For many American consumers, living amid today's "service economy" may seem like an endurance contest.
Just about everyone has a horror story. It may be about the customer-service representative whose acid-tongued remarks torpedo a long-held high opinion of a company. Or the contractor for a big-ticket job who never finished the work or returned calls.
Discontent with shoddy service is bubbling in America, say experts, many of whom attribute it to demands for speed in the Internet age - and a refusal to accept anything less.
In an era of almost unlimited choices, "people have never expected more," says T. Scott Gross, an author and lecturer on customer service.
But experts also point to several supply-side reasons for the service decline: a high turnover rate among personnel who interact with the public; insufficient attention to training in interpersonal skills; and the much-chronicled rise of a culture of rudeness.
Firms often have their priorities in the wrong places, says Edward Gagnon, co-founder of Customer Service Solutions, a management consultancy and training firm in Charlotte, N.C.
"There are companies out there who are more than willing to spend $1 million for a one minute Super Bowl ad or ... 4 to 5 percent of annual revenue on advertising," says Mr. Gagnon. "But if you were to ask any of them, 'How much do you spend on customer retention every year?' or 'Show me your last six months worth of customer-satisfaction data,' they couldn't do it."
What it comes down to, says Gagnon: "Advertising is sexy, and customer service isn't.
"I think a lot of companies need to be focusing more on hiring for attitude and training for skill," he says. "They could be expanding their pool, bringing in more people, and taking a little bit of a load off [their existing] employees."
There are hurdles to that approach, however, including the ultra-low United States unemployment rate and the lure of high-paying dotcom jobs.
The International Customer Service Association found that the starting salary for a customer service representative (CSR) in 1999 was $21,570, the average salary was $26,186.
All of that contributes to high turnover, experts say. And the resulting inexperience collides with rising consumer expectations.
"In a more tepid economy you can get by with OK service, but now [with so many good options available] people aren't standing for it," says Ann Humphries, president of Eticon, a business-etiquette consulting company in Columbia, S.C.
Ms. Humphries says a sure way of losing customers is rudeness. That characteristic is perhaps most likely to be exhibited by hard-pressed, inexperienced workers.
Generational attitudes may also come into play. Eric Chester, founder of Generation Why, a Denver-based firm that teaches corporations how to train, manage, and recruit young people, says that people born between 1977 and 1994 - who make up a large part of the customer-service industry - belong to a "generation that values self-expression" and self-direction.
Those qualities, he says, don't necessarily feed into the kind of selflessness that is most effective in caring for customers.
Mr. Chester says young people, often influenced by a wise-cracking mass media, may see respect as a form of weakness.
"Corporate America is reeling, saying, 'What in the world are we going to do?' " he says.
Businesses need to understand that many young people have a drastically different "value compass" than that of older generations, he says. And they need to adjust for it.
Customer-service training must tell them not just what to do but, "why it benefits them to have good customer service" and "here's what we're trying to accomplish here as a team."
But sometimes businesses overlook even the most basic training techniques.
When it comes to customer service over the phone, for example, Ms. Humphries says workers should be able to understand a variety of regional accents. She also drills customer-service reps on refining their own speech patterns.
Some qualities can't be taught, however. Consumers, she points out, seem to respond particularly well to certain accents, especially Jamaican and Virginia Tidewater.
But other customer-service qualities come with experience, experts agree. And companies can do themselves a favor and boost employee retention by granting such perks as flexible work schedules, bonuses, and company cars.
Southwest Airlines is one company that has created a work culture that benefits its employees - and ultimately its customers, says Greg Smith, president of Chart Your Course International, a management-consulting firm in Conyers, Ga.
The airline is among the companies that exemplify the extra effort required of firms looking to score with the public, he says.
Flight crews have been known to tuck petite flight attendants into overhead compartments for a surprise, and play games - such as "who has a hole in their sock" - with passengers.
One result of such antics: Fortune magazine's annual list of 100 Best Companies to Work for in America ranked Southwest as the No. 2 company to work for in America this year.
Southwest also routinely claims the top spot in the Airline Quality Ratings, an annual survey by researchers at the University of Nebraska and Wichita State University that's based on statistics across 19 categories tracked by the US Department of Transportation.
In a variety of ways, other companies, and even state governments, have taken the initiative in advancing customer service.
Just a few examples:
*Amazon.com, the monster bookseller, expanded its customer-service team (now up to 200) this year even as the company made cuts elsewhere.
*The Walt Disney Company has long offered business seminars that include instruction in customer service through its Disney Institute programs, which grew out of Disney University, now reserved for internal training.
*The Maine Legislature passed a bill in March to "prohibit state government from using automated telephone-answering equipment during business hours."
Humphries says that more and more, customers know when they've found a plum, just as they know when they've come across a lemon.
"The good [companies] make the bad ones look even worse," she says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society