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Customer service, bean counters, and Too Big to Care

During another holiday week a few years back I penned a terrific post on customer service. If I do say so myself, and I do.

Customer service comes to mind as I sit on a transcontinental flight from NYC to Singapore to attend our son’s wedding.

For once I did the smart thing…my lovely bride and I are on Singapore Air, consistently the top-rated airline for customer service. Oh my what a difference between this airline and any other I’ve flown in the past several decades. And I’ve flown a LOT.

Singapore Airlines is…fabulously wonderfully totally about its customers.

One incredibly tiny example…I got up to use the restroom, and an impeccably polite steward very diplomatically noted that cabin service had been halted due to turbulence and perhaps I should stay in my seat unless my sojourn was of utmost importance. I aborted the trip and returned to my seat.

Five minutes later anther flight attendant came by to inform me that things were back to normal and I could safely walk about the cabin. A tiny thing, totally insignificant and yet a blindingly clear demonstration of how serious these people take customer service.

Management clearly gets it. And I will fly Singapore whenever I possibly can. Because any time a flight attendant is that focused on customer service, it is because the entire enterprise is – most importantly top management.

Allow me to reprise the post from 2018, as it is even more topical today.

To that point, here’s an example of a huge business that completely misses the point.

This summer (back in 2018) American Airlines allowed flight attendants to give little things to passengers upset about delays or other problems. Frequent flyer miles, drink coupons, seat upgrades, stuff that didn’t cost AA anything but made angry passengers feel that AA cared about the problems the airline caused.

Then, some genius at HQ decided this was a bad idea.

This from Forbes:

Every time some bright young marketing executive tried to make American (or some other airline) more responsive, and more quickly responsive to passengers’ dissatisfaction by empowering front-line workers to offer some form of compensation, the bean counters back at headquarters quickly noticed that the cost of such empowerment escalated rapidly. The result, alas, always has been the dramatic reduction or elimination of front-line workers’ authority to solve customer service issues at the point of contact.

Instead of fixing the problem, the corporate knuckleheads tried to deal with the fallout – but stopped when it cost too much. 

update – American is currently rated #82 out of the world’s best airlines. Well behind RyanAir (!!!), Air Mauritius and Azerbaijan Airlines, This isn’t due to American’s front line workers, rather management decided service is about #82 on their list of important things.

This is exactly what killed US manufacturing, autos, and many other businesses. At the end of their assembly lines, GM, Ford, and Chrysler diverted many just-built cars with manufacturing defects to another mini-factory.

Auto worker using hammers to straighten a hood on a just-built car…

There, very skilled and very expensive workers diagnosed and fixed cars that had just been built. These guys are yesterday’s American Airlines flight attendants, tasked with fixing problems caused by management.

Clearly senior management didn’t understand that if they spent the time and energy and dollars to do it right the first time, they wouldn’t have to a) fix problems with cars they just built, and b) deal with pissed-off customers.

Yes, it takes that time and energy and dollars. But the results are measured in customers kept, service problems eliminated, and extra costs avoided.

Or, you can just wait for your businesses’ version of Honda to come in and eat your lunch.

What does this mean for you?

Find out what your customers want, and do it right the first time. They will love you and reward you for it.

5 thoughts on “Customer service, bean counters, and Too Big to Care”

  1. First of all, Congratulations on your son’s wedding!!

    When I read your blog this morning, it resonated with me immediately!

    In my 1st IT management position in the mid-80s, I was in an industry (textiles) where China was crushing the US in price. How could we compete? I, along with many of my peers, was asked to read Phillip Crosby’s book, “Quality is Free!”. The premise, for those who aren’t old enough to remember this book, is “Do things right the first time, and you won’t have to pay to fix them or do over.” Our company even invited Mr. Crosby to visit / consult. The result of that experience was that our company began to sell quality over price, implementing technology solutions to ensure that every piece of cloth, every rug, etc. was “1st Quality”. While China’s prices were great at the time, their quality wasn’t. We marketed and delivered “1st Quality” to our clients, delivered it faster and were able to customize to meet demands. We prevailed.

    As a result of this experience, the idea of doing things right the first time has stayed with me throughout my business career. Know what your client values and do it right the first time! This was the mantra that compelled us to develop an integrated technology platform that helped us create a 1st Quality work product that facilitated what our clients want…. to settle claims…. doing it at a time when others were preparing MSAs on a spreadsheet. While others saw the MSA as a “commodity”, we saw it as a specific set of tasks that should monitored, measured, QA’d and delivered right the 1st time.

    Do we make mistakes? Yep, but we measure those as well, and we push the fixes upstream to do it right the next time.

    Thanks for the reminder and Happy Thanksgiving to you and family!

    1. Thanks for the note Rita – getting it right the first time is indeed the basis of success in process-oriented enterprises.

      While many strive for that with Six Sigma and other approaches, if you really truly don’t understand your customers you may well be developing a really good business process and approach that doesn’t meet their needs.

      Airlines are a great example. Almost all sacrifice everything for “efficiency”, also known as how much cost can we squeeze out of the “process” so we can generate gobs of cash flow. The result – does anyone actually like flying? Trust the airline to do things the right way? Fix your problems when they inevitably arise? Think about customers before during and after making business decisions? Empower front-lie workers to make customers happy?

      American Airlines certainly doesn’t…or perhaps they do and just don’t care. Delta used to, but took away airport staff’s ability to make things right when things beyond their customers’ control go awry.

      Many other businesses and governments have gone down that path with – at best – uneven results.

      And don’t get me started about healthcare, where an entire system is focused on the wrong metrics.

      be well Joe

  2. Congratulations Joe! What a wonderful life event in such a beautiful country! Love the article too. So true!

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Joe Paduda is the principal of Health Strategy Associates



A national consulting firm specializing in managed care for workers’ compensation, group health and auto, and health care cost containment. We serve insurers, employers and health care providers.



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