While many people travel around the globe and experience service in many different contexts, I recently had an opportunity to become immersed in the service cultures of several different Asian and Oceanic markets, each for an extended period (i.e. approximately 4-5 weeks in each market) of time.
In addition to the typical service environments that a traveler experiences - hotels; restaurants; and airlines - I was able to gauge the quality of service in other settings including banks, grocery stores, rental agencies, and postal services. Thus, I had a robust look at service quality in cultures not native to me. In such situations, one learns not only about those cultures but also about one's own home market service culture by becoming unfamiliar with it during one's absence. After my three months away from America, I quickly had to deal with what I refer to as "reverse service shock."
Service quality is important to America, Inc since it is having to compete on a more global scale and, as product offerings from international competitors become more homogeneous, will look to service quality as a means of competitive advantage. Unfortunately, Moon Ihlwan reported in a BusinessWeek article the results of Service Quality Survey released by Geneva-based Airports Council International, which found that U.S. airports ranked far behind their Asian equivalents.
Personal experience with the airport/airline industry upon my return to the United States supports the Service Quality Survey findings. I found an airport system that was designed more for the benefit of the airport operator than for a positive customer experience and airline service that seemed to have long-forgotten what it was like to be in the passengers' shoes.
Reverse service shock quickly set in upon my arrival at LAX. Since this was my initial point of entry into the U.S. I had to claim my bags and take them through customs before re-checking them onto my final destination in Oklahoma City. This was to be expected. However, what wasn't expected was for LAX to have only one person manning the baggage re-check counter only to tell travelers that there are too many people for her to service and that they had to take their bags outside the security zone to the departures terminal to have their luggage re-checked. To add insult to injury, when travelers reached the ticket counter they found inadequate signage which merely caused confusion and frustration for the travelers who were not sure where they needed to go. This was a contrast from the Asian airports that had numerous signs, TV monitors, and service representatives available to direct travelers to the proper places.
The "shock" continued when I awaited to board my connecting American Airlines flight. As with many U.S.-based carriers, American Airlines, in an effort to boost revenues, have begun to charge a fee for checked luggage. This has lead to more travelers carrying their luggage on board the plane. This not only causes less comfortable travel experience for fliers, but it also leads to the problem of not having enough space inside the cabin to store all the carry-ons. The solution was for the gate crew to have to make several announcements at the gate imploring travelers to volunteer to check their luggage at the gate.
The problems with luggage did not end at the gate. Once on the plane travelers were told not to put their winter coats in the overhead bins in order to save room for bags. Thus, some people had to wrestle with the heavy coats while not spilling their complimentary beverage. All of this because the airline decided to put their needs above their customers.
The final blast of initial reverse service shock came when one of the flight attendants made a general announcement throughout the cabin that threatened to "open the fore-door and have a stand-by traveler sit in your seat" if you did not heed the last warning (which was only the second) to turn off all electrical devices. Such a confrontational tone would not be heard in a culture that truly cared for their customers.
The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that, as of October 2010, American import and export of services equaled $353.8 billion. If the United States is going to successfully complete in a more global marketplace its service firms will have to improve the quality of service they provide to their customers. Otherwise, they may experience some shock of their own.
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