping to catch the last half of the Orange Bowl football game, I switched the cable TV in my room to the local NBC station. The reception was unwatchably fuzzy. I called the front desk and the clerk said she'd send up an engineer.

None came. My wife and I watched In the Line of Fire with Clint Eastwood instead.

Early the next afternoon, I wanted to watch another football game on NBC. Turned on the TV. Same trouble.

I called downstairs and, after I explained the previous night's foul-up and its continuation, the desk clerk apologised. Said she'd send an engineer 'right up'. By the time I checked out of the hotel, two hours later, he still hadn't made it up to the sixth floor.

You have all heard such tales before, from me and others. And your own are just as bad. So what is the problem?

As the late Dr Edwards Deming told us, again and again, it is screwed-up management.

And the answer? 'It's not that hard, folks.' (I think I'll throw up the next time I hear Ross Perot say that, while discussing - if that's the right word - an issue of national policy. But he does have a point saying it when it comes to managing the average enterprise.

In fact, his little slogan came to mind while shopping at my local supermarket. There was a winter storm forecast and the store was crowded as all get out. I quickly gathered a few emergency items for surviving a blizzard and headed for the express checkouts.

What a mess. The queues for the two checkout lanes crossed each other at least once, then snaked down a food aisle, making shopping for other customers all but impossible. People were cutting in front of each other. Tempers flared.

As I stood there, alternately moving toward and then away from my distant goal, I wondered: 'Where in the hell is the store manager?'

No, it's not that hard. I'd love the job of store manager, even in a big supermarket chain. You could make over a store to your own image, no matter what kind of idiot was running the corporation.

Take my sorry experience. A store manager with a grain of imagination could have turned it into a plus. He or she could have gotten out on the floor and played traffic cop, entertainer and talk-show host. Sorted out the queues. Greeted the customers. (A manager should know many of them by name.)

A good manager could have helped people in the jammed food aisle find what they were looking for - and given the cash-register clerks a hand, perhaps bagging the groceries for a moment or two.

I'm not a rose-coloured glasses type. Believe me, this was not a problem. It was a golden opportunity. A chance to show one's face for 10 or 15 minutes at a critical time and set the tone for customers and employees alike. The whole world - the world of that store, at any rate - would have started spinning in the opposite direction.

Too many managers think that glitzy products and a spiffy database are substitutes for scintillating customer service. And they pay an awful price. As a matter of fact, they may pay with their jobs eventually.

Copyright TPG Communications

(Photograph omitted)