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From the Editor: Keep the Customer Satisfied

Allan H. Church
W. Warner Burke Associates, Inc.

Well, Spring is finally here, and, if you are reading this piece, so too is the April 1999 issue of TIP (unless of course, you are reading this early on the Web, in which case I suggest you confer with Roseanne Roseanna Danna for her opinion on the matter). Although the usual suspects are all included here as always, we also have a number of interesting features and special articles in this issue, which I will introduce shortly. I hope you find these items interesting, entertaining, and perhaps even insightful. Maybe a few of these articles (or even those from prior issues of TIP) will spark some conversation and debate at our upcoming conference in Atlanta. If so, then we have done our job, and if not, we would like to hear from you.

So as you begin to prepare yourself for this year's meeting of the I-O minds (and other less cerebral minglings at the social hour and assorted "theme" gatherings, for lack of a better term), try to remember what you've liked and disliked about TIP over the last year so that when you bump into either me or one of our editorial board members, or if you come to the "Meet the TIP Board" session on Saturday May 1st, you can give us your feedback. After all, we're just trying to keep our customers satisfied.

I Can't Get No Satisfaction

Although I am always interested in hearing what our customers (i.e., this means you, oh faithful SIOP members) have to say about TIP, I have had my doubts for years about some of the more general business notions that (a) the more focus on the customer the better, and (b) the customer is always right. Ever since these concepts were popularized in the early 1990s via a wave of best-selling management books and mainstream business articles (probably in response to the burgeoning TQM movement at time), I have wondered how far they might go and who will stop the insanity. I mean the amount of heavy metal products contained in some of these titles alone like Putting the Service-Profit Chain to Work (Heskett et al., 1994) and Total Customer Service: The Ultimate Weapon (Davidow & Uttal, 1990), really has to make one stop and think about the message that's being conveyed. Does attention to service quality really require access to some type of bludgeoning device? Well, on second thought, given some of the consultants I know perhaps it does, but I digress.

Now, you may be wondering why such a strong focus on the customers' needs and their being right all the time cause me so much anxiety? Perhaps this is merely a defensive offshoot of my professional existence as an organization consultant who is focused on content knowledge (or, dare I say, expertise) rather than process. Or in other words, if the customer is always right then what do I have to offer? Or perhaps my unease is because I know the truth is out there— That is, that customers and clients truly "can't get no satisfaction" no matter what you do—and as Jack Nicholson would say, I can't handle it. From this perspective, it's like submitting an article for publication—someone is always bound to critique something about it. Or perhaps it is merely an excuse for me to comment about yet another somewhat odd facet of our society (I'll take this one, thank you).

Whatever the reason, the emphasis on providing superior customer service has been taken so far, it seems, that at times it can be confusing as to who is really the service provider and who is the customer. Of course, Katz and Kahn (1978) would say that answer all depends on whether you consider yourself to be part of the input, throughput, or output process. Nonetheless, in this environment the boundaries and roles among them can easily get confused. Sometimes, for example, the people providing the service think that somehow they deserve to be treated like customers by the very people they are supposed to be serving. I mean, it's getting to the point where I think even the local gas station attendant thinks he's the customer, not the other way around, when he all but demands his tip. Talk about taking the service environment too far. It's like going out to eat after a hard day at some chic restaurant that you've heard so much about and being told by the waiter that the chef is not comfortable preparing your food the way you requested it. It's like being told by the students in your class that they are the customers, they've paid good money, and that they expect to get good grades (true story, mind you, from our own Practice Network columnist Mike Harris not to mention the subject of a recent article in Quality Progress by Jim Wallace, 1999). It's like being called by your mortgage broker after making a firm and final offer on a house that you know is already way overpriced and being told that, "you know, you really can go higher, it's ok, I'll approve you for more debt, really." Translation—take on that mortgage and give me my commission.

Don't get me wrong, I am all for treating the customer (any customer for that matter) with dignity and respect. The point is, however, that the customer service mentality can be taken too far. You will know this is the case when the tag line in the medical profession changes from "just what the doctor ordered" to "just what the patient wanted."

