Whatever Happened to Good Service?

It's one thing to be insulted. It's another to pay to be insulted.

Whatever happened to service, let alone service with a smile?

Today, it seems like customers are more of an inconvenience to businesses than an asset.

Got a problem with your cell phone or cable?

Well, after you are done pressing 1 for English, 6 for technical assistance and then ##75*8 to get to a live person, enjoy your 40 minutes on hold.

And all you need to say is "airlines" to spur a fit of post-traumatic stress in countless Americans.

So, why has it gotten so bad?

"The traditional services are declining badly because of cost issues," said Roland Rust, executive director of the Center for Excellence in Service at the University of Maryland. "The companies ... tend to think that the only way they can drive the bottom line is by cutting costs. They tend to do this by firing people. As a result, service is just terrible."

Rust said this is a short-term approach "that is rewarded too much by the stock market."

While service in the airline industry is at an all-time low, Rust said there are new and improved services elsewhere.

"People don't think about Google as a service, but that's exactly what it is," he said.

Today, people can check out restaurant menus and order home delivery online, he noted. They can also check out medical information or get directions online.

Cathy Enz, a professor of strategy at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration, said she doesn't see a broad decline in service, but more of a customizing of services where companies charge you for everything.

"Things that used to be free, now have a price tag attached to them," Enz said.

Terror at 40,000 Feet

Look no further than the airlines, which now charge to check bags, have a soda onboard, redeem free flights with frequent flier miles, or even talk to a reservation agent on the phone.

The airlines are particularly unpopular with customers these days. They rank lower than all other industries, including cable companies, cell phone carriers and even the United States Postal Service, in the University of Michigan's annual American Customer Satisfaction Index.

"I'm old enough that I remember dressing up to fly. How bizarre is that?" Enz said. "Now, it's like, you better wear something that stretches and is black so you can wash it out."

Enz said airlines and cell phone companies "are brutally competitive," with consumers very focused on the bottom-line price.

"The industry has, in some respects, educated the consumer to find low-cost, best value, most miles, most friends, weekends free," Enz said. "The cost of the product and service has been quite competitive. So, where's the slack, where's the margin? When something goes wrong with the service or the product, you don't get that personal response."

Of course, at the high end, there is still plenty of good service. But it will cost you.

"Hotel companies that know how to deliver extraordinary service also know how to price it so that they can afford to deliver extraordinary service," Enz said. "If you go to a Four Seasons, you're going to get really good service, and it costs them a lot to deliver that, and it costs you a lot to stay there."

Self-Help Service

Some guest arriving at hotels today will be a bit shocked to see fewer people at the front desk and signs directing them to a kiosk for check-in.

But don't take that as a sign of poor service, said Chekitan S. Dev, a marketing and tourism professor, also at Cornell.

"Given the choice between a self-service kiosk and an available desk agent, frequent business travelers will actually make a bee-line for the kiosks. Even if they have a choice of a smiling, welcoming guest agent standing there at the desk with no line in front of them," Dev said. "At the end of a long day and long flight ... sometimes what we want to do is just get our key and go to our room. We would rather do it ourselves."

Dev said a lot of companies realize the benefit of good service. Take the low-cost airlines, for example.

"If you want to get a hold of an actual agent, the companies to call are Southwest and JetBlue, which is completely backwards, since they are the ones with the leanest cost structures," Dev said. "Smart service companies understand that the first transaction -- which might be low-margin or money-loser for these companies -- if done right, can be converted into a profitable lifetime relationship."

Dev explained how a lot of companies that traditionally aren't considered service brands, are trying to include good service as part of their offerings. For instance, some hospitals now offer valet parking.

The Best Service in the World

So, what separates those companies, that excel in service, from those that leave us annoyed and frustrated?

Enz said the good brands articulate their standards to their employees and ensure that everybody sticks to those guidelines.

"It's not very sexy. It's not very exciting-sounding. But it's the day-to-day hard work of people who run those organizations," Enz said.

Jaume Tapies, president of Relais & Châteaux, an international collection of exclusive restaurants and hotels, said that exceptional service is not an easy thing to accomplish, and there is no clear-cut formula.

First, he said, the hotel or restaurant needs to understand that exceptional service comes from creating a unique experience.

For instance, at a good French restaurant in Paris, you would expect to have a sommelier who understands the wine and explains it to you, adding to the experience.

"But if you are in South Africa, in the middle of the bush, you don't expect a sommelier to serve you the wine. It would be completely out of place," Tapies said.

There is a minimum standard for good service. Tapies said the number of people serving you, the quality of your seat, and even the cutlery, all need to be at a certain level.

"But then onwards, the service should be adapted to the experience," he said. "To be one of the best hotels or restaurants in the world ... you want a client to go out and think that it was unforgettable."

Tapies said that, to create such an experience, establishments need to be very creative.

"You can eat a Caesar salad in almost 90 percent of the hotels in this world. They don't have the imagination of thinking of what they can do with the things near them," he said.

Recently, Tapies had lunch at a restaurant in Paris. They know that he likes vanilla ice cream, and decided -- without him asking -- to bring out a dish of fresh strawberries and vanilla ice cream.

"What could be done on top of what the client has asked, and could be a pleasure for him, is what makes the difference," Tapies said. "Just doing what everybody does, and standardizing, makes the experience forgettable."