by Steve Adubato, PhD

Jerry Pagano is a Newark educator who spent many years moonlighting as a head waiter in an Ironbound restaurant. Jerry is big on interpersonal communication and customer service. He believes you can't provide quality customer service without caring enough to listen to your customer. Jerry is also a golfer who plays on public courses. Recently he had an experience on a public course that provides a graphic example of how not to treat customers.

Jerry says; "The condition of the course and the attitude of those who work there communicated an awful lot about how they view customers." Jerry said the tee boxes and greens were beaten up and not maintained. The water stations had no water, which is kind of rough when it is 90 degrees outside. They had few if any rangers to make sure especially slow players kept moving. A four and a half-hour round wound up taking five and a half-hours. When Jerry asked one of the rangers he happened to see if he could try to move things along, the ranger responded, "Who do you think you are?" Jerry said, "I'm a customer. I'm just asking you to do your job." A few other things Jerry noticed were that the halfway house (or snack bar) didn't open until 10:00 a.m. The only problem is that golfers begin playing at 6 a.m. So much for customer service. Jerry also said the people behind the counter didn't smile and just took his money without even looking at him. "They really seemed unhappy to be working there."

Jerry's bad experience points out a persistent problem when it comes to how certain organizations fail to see that they are in the business of customer service. It can be a public golf course, the DMV or a department store chain. You can talk about quality customer service until you are blue in the face (or have the catchiest slogan about how much you care) but if the people in your organization don't appreciate customers and want to please them, it's a sham. If employees see those they interact with as nothing but an inconvenience, their attitude as well as their verbal and non-verbal communication will show it.

While this pervasive problem can happen anywhere, it seems particularly bad in the public sector. When was the last time you had to go to a DMV or unemployment office? Did you ever ask yourself why you feel like anything but a valued customer? It's because for the most part, those in charge of these organizations don't see you as a customer. They figure you have no other choice but to be there. What are you going to do if you don't like the way you are being treated at the DMV? Go to a different DMV office around the corner? There is only one.

Much of poor customer service comes from organizational leaders communicating negative messages. If those at the top provide no customer service training or monitor their employees communication style with an eye toward improving it, why should frontline people really care? Employees who go the extra yard with customers need to be rewarded and recognized. Examples of first-rate customer service need to be applauded and modeled. When bosses fail to do this, employees are demotivated. If organizational leaders don't do customer surveys or seek feedback on how to improve these interactions, the message sent is that those things aren't important.

No matter what business you are in, ask yourself the following question on a regular basis: "What message am I communicating both in my words and actions when it comes to our customers?" To ignore this question is risky indeed.