Customer Service
Blame Management for Poor Service
By Jim Clemmer
Jan 9, 2006 - 8:18:00 PM

Buried in the publicity of a nasty airline strike was a vivid example of how misdirected management's service improvement efforts can become. To improve service, the airline ordered all attendants to attend three hour "Commitment to Courtesy" classes without pay. "They told us the reason we were losing money was because we were rude to passengers," said one attendant.

How reasonable would it be to hold a shipping dock worker responsible for the quality of the goods in the boxes he or she is shipping? Not only would that be unfair, it would be bad management. A good manager would argue, quite rightly, that the manufacturing process should be traced back to find the ultimate source of the defects.

So how reasonable is it for managers to hold the final deliverer responsible for the quality of the products or services he or she is delivering? The person on the front serving line is a symptom carrier, not the source of the problem. While he or she may be contributing to low service delivery, blaming him or her is not only unfair, it's unproductive.

The basic problem is that people are visible, but the systems and organization culture by which group and individual behavior is shaped are largely invisible. So when something goes wrong, it's easy to trace the problem back to whoever touched it last and lay the blame there.

If you put a good person into a bad system the system will win. This has been proven so often that it has become a truism in the quality improvement field called the "85/15 Rule". The 85/15 Rule shows that if you trace errors or service complaints back to the root cause, about 85% of the time the fault lays in the system, processes, structure, or practices of the organization. Only about 15% of the ricochets can be traced back to someone who didn't care or wasn't conscientious enough.

I've seethed in the seats of all too many airport gates waiting for a late aircraft, or scrambling to find an alternate way home. Having a flight attendant then give me a bag of peanuts and a big courteous smile doesn't turn me into a satisfied customer. I often feel sorry for the attendants (and the harried gate agents) while plotting my revenge for the faceless bureaucrats and managers that can't get the organization's act together.

Frontline servers often provide delightful service in spite of, not because of, their organization's support and systems. Given the many obstacles, it's a minor miracle that service is being provided at all by some exceptionally caring employees!

Many manifestations of the "our workforce is to blame" assumption stem from the all too common, but badly misguided, inclination to begin error "seek and destroy missions" by asking "who" rather than "what" went wrong. Symptom carriers of the organization's system and process problems are hunted down and hung by the neck. The result is a culture of fixing the blame rather than the problem. A culture of fear, cover your backside, and finger pointing.

If senior management truly wants to find the source of their organization's declining service levels, the best place to start is with a long and deep look in the mirror.

Jim Clemmer is a bestselling author and internationally acclaimed keynote speaker and workshop/retreat leader for leadership development, change, customer focus, culture, teams, and personal growth, for the last 25 years. Visit

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