The other related problem with an over emphasis on customer service is the notion that the customer is always right about something (sometimes anything and everything for that matter). Unfortunately, the fact is that in some instances the customer is, for lack of a better term, totally wrong. I don't know about every I-O or OD practitioner out there, but there are times when a client (and I mean a real, paying consulting client) makes a demand (and I mean a real firm demand) for access to some multirater feedback or survey data that was collected under a confidential agreement with respondents. These situations are not pleasant, but from my perspective the protection of the anonymity of the individual must be fought for and ultimately ensured, or the entire system fails.

In these instances, the customer is clearly not right (assuming everything was clear in the contracting stage of the consulting process—another leap of faith at times, I'm afraid). Although one does always have the option of litigation in these matters as Virginia Boehm and Bill Gellermann offered in response to a similar scenario back in TIP a few years ago (Church, Boehm, & Gellerman, 1994), these are neither pleasant nor easy situations to resolve.

Forget the fact that customers do not always know what they want or even when they want it. Forget that half of the most significant technological inventions in use today were never even dreamed of by our ancestors. Forget that there is a whole industry (advertising and/or marketing—take your pick) devoted to convincing people that any given product is in fact the most needed thing in our humdrum lives. Forget the old adage about remembering to treat the problem (cause) not the symptom (i.e., the client's impetus for calling one in the first place—this works for both doctors and consultants, by the way). Forget that research supports this notion (Daily, 1996) and that new management books have since appeared that refute the old management books (Rosenbluth & Peters, 1992). The bottom line is that someone (and I aim to take names) has taken the notion of customer service just a wee bit too far.

How do I know this, you ask? What empirical evidence do I have to support such a preposterous contention? Although numerous personal examples come to mind, the most jarring and surreal (and impetus for this entire diatribe) occurred a few weeks ago. Late one Thursday afternoon I received a call from an existing client, with whom our firm has had a long relationship, requesting that everything be dropped to attend an important meeting several hundred miles away, in the middle of nowhere, the following Monday afternoon. Being in the business that we are, I dutifully dropped everything and readied to meet the client.

We're on the Road to Nowhere

Early Monday morning came, however, and the agenda, directions to the site, appropriate security clearances, and other sundry details remained unconfirmed. Clearly, the person responsible for administering the details (not my client, mind you) was not concerned with his customers (i.e., the meeting attendees, me included). Nonetheless, a colleague of mine and I ventured on in response to our client's call to arms. After traveling for some time on a propeller plane (not the most customer-driven type of plane, I can tell you), obtaining directions to the site and our rental car (no comment here), we were informed (at the rental counter no less) that the location of the meeting had been changed entirely and to proceed somewhere else entirely. Away we went to the new location—described as "a distinguished alternative to meeting rooms" designed by "a professional facilitator" promising "meetings of style and substance" and all in the heart of historic small town U.S.A. This place was "high tech" and "high touch," so claimed the brochure.

Although, as it turned out, the new meeting location was not difficult to find (it was interesting to note, however, that the facilitator had indeed named the building after herself), we were the first to arrive, making introductions and discussions of purpose with the professional facilitator rather limited. Apparently, the other participants in the meeting were just as surprised at our presence as we were (except, of course, for our client who eventually arrived under protest). Without so much as a round of introductions, the professional facilitator (who was totally unfamiliar with the composition of this group or her chosen profession, for that matter) proceeded to present the agenda for the meeting and describe in great detail the use of flip charts, the multicolored friendly putty, friendly sticky pads, and squishy squeezy dinosaurs located at each table setting in the "U-room." Needless to say, none of these gimmicks was successful in enhancing the quality of the meeting, though I did enjoy the putty.

A day and half later with only 2 hours left before being mercifully saved by the return drive and flight on the propeller plane (it was looking so much more appealing now), the professional facilitator finally informed the ragtag group of confused, and by this time either angry or mildly unconscious participants, of the true purpose of the meeting—a team-building session intended primarily for 4 (the team members) of the 10 attendees. The rest of us were just so much flotsam and jetsam retinue—which explained why many of us were in a collective fog of cluelessness as to purpose and objectives. In the end, the professional facilitator, who managed to coach the group into producing several pages of gibberish on flip charts received a hearty round of thanks from a number of other individuals in the room. Needless to say, not all professional facilitators give the profession a good name, and for the first time I finally had a full appreciation of some of the negative connotations typically associated with some OD methods. When we finally made our exit, our client thanked us for coming and apologized for the bizarre experience (in that order).

