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By: Dr. John T. Self

What Is Customer Service?

What the heck is Customer Service and why is it so hard to define?

When asked to define "customer service", most people get a puzzled look in their eyes. "You can't define it", they'll say. Or when pushed, they'll mutter something about "being treated like you want to be treated" or "it's when you're made to feel at home".

Does customer service defy definition because it is so warm and fuzzy that it must be experienced rather than quantified? Asked another way, is customer service purely subjective? Does it exist only in the eyes of the beholder, or is it an objective entity that can exist independently of the person?

Whatever it is, most people will say they "know it when they see it". Customer service, whether good or bad, exists whenever there is customer contact or what some would call a "moment of truth".

For example, we experience customer service when;

  • we're ignored by the staff in a department store
  • in a restaurant, we feel the staff's priority is with each other and not their customers
  • we get a numb, automated response from a governmental employee

Of course, those are examples of poor customer service...what it is NOT, not what it IS.

Let's step back and look at the two words: customer and service. When the two come together there are two possible outcomes:

  1. they can form a collision that will leave the customer frustrated and angry with the company, or
  2. it can be a comfortable, pleasant meeting that leaves the customer enthusiastic about the company

With that in mind, let me offer one definition: customer service is any contact, whether active or passive, between a customer and a company, that causes a positive or negative perception by a customer. The perception will be influenced by the customer's expectations of the contact having been met, exceeded or disappointed.

We've all heard that in today's economy, good customer service is more than just a competitive advantage, it's a necessity. So why are so few companies willing to try and understand it, and develop the tools necessary to unleash it? Perhaps because it is so difficult to quantify. It's much easier to assign a figure (and therefore a dollar value!) to the number of phone calls a support person takes in a day than it is to report the number of "positive" customer experiences.

Exceptional customer service is not something you can give lip service to; customer service must be rampant throughout the organization starting at the top. It must be recognized, admired, rewarded and emulated. It can only be sustained by being ingrained in the fabric of the company.

That reads like a mission statement. When you think about it, maybe it should.

About the author:  John T. Self is a lecturer at The Collins School of Hospitality Management at California State Polytechnic University (Cal Poly Pomona). Prior to entering academe, Dr. Self spent fifteen years in the restaurant industry. While in the corporate world, he worked for several chains including overseeing six restaurants with sales of over twenty million dollars. He has also owned three independent restaurants. While at Golden Gate University, he started the partnership with Dalian University of Technology in Dalian, China and is continuing in that involvement at Cal Poly.

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