'Service with a smile' or 'service in a while'?

One of the worthiest tenets of good business - "service with a smile" - has fallen on hard times in recent years. Taking its place is an unwritten new philosophy that could be described as "service in a while."

For proof, just ask anyone who has ever waited - and waited - on hold for a customer-service representative to answer the phone, while a chirpy recording intones, "Your call is very important to us. Please stay on the line."

Or talk to airline passengers who have been stuck on the runway for an hour or two with no food, beverages, or satisfactory explanation for the delay. Or listen to department-store customers forced to search for a clerk to ring up a sale. Hello? Anybody home?

But now, like crocuses poking through late-winter snow, welcome signs of another kind of renewal are appearing, suggesting that service is making a comeback. From airlines and hotels to Amtrak, the newest gambit encourages customer loyalty involves satisfaction-guarantee programs.

Your flight was cancelled? Your hotel room wasn't ready when you checked in? Your train was delayed? Not to worry. Managers stand ready to appease you with peace offerings and vouchers for future service or accommodations.

The latest entrant in the better-service field involves the most humble form of transportation - public transit. Last week the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) began offering vouchers for free round-trip tickets to anyone whose subway, bus, trolley, ferry, or commuter train arrives at least 30 minutes late.

In unveiling its "Riders' Bill of Rights," the MBTA - known locally as the T - becomes the first mass transit agency in the United States to offer a guarantee of on-time service. Although skeptics and cynics question the program, officials insist they are committed to its success.

As proof, they point to posters giving station managers' names and phone numbers. Other signs, explaining how to contact senior executives, encourage passengers to "write to the top." A website updates schedules every 10 minutes, and a toll-free help line is available for complaints or questions. Operators, as they say, are standing by.

Live operators! What an inspired idea in an age when robotic phone systems have taken over the business world, forcing callers to navigate a labyrinth of choices on complex "menus." Too often, the options bear no relation to customers' questions or needs, leaving hapless callers in computerized limbo.

So much for service, with or without a smile.

It's enough to make customers wish that other businesses would follow the MBTA's lead and bring back operators. While companies are at it, they could also adopt a Telephone Callers' Bill of Rights. Rule No. 1: No customer will be kept waiting on hold longer than 10 minutes.

What also makes the MBTA's service-guarantee program noteworthy is its focus on the little guy. Unlike the business and leisure travelers being wooed by competing airlines and hotels with their customer-satisfaction offers, public transit riders - many of them commuters and students - often have no other way to get around. Here there are no perks - no frequent-flier miles, no upgrades. Just a daily need for efficient, reliable service.

Good service in any business involves attention to a variety of small and large details. These vary in importance from customer to customer. But managers might be surprised to know how much even seemingly insignificant details can affect customers' impressions and attitudes, and thus the corporate bottom line.

What do we want? A listening ear. Accessibility to someone who can help. Accountability. And, of course, a ready smile.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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