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Pygmalion in service

If you studied management anywhere along your journey, then you may recall the seminal Harvard Business Review article by Sterling Livingston titled Pygmalion in Management.

Essentially, the article dealt with the self-fulfilling prophecy (or Pygmalion effect from Greek mythology) in management—a supervisor’s expectation of a subordinate’s performance that directly or indirectly causes itself to become true, for better or for worse.

The same thing is true in customer service.

Pygmalion in service suggests that there is a very real self-fulfilling prophecy in the delivery of customer service when an employee’s expectation of company standards and service levels directly or indirectly influences his or her attitude and performance.

Why is customer service consistently better at a luxury or full service hotel than an economy or select service hotel? And why do many high-end retailers have reputations for providing exceptional customer service while discounters generally are known for good prices but mediocre customer service? Why do we tend to receive better customer service at a fine dining restaurant than at a quick service restaurant?

I’m sure some of you are thinking: “Well, Steve, the high-end brands that you’re referring to have chosen to invest more money in their delivery of customer service. It’s reflected in everything from the customer to employee ratio to the fresh-cut flowers in the restrooms.”

I get that reasoning but it only addresses half of the equation.

Every business is made up of processes (like staffing models and restroom accents) as well as the attitudes of its people. And, while there is a cost associated with upgraded processes, there’s no such cost associated with upgraded employee attitudes. They’re free.

Employees choose their attitudes. Positive attitudes towards customers and customer service (conveyed by smiling, eye contact, and adding enthusiasm to one’s voice) are optional—which explains why you and I seldom encounter positive attitudes from enthusiastic and engaged employees.

There’s no reason for a front desk clerk at a Super 8 motel not to smile and welcome a guest similar to a front desk clerk at a Four Seasons hotel. There’s nothing stopping a cashier at Walmart from making eye contact with a customer in the same way a salesperson does while ringing up purchases at Nordstrom. And there’s no excuse for a server at Anthony’s Pizza & Pasta to not add enthusiasm to her voice like a server at Christini’s Ristorante Italiano in Orlando, Florida.

As managers, you tend to get what you expect. Expect your employees to embrace your organizations’ high customer service standards. (They are high, right?) And expect your employees to choose attitudes daily that are positive, helpful, and engaging. (Just like the attitudes you model, right?)

Do this and you will create a Pygmalion effect in customer service that elevates the performance expectations of your employees—regardless of whether or not they work at Nordstrom or Four Seasons.

Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.
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