By Paolo von Schirach
April 18, 2013
WASHINGTON – It is generally accepted that “quality” is critical in all service sectors. And for this simple reason customers are routinely asked to state whether or not they have received good service. Besides, they are often asked to respond to surveys. One would think that all this information gathered is then used to fix problems and improve service. Well, I am not so sure.
In many cases, the “pro-customer” approach stops at the now standard “money back guarantee”. This is fine, in as much as customers can return something they are unhappy with. Still, unless the reasons for the unhappiness are explored and fully understood, the service provider will have no clue as to what the problem may be. And therefore he will have no chance to examine the issue and take appropriate corrective actions. In other words, the real remedy is not in refunding the unhappy customer; but in solving the issue that caused the refund request in the first place.
What’s wrong with this fruit?
Here is an example that illustrates this critical point. After repeated occasions in which I purchased really bad tasting fresh fruit from a supermarket, I decided to return it and ask for a refund. And so I did. I brought the produce back with my receipt.
And the routine followed by the staff was instructive. Obviously it is standard procedure for this national chain to take the goods back and give a refund. But I also noticed that no one asked me what the problem was. They saw their job confined to giving money back. When I said that I wanted to discuss the reasons why I brought the produce back, I found zero interest. I was told in a rather mechanical way that this would be a matter to be brought to the attention of the produce department. Yet no attempt to call him. I had to ask where I could find the person in charge.
So I went and spoke to the person. I showed him the bad quality fruit. He looked surprised. Then he picked one up from the shelf, opened it and found that the inside was brown instead of yellow. And so he thanked me and proceeded to remove the entire batch from the shelf.
And so here we have the entire feedback process, with a positive outcome: the bad stuff is taken out. Still, it is obvious that asking people what is wrong with the product they are returning is not part of the “standard protocol”. And this is astonishing for a major retailer that can thrive mostly on the basis of the quality of the goods it sells. The service sector needs real feedback in order to eliminate errors and thus improve quality and customer satisfaction.
If it all stops at a refund, it would appear that there is a calculation whereby, irrespective of satisfaction, most people will not bother to come back and ask for refunds. The very few who do will get their money back. But the problem is not fixed and therefore the quality of service does not improve. In my case of the bad fruit, I would have got my refund, but the bad stuff would have stayed on the shelf, because nobody bothered to ask a simple question: “What is the matter with this fruit“?
Elementary truth still unknown
And here is the problem. If there is no established system to get real feedback, major firms become complacent and are eventually displaced by better competitors. It is truly amazing that here in America, supposedly the gold standard of the super efficient service economy, this elementary yet critical understanding of the reasons why real feedback is essential apparently has yet to be embraced by major retailers.