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Uncertain Times In Customer Service
By Tim Fulton

Two weeks ago, my wife and I ventured off to see a movie. Such opportunities are rare for us and we were looking forward to the time away from the house to see this highly rated movie. About half-way through the movie, a fire alarm was set off, the house lights came on, and the movie came to a screeching halt.

Next came an interesting display of human behavior. About a third of the audience went racing out of the theater in fear of being scorched. Another third (we included) stood up and moved out to the aisles not really sure what to do. The remaining portion of the audience stayed in their seats munching hour-old popcorn wondering what the fuss was about.

Those of us that stayed, waited for directions from the theater management. Should we exit? Should we stay? How long would the delay be? Thirty minutes passed and not a single communication from anyone associated with the theater. Several patrons ventured out into the lobby to find out that there had not been a fire and that theater personnel were attempting to revive the screenings.

What was most aggravating about this entire situation was not the wait. We just assumed that there would be a delay prior to the continuation of the film. What was most upsetting about this situation was the uncertainty we faced as customers of this establishment. How long would the delay be? Will refunds be made available if we chose to leave? What caused the interruption?

I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes in the field of Customer Service:

“Customers don’t measure service in terms of minute, instead customer service is measured in degrees of uncertainty.”

What could the theater have done differently? A theater representative should have addressed the audience within several minutes of the delay and explained the nature of the delay and the approximate wait time. I am confident that the vast majority of the customers would have been quite satisfied with that effort and would have stayed for the remainder of the show. Instead, a significant number of patrons left the theater and those of us that stayed were not “happy campers”.

I have been a victim of these instances of customer dis-service on many occasions. So have you. It happens at airports, restaurants, auto repair shops, and many others. The uncertainty may be related to product delivery, follow-up, payment due, employee changes, and in some cases the viability of the provider. Rather than step up and be pro-active in their communication with customers, companies instead decide that their customers are better off not knowing what’s going on. They don’t trust customers to make good decisions based on good information. What a shame.

Employers are also guilty of doing this to their internal customers. Employees are often times uncertain as to why and how key decisions are being made. They are kept waiting too know how and when to proceed with a given task. Again, employees don’t measure their manager’s effectiveness by the length of the delay but instead by the amount of uncertainty at hand.

What can you do to minimize the amount of uncertainty your customers face?





bulletAct quickly. When there is a service issue with a customer, such as an interruption in service, the key is to communicate with the customer as quickly and as honestly as possible. Help the customer understand the nature of the problem, what you are doing to address the problem, and how long they can expect to wait for a remedy.
bulletOver-communicate with your internal and external customers using a variety of media. Effective communication helps build trust and confidence with your customers in preparation for the day that there is that inevitable service issue.
bulletImplement internal controls that ensure that customers are not left “in the dark’ when facing a problem with your product/service offering. In my example at the movie theatre, there should be a written policy or procedure in place that instructs theater personnel what and when to communicate to patrons when there is a fire alarm.
bulletTraining. Make sure your employees understand the destructive impact “uncertainty” has on levels of customer satisfaction and loyalty. In addition, train your employees how to alleviate your client’s feelings of uncertainty.

I believe that customer uncertainty translates into diminishing client loyalty. I will return to that movie theatre if it is the only option to see a movie of choice. Otherwise, I will shift my movie ticket dollars to another venue where I am more certain of the quality of customer care.

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Tim Fulton is a nationally recognized small business consultant and management trainer. He is also a very popular public speaker.

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