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Communication, perception define customer service satisfaction

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – A Purdue University professor says customer service is largely a matter of perception and managing expectations.

Maqbool Dada

"You shop at discount stores for low prices, not for individual customer service," says Maqbool Dada, a professor at the Krannert School of Management. "But if you're shopping at Nordstrom Inc., you expect good service.

"What counts from the company's point of view is that customer expectations are consistently being met. Then, the company can build on that strength, retain its customers and expand its business."

A company must be very clear about what its product and core competency are and not represent itself as all things to all people, Dada says. So, for example, a discount store's advertising should focus on selection and price and not on having cutting-edge technology or individualized service, which would lead inevitably to disappointing customers.

The terrorist bombings of Sept. 11 provided some lessons in customer service, Dada says.

"Almost all the airlines had focused on business travelers because they bought the high-price tickets. When there was a big cutback in business travel after 9/11, one airline – Southwest Airlines Inc. – fared well. Because it had catered to the economy traveler and effectively managed expectations, Southwest's business bounced back quickly. The business of the other airlines didn't."

This was not just happenstance. Southwest provides a primer in customer relationship management. There's no first-class at Southwest. All passengers are treated the same, Dada says. This breeds a camaraderie – a we're-all-in-this-together mentality. Meanwhile, some other airlines were putting into place separate security lines for different levels of customers.

Southwest starts orienting its customer-service approach early. In fact, as part of the interview process, Southwest's prospective employees are interviewed by a panel of customers.

Many companies, particularly in their call centers, act like the non-Southwest Airlines. They segment and treat different customers differently. Dada says this is a mistake.

"It is analogous to the same factory making both custom and run-of-the-mill parts," he says.

Another star of post-9/11 customer service was an insurance company that searched for companies it insured in New York and Washington, D.C. Then, company representatives contacted their affected clients about what help they needed to get their businesses back to work.

On the customer side of the customer service question, Dada says many consumers have unrealistic expectations.

"Overall, customer service is not bad. Customers want individual service, but they're not willing to pay for it."

This makes it even more imperative that companies communicate clearly what they are providing to customers and not try to be all things to all people, Dada says. If a company sends the message that it will provide low price and a high level of service, customers will inevitably be disappointed. And disappointed customers tend not to be repeat customers.

Dada, who is area coordinator of the Krannert School's highly ranked operations management area, says the same customer principles apply to both the industrial and retail areas.

"The secret of good customer service is simple," Dada says: "Listen to your customer. Little things are what it's all about, and the perception of the customer is as important as the reality."

Writer: J.M. Lillich, (765) 494-2077,

Source: Maqbool Dada, (765) 494-4490,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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