#175 Back to Quality

When I first started the Rat's Eye View, I mostly wrote about business and the decline in management capability I, personally, experienced in business. While the last couple of years have been more about politics and the rapidly down-breeding human race, I still think about business concepts and management. It just doesn't seem as important as the destruction of  democracy in the United States, the establishment of an ignorant theocracy in place of constitutional government, or my government's attempt to colonize North Africa for international oil corporations.

There appears to be no fix for the Rise and Fall of Great Nations, so for the moment I'm going to return to business and the concept of customer service and quality. Everything good in business comes from these two concepts. Some writers have considered the two as separate and, maybe, equal, but I think they are inseparable. Without a culture of service to the customers of the core business, there is no motivation for pursuing quality. Without the concepts of quality management, the tools for serving customers are insufficient.

Quality and service are hard concepts for the current breed of manager to grasp. Like professional athletes, the kind of people who gravitate into management, especially those who have inherited the position, tend to believe they possess some inherent capabilities that allows them to rise above the mundane problems of their business and customers to see the "bigger picture." There is no bigger picture. The problem with the real picture is that it is complicated, technically challenging, and constantly changing. The more simple view found by overlooking the problems of service and quality has nothing to do with the survival of the business or providing value to the business; it's just daydreaming disguised as management.

Recently, a couple of local, pointedly obvious experiences reminded me of how management can snatch defeat from the claws of success. When I first moved to Minnesota, I stumbled on a new multiplex theater in Oakdale, Minnesota. I only discovered this out-of-the-way theater because it was near a store I like a lot, Fleet Farm. The theater is about 5 miles from my home and there were several closer, equally well-equipped theaters near my home at the time. However, the Marcus Oakdale Theater became my default place to watch movies because on my first visit I found the seats to be comfortable, the screen to be acceptably large, the sound system to be well-tuned, and the popcorn to be edible. Not an overwhelming endorsement, but good enough to stop my unmotivated search for a better facility. Over the last decade, I've probably watched a hundred or so movies at the Marcus Oakdale. I'm usually with one or two other people, so we're talking about a couple thousand dollars in ten years. Not a spectacular expense, but not insignificant.

This year, I convinced a friend to watch a western with me, 3:10 to Yuma. It's an Elmore Leonard story and I"m a dedicated Elmore Leonard fan. My friend wasn't either a fan of westerns or particularly interested in Elmore Leonard. I was hoping to make a convert. He wanted to pass an afternoon escaping from life's problems.

From the moment the projector fired up, an irritating black line appeared on the left side of the screen. My friend noticed it immediately. The line was sometimes joined by lesser lines, but the big black line remained on the screen for the entire showing; from popcorn commercials through the previous all the way to the end of the movie. My friend never stopped noticing the line, I could sometimes forget it was there because I'm a nutso western fan, but it was too often obvious to me, too.

The next day, I wrote to the theater's management, describing our experience and disappointment. A few weeks later, I received a letter from the theater's management apologizing for the bad experience and explaining that the theater had received a defective print from the distributor and it took several days for the distributor to provide a replacement. "It's not our fault," or something equally lame was the explanation. A couple of guest passes accompanied the apology.

Since then, I've seen three or four movies. I haven't used the guest passes yet. There is a new complex of theaters in my neighborhood and, when I wanted to take my grandson to a movie I decided to check out one of the new theaters. The seats were comfortable, the screen was pretty large, the sound system didn't blatantly distort, and the popcorn was edible. I have a new favorite theater and, when I visit Fleet Farm, I drive by my old favorite theater, remember that I have some free passes and wish I'd remembered to put them in the car in case I was in the area with some time on my hands.

The distain the manager demonstrated toward his customers, me, in continuing to show a damaged film with no warning, reduction in price, or acknowledgement that we might be intelligent enough to notice a defective product was enough of a de-motivator that I'm just not inclined to spend my own money to try that theater again. Burn me once, shame on you. Burn me twice, shame on me.

In the college where I work, we have a coffee shop. From first hand observation, I'd suspect that the original concept for the school's coffee shop first started as an afterthought. It appeared to be something to do with a large room on the top floor of the building. The room didn't seem to fit into the school's classroom plan, but it would be wasted space if nothing went in that space. The initial facilities were almost laughable. The original manager, Ben, was a recent school graduate and was driven by unseen, unpredictable forces to make the coffee shop a hangout for students and instructors. He seemed to be particularly focused on making instructors happy, maybe because we were the only predictable customers he'd have; students being temporary customers at best. Ben offered better-than-cafe coffee, went through a variety of pastry suppliers until he found a decent bakery, and worked hard to encourage kids and instructors to patronize the coffee shop. It became a success, in spite of management's ignoring the facility and Ben's requests for more equipment and more comfortable furniture. Ben had no nearby competition, but he tried to make an impression anyway.

Eventually, the school's mismanagement decided that Ben wasn't a "professional" manager and he was replaced by a lady who claimed she had managed cafe's "in the real world." She lasted a couple of months and disappeared. Since then, we've gone through a collection of managers, each equally disinterested in the regular customers, providing more than the minimal service, and each imprinting absolutely no character on the facility.

For a few years, that worked. Then, a cafe opened across the street. It's a hassle, comparatively, to go outside, cross a busy street, wait in line with many more customers, to get a cup of coffee, but the service and coffee is significantly better. I've not only found myself surrounded by fellow instructors across the street, but the school's management is regularly over there, too. We are so used to indifferent service from our own facility that we automatically switch allegiances to a better service provider, even when we are the competition. How screwed up is that?

My turnaround came when I bought a cup of coffee and had the cup dissolve on me, spilling hot coffee on my hand, causing me to drop the cup, and waste a few minutes cleaning up after myself in class. When I bitched about it, my students all said they'd had the same experience. I took my complaint to the cafe manager and was told that he'd received a shipment of defective cups and it would be a couple of days before the supplier could replace them. He wasn't even slightly embarrassed that he'd been caught providing crappy product, that he knew would dissolve before his customers could naturally empty the cup. He just smirked at me for being foolish enough to think he cared. I started bringing coffee from home the next day, until I discovered that other instructors were going across the street for better service. On the rare occasion that I don't manage to brew my own coffee and don't want to walk an extra block for coffee, I bring my own cup to our coffee shop.

Ben has moved on to become a "professional" facility manager for a successful local club. I was reminded of Ben when a student came by my office to tell me that he was working for Ben and that he had asked the student to invite me to his club. Ben is still driven to extend exceptional service and I'm sure the quality naturally follows.

This all reminds me of an old (badly paraphrased) saying, "It takes $50 in advertising to convince a customer to try your product. 5 seconds of poor service will lose that customer and it will take at least $5,000 to bring that customer back again." Quality service takes constant attention and unwavering focus from management. Anything less is a lot less than the current breed of management imagines. 

December 2007

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