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Do you see the coffee stains?

On the theme of customer service standards, are you and your customers looking at the same things? Do your students and clients care about the things you focus on, or are they noticing other things, things that are off your radar and perhaps below the standards your customers expect?

A few years ago, I attended a customer services training course called 'Coffee Stains'. That course changed my perception of service standards and has influenced what I look out for right up to this day.

On the first day, we were asked to walk outside the building and come back in with our eyes fully open, paying attention to every detail in front of us that typically we ignored due to familiarity and distraction. Suddenly, we noticed clocks that told the wrong time, bins that needed emptying, stains on the carpets, poor signage, people waiting in queues and other members of the public looking a bit lost. It really opened my eyes.

Perhaps matters such as these are higher on the agenda these days, with someone personally responsible for attending to them. Having said that, I was sitting at a European international airport recently in a coffee shop. In front of me on the wall was one of those collections of clocks that tell you the time in a selection of cities around the world. Every one of them was wrong! I notice things like this now since that course, and it reminds me how important first impressions are to a new customer.

Now of course we don’t all necessarily care about the same things. When I shared this story with a fellow manager, he retold another story about a visit he made to a coffee shop in London when they first started offering coffee in all shapes, sizes and flavours. He didn’t enjoy the experience. He said he had just wanted a cup of coffee and the choice was just an irritating complication! He raised an important question though: does it matter that all the clocks were wrong in the coffee shop I visited? Isn’t it just about the coffee?

Many people would argue that having a large choice of coffee is brilliant, and that correct clocks in coffee shops don't matter; it’s all about the quality of the coffee, after all. Well, of course when managing quality at work, it is possible to pay attention to the wrong things. Certainly, you have to get the core product absolutely right first of all.

But I would argue that the clocks do matter. And the pads of paper and the noticeboards, and the signage, and the dust on the bottom of chairs. All of these things reflect aspects of professionalism and quality management. And when there are competitors out there all claiming to deliver the highest possible standards on the core product or service, the customer’s focus shifts on to other things. Customer expectations for the ancillary services rise, and so do service standard benchmarks.

So, back to my example. Perhaps the clocks telling the wrong time don't really matter to some people. But to others with a critical eye, they are  sign of neglect. And one might ask, if the clocks which are in full view of the customer are being neglected, what other aspects of the service might be being neglected? What’s being neglected in the kitchen, for example? 

And, there’s another thought to add. Although I was sitting in an airport coffee shop, I was primarily a customer of the airport, not the coffee shop. And for airport customers (passengers) they tend to pay quite a bit of attention to clocks  - whether they are rushing for a flight, or whiling away an hour in the departure lounge. One might argue that the airport was therefore neglecting to pay attention to what one of its subsidiary services was conveying about the airport itself (i.e. the clocks in this airport are not correct).

It raises questions about whether as a service provider you pay sufficient attention to 1) the right things within your school quality management programme, and 2) all of the ancillary or connected services that customers experience when they think of joining your school. You can't control all of these of course, but being aware of them is important; you may want to ensure that you are not losing students because of them. That’s another bigger theme, though – one for another blog.

Suffice to ask yourself today, are you satisfied with the customer service standards in your school? Are you customers? Have you asked them if they are satisfied? More importantly, have you asked them which additional service standards are important to them and should be added to your quality management list?