So what's the moral of the story? Clients do not always know what they are doing, why they are doing it, or what they really want from their service providers. In the world of I-O psychology and organization change and development, this means that we as professionals need to be willing and able to challenge the status quo—both at the individual/relationship and systems level. We need to feel empowered to push back without fear of being replaced with another consultant that will do the client's bidding (a phenomena also known as the vendor mindset—see Church & Waclawski, 1998). The more we let ourselves succumb to the "fear" resulting from the best service provider model at the expense of all else including good old "common sense," the more it will limit our ability to be practitioners as opposed to simply being technicians, and the more trips to Abilene (Harvey, 1988), like the one described here, we are going to make. While all that was lost here was 2 days of time, it could have been a great deal worse, all in the name of keeping the customer satisfied.

Where Do We Go Now?

Well, enough of my storytelling and moralizing. It's time to introduce the contents of this issue of TIP. As I mentioned earlier, this issue is packed with a variety of interesting and useful items.

Featured Articles

The issue begins with a farewell message from SIOP President Elaine Pulakos. Thanks for hanging in there, Elaine, and for keeping the peace in the hallowed halls of the SIOP ExCom.

Next, we have the long anticipated 1998 SIOP salary survey results—presented in living color by Jennifer L. Burnfield and Gina J. Medsker of Human Resources Research Organization (who cosponsored the survey effort in conjunction with SIOP). They provide a very interesting breakdown of salary levels by various individual level and demographic variables.

Following is an article by Michael Cole, which adds to the ever-growing commentary started last issue by Brent Holland, Bob Hogan, and Dana Shelton in response to an earlier Real World column on the perceptions (generally negative) of psychologists by the general public. Michael's message regarding definitional precision in research is not dissimilar to the one I was making above regarding customer service—everything can be overdone, including psychological terminology. Ironically enough, the columnist who started this thread in the first place tackles the use of jargon in our field in this very same issue.

Richard Phelps, an education economist based in Paris, provides an extended analysis and critique of the National Research Council's report on Fairness in Employment Testing. He concludes that the NRC may be far from the pinnacle of objectivity it is intended to be.

I don't know about anyone else, but when I hear the phrase "work-life balance" I always wonder what's being balanced other than say, sleep? All kidding aside, the article by Scott Behson presents an interesting (and very applied) look at work-family issues in the world of professional sports.

Recognizing that the latest issue of any publication in the late 1990s would be incomplete without mentioning the name Bill Clinton, Jim Sharf offers up an interesting analysis of the President's proposed solution to the gender pay gap. Jim's analysis of the situation could lead one to believe Clinton's plan may only treat the symptom (not the problem) and serves to make matters worse by increasing litigation. Of course, since when has President Clinton shied away from the legal system anyway?

Speaking of proposals, the next article provides a set of guidelines for using multirater or 360-degree feedback for decision-making purposes in organizations. Dave Bracken and Carol Timmreck have put together a well-conceived document that covers an entire spectrum of issues and concerns in this somewhat dicey yet increasingly prevalent area of I-O practice (and research).

Last but not least, SIOP historian Laura Koppes describes the life and times of the individuals for whom the SIOP awards were named. I think some people may be surprised by the number of current (and well known) professionals touched by these I-O originals.

Editorial Departments

Moving right along to our regularly scheduled program, Mike Harris of Practice Network starts off by tackling the role of the Internet in I-O psychology. Although online surveys may be one of the current uses of the net and Mike does a nice job covering some of the key issues here, I'm more interested in hearing stories about this I.O.Syke character including whether or not he/she can out perform HAL.

This edition of TIP-TOPics marks the end for Dawn Riddle and Lori Foster (at least in this capacity—see their column for more details as their careers are indeed evolving). Thanks to both of them for their hard work over the years, keeping us honest and current with respect to graduate student issues. After a walk down memory lane, they discuss the importance of creating a professional persona—something that I should probably pay more attention to myself.

Next, Janine Waclawski provides us with a Real World look at consulting jargon and its potential impact on the field. After a brief visit with the thought police, and some comments from John Michela and Dean Stamoulis, she provides a wholesome meal of buzzword salad, and corporate slander from the pages of Fortune magazine—to think we actually use some of these terms on a day-to-day basis. The best part, though, comes when she introduces her own list of SIOPisms. What people will come up with during the SIOP social hour!

