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Better Service in Bad Times?

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

As tornadoes, thunder and lightning rampaged across the Heartland last week, the crowds piled up at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. Every bar stool had someone on it, and restaurant lines stretched down the corridors.

This was a bizarro world, where the airport workers kept arriving and leaving, and only the travelers stayed put. And whether you were going to London or Caracas, Las Vegas or Columbus, you knew you weren't going to get there anytime soon.

Your writer was among the agitated masses, but listen to what happened next. Upon finally boarding the United Airlines aircraft, she was surprised to come upon a spiffy-clean cabin. She then heard a passenger remark to the head flight attendant, "You must be as tired as we are," and him respond, "We don't get tired."

Service was crisp. The attendants offered extra rounds of water and lowered the lights to soften our edges. Even though the birds were already singing when the flight, scheduled to arrive the night before, landed, we felt cared for under difficult circumstances -- and thanked our hosts.

That's what good service can do for you. Most reasonable consumers can tolerate a cold cup of coffee or a missing part when the seller acknowledges the problem and, where possible, fixes it. What really fries them is bad or indifferent service, even if the product is good.

With a hard economy thinning the supply of ready consumers, shouldn't we expect businesses to do more to keep them happy?

Yes, says Lopo Rego, a marketing expert at the University of Iowa, who has studied customer service in strong and weak economies. During the boom of the late 1990s, he observed that the quality of customer service had slipped badly. The tight labor market had drained the pool of good workers at the wages that stores and fast-food restaurants were paying. Businesses that hired lazy, careless and rude staff found that offended consumers were quickly replaced.

"There was almost a surplus of demand for no matter what services or goods you were selling," Rego told me. "People kept coming in the door."

Now businesses are begging for customers, and Rego is predicting a whole new attitude: "I would expect customer service to go up in the current economy because the surplus of demand has disappeared."

Airlines may be a special case, though. Their customer service has followed a downward trend over the last five to seven years, according to Rego. "But our expectations have been reduced to the point that this is what we expect," he says. "People know there will be no food and they'll get charged for every little thing."

Thus, he doesn't see customer service on airlines improving dramatically even in this recession. Service will more likely plateau at current levels.

Perhaps it was my surprise at finding good airline service in an especially tough situation that enhanced the favorable impression. And even in this era of lowered expectations, there are limits to forbearance.

A recent Delta Air Lines flight made news when it held passengers on the tarmac in Columbia, S.C., for five hours without food or water. The bathrooms turned nasty, and people got sick.

Because rough weather had forced the diversion of their plane, flying from the Caribbean to Atlanta, most passengers would have gotten over arriving 13 hours late. But they will not forget the part of the awful experience that was under the airline's control.

In my community, merchants who cultivated loyal customers are still getting what business there is. Many of the others have closed, leading me to note one bright spot in this economic downturn: more service with a smile.

COPYRIGHT 2009 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

See Other Political Commentary.

See Other Commentaries by Froma Harrop.

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