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QUALITY MANAGEMENT: Using Quality Standards to Drive Service Innovation

As Oprah Winfrey embarks on her final season I am reminded of one of her earlier shows that really provided me with an ‘ah ha.’ Years ago Oprah Winfrey had a panel of service providers on her show, ranging from a waiter and waitress to a telephone operator.  During the discussion, the waiter and waitress got into a heated argument with the audience as they shouted that they deserved a tip regardless of the quality of service. A huge uproar ensued as the audience split in two groups with some yelling, “Yes, they deserve a tip” and others retorting, “No way, not unless your service is good enough.” 

After all this mayhem, the telephone operator went next and she shared how often she had to deal with various callers who asked her why someone wasn’t answering the phone when the caller dialed.  She replied, “You know, the things I want to say and the things I do say are different.  Sometimes, I’ll say, ‘well maybe they’re at church, or on Wednesdays I’ll say, ‘Well, maybe they went to bingo.”  What I want to say is – “I hope they drop dead in the bathroom”…. but I never say that.”  (View Clip)


As I listened to this operator, the ‘ah ha’ I had was that she had a formed a “platform of standards” that guided exactly what was and wasn’t permissible in her mind to say to the customer.  She knew based on her platform of standards that she had to treat every call as a serious call, even when the person was trying to reach someone who had been dead for years.  She knew without a doubt that it was unacceptable to be rude or sarcastic – the very things the waiter and waitress did not display.

Based on this little episode of Oprah, I realized how important it was to have these platform statements to define the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable responses to the customer.  I began to work with organizations to develop the dozen or so platform statements that were critical to their service expectations.  The first one that always popped up was “Treat others as you wish to be treated.”  But then others were added in as well such as “Own a problem until you get it to the right person.” and “The final judge of quality is the customer.”   For each platform statement, one organization even wrote out real-life stories to show how the statements came to life in real situations. 

It soon became clear that the platform statements alone were not enough to drive real quality service.  While they formed the back-drop of basic principles, more detailed information was needed about how to respond in various circumstances.  Utilizing the basic format of a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), we began to draft all kinds of quality service standards for various situations.  I’ve listed some below just to show the breadth of the items covered:

1) Email and written correspondence standard
2) Telephone and voice mail
3) How to give bad news to the customer
4) Handling a difficult customer
5) Handling a customer who wants to “go up the ladder”
6) Handling a customer who desires special treatment
7) Communicating risk to the customer
8) Correcting a problem/error caused by the organization
9) Communicating with customers who are cross-cultural
10) Handling a customer who procrastinates
11) Handling a situation when you can’t say yes or give assurance
12) Answering questions that don’t belong in your area
13) Responding correctly to negative customer feedback
14) Stating how much a service will cost
15) Terminating the customer relationship

101-Graphic-Design-Tips-Quality-Service-300x225The Quality Service Standard begins by identifying the relevant platform statements that apply to the standard.  Including the platform statements links the philosophy of the organization back to the nitty-gritty behaviors in the standard. 

The standard also includes a statement of purpose, the scope, who is responsible and then a step-by-step description of the actions an employee should perform to meet the acceptable level of performance for the standard.  This section provides the detailed description that is so necessary to help employees who just don’t know how to handle various situations.

We then found it beneficial to include a section that identifies “best practice” in the particular industry.  For example, what is the best practice out there for how a bank employee should handle a difficult customer?  Once the best practice has been identified, it’s included in the standard.  This helps to bring innovation (“the best ideas out there”) into the document.  Take a look at the sample – Handling a difficult customer - to see how it all comes together.  If we couldn’t identify best practice, then the Quality Team tried to establish what it considered best practice for the organization.  Because a standard represents minimum acceptable level, best practice helps your star employees hit a higher target.

Fundamentally, a quality service standard makes it clear that employees cannot “do their own thing” when it comes to handling the customer.  The notions of talking back to, being rude, hanging up on or not assisting a customer promptly are simply not acceptable behaviors.  In one organization, we even put out a standard called “Never Say These” to detail in writing phrases that were unacceptable, such as “It’s not my job”…”We can’t do that”…..or “You’ll have to.” 

Organizational success is based on keeping happy customers – providing consistent, high quality service.  While we may have all types of technical, manufacturing and task-related standards, it’s time to use the same concept and tools to raise the bar on our quality of service. 

Just for fun, let us know which quality service standard you’d like to have in your department or organization right now. 

Add Your Quality Statement Below

  • This was an interesting blog. I worked in education for over 30 years and then switched to retail where I was weekend manager for Evans’ News on Main Street in Bennington. I talked to my boss a great deal about how we would treat our customers, etc. One of his early statements to me was one that really stuck with me, and I passed it on to several young employees over the years. He said, “At our store, we try to treat everyone the same, whether they are spending 40 cents on a postcard or $4000 on office furniture. Every customer deserves that respect.” I think that hometown kind of service, as one of our service standards, is one that really counts with the many returning customers. This blog site is great; keep them coming!

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