This issue's International Forum by Dirk Steiner visits first with Deanne Heinisch and Katherine Holt for a report on a country liaison project for SIOP's International Affairs Committee. Next, Beryl Hesketh introduces readers to

I-O in Australia, and Alvaro Tamayo does the same for I-O practice and research in Brazil.
Turning to the world of training evaluation, Steven Rogelberg's Informed Decision column introduces us to Tanya Andrews and Brian Crewe who, through a series of interviews with practitioners, examine the current state of the industry in this area. Given that they conclude that most organizations use "smile scales" (or reactions measures) following a training effort rather than hard results criteria, please feel free to read their column, evaluate it, and let them know exactly what you think. In all honesty and seriousness, the issues raised are very important for practitioners and for the field in general. The verbatim comments are particularly interesting (and telling).

Charmine Hrtel finishes our columnist contributions with a summary of findings from three different research studies that literally span the globe, on performance management and evaluation practices. Work-family issues again break the surface here with respect to HR policies in Australia.

News and Reports

This issue's news and reports start with an introduction and overview to SIOP's new Pro Bono initiative by Ann Marie Ryan. Next, Eduardo Salas provides us with a vision and a call for proposals for the popular Professional Practice Book Series. Leona Aiken, Division 5 President, gives us an overview of the signs of life and trends in the field of quantitative measurement (a division of APA to which a number of SIOP members also belong).

Moving to our web-based entrepreneurial portion of this issue, James Kuthy offers an introduction to his newly created Center for Organizational and Personnel Psychology located on the web at www.copp-psychology.org dedicated to law enforcement organizational and personnel issues, and Michael Fetzer provides a little bit of history regarding the I-O Psychology Forums that he has developed for informal online exchanges about a variety of I-O and related subjects at http://www-dept.usm.edu/~psy/io/forum.htm. All I can say here is that I am just amazed at what's on the web these days, and it's only going to get more interesting as time goes on.

Next, Heather Roberts Fox of the APA Science Directorate provides us with a report on two separate Supreme Court-related ADA cases as well as an update on several government reports that may be of interest to SIOP members.

And finally, Murray Barrick finishes the issue with a listing of the highlights of the Division 14 (SIOP) program for the 1999 American Psychological Association Convention to be held this August in Boston. He's done an excellent job of pulling together a number of interesting sessions and posters from SIOP members, and I would certainly encourage people to attend. While the APA convention is not exactly like a SIOP conference, it does have its moments.

Lest anyone forget, as always, we close this issue with the latest IOTAS and David Pollack's helpful list of upcoming conferences for next year, along with the usual assortment of calls, announcements, and job postings that you have come to expect from TIP. Don't forget to send your missives, comments, suggestions, and feedback to Allanhc96@aol.com. (or directly to any of our editorial board members if you prefer). I look forward to hearing from you and seeing you this April in Atlanta!

References

Church, A. H., Boehm, V. R., & Gellerman, W. (1994). From both sides now: Ethical dilemmas in I-O Psychology. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 31(4), 67_74.

Church, A. H., & Waclawski, J. (1998). The vendor mind-set: The devolution from organizational consultant to street peddler. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice & Research, 5(2), 87_100.

Daily, C. (1996). Is the customer always right? Academy of Management Executive, 10(4), 105_106.

Davidow, W. H., & Uttal, B. (1990). Total customer service: The ultimate weapon. New York: Harper & Row.

Harvey, J. B. (1988). The Abilene paradox and other meditations on management. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Heskett, J. L., Jones, T. O., Loveman, G. W., Sasser, W. E., & Schlesinger, L. A. (1994). Putting the service-profit chain to work. Harvard Business Review, 72(2), 164_174.

Katz, D., & Kahn, R. L. (1978). The social psychology of organizations. (2nd ed.). New York: John Wiley.

Rosenbluth, H. F, & Peters, D. M. (1992). The customer comes second and other secrets of exceptional service. New York: William Morrow & Company.

Wallace, J. B. (1999). The case for the student as customer. Quality Progress, 32(2), 47_51.

 

Manuscripts, news items or other submissions to TIP should be sent to:

Allan Church
W. Warner Burke and Associates, Inc.
201 Wolfs Lane
Pelham, NY 10803-1815
Phone: (914) 738-0080
Fax: (914) 738-1059
E-mail:
AllanHC96@aol.com


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