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.

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