Americans are lousy at customer service. That is a generalization, but it is a trait that is substantiated in survey after survey.

We are used to bad service, but that doesn’t make instances of it any less memorable. I find it difficult to recall what I had for dinner two nights ago, but I can tell you that I ordered a cheeseburger with no ketchup and no mustard from a fast food joint two weeks ago and received a cheeseburger with double ketchup and double mustard. Or that in January the cable guy who was supposed to show up between 10 a.m. and noon showed up at 3 p.m. Or that a few months back I called to change the address on a magazine to which I subscribe; I later found out they changed it ... to an address I held six years ago. Or that after buying an iPod last fall, the store clerk dropped it five feet from a shelf to the concrete floor and then rolled his eyes and muttered when I asked for a different one.

Good service also is memorable, and instances carry with them the hope of how things could be or should be. Last year, when picking up a rental car from National, the employee behind the counter greeted me with a handshake; the first words out of his mouth were, “Thank you.” Wow. And in January, when checking into a Disney property hotel for a conference, the front desk attendant noticed that I was wearing a running jacket. While the topic of being a runner never came up in conversation, when I got to my room 10 minutes later, a map of area running trails, a bottle of water and an energy bar were waiting for me.

Everyone has a customer service story to tell. And chances are strong that there is a customer service story about you. You don’t have to wear a headset or stand behind a counter to be in the customer service business. We all serve somebody.

So, what are they saying about you? And, why are they saying it?

Most people at Energizer’s battery manufacturing plant in Missouri speak highly of predictive maintenance steward Rick Staley. It may be because this lubrication expert embodies a philosophy that Walt Disney lived by: “Do what you do so well that they will want to see it again and bring their friends.” Rick isn’t shy about inviting operations personnel to stick around when he’s working on a piece of their machinery. He wants them to see what he’s doing and welcomes them to ask questions about the work, the machine and about the lubricants in that machine. It’s not uncommon now for other operations friends to join in. Staley and the Energizer maintenance crew get extra props for sharing their success with customers. After winning the ICML’s Gill Award for oil analysis and lubricant condition monitoring in 2009, they brought the trophy through each department as if it were the Stanley Cup. Everyone got to hold it and have their photo taken with it. Staley reasoned that “the award wasn’t about work that we did for them. It was about work that we did with them.”

Quality guru W. Edwards Deming wrote that “our customers should take joy in our products and services.” Not a passing interest. Joy! How do you do that? I met an operations team leader who recounted an experience he had with an hourly maintenance technician who serves as the site’s lubrication specialist. The team leader wanted to know more about the new filtration system that had been installed in the plant’s lubrication storage room. The technician was heading for lunch, but wound up cancelling those plans. Instead, he took the team leader to the lube room and spent a half-hour explaining the entire system and what cleaner oil would mean for the team leader and the operations department. Who’s the biggest fan of filtration now out in the production area?

Additional ideas to improve customer service are out there. Steal them. Use them.

Maintenance leaders at Toyota and other companies that I’ve visited employ a neat concept which works especially well for large plants with big departmental workforces and/or those that use shift/task rotation. It ties into a customer service creed of Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang: “It helps a ton when you learn and know people’s names.” At these plants, maintenance posts laminated, magnetic cards on the side of production machinery. On a card is the name of the maintenance tech responsible for that equipment or area of the plant, along with a photo of the tech and various ways to get in touch with him or her when questions, comments, needs or emergencies arise. This helps get everyone on a first-name basis, puts a face to a name and decreases response time.

Maintenance pros at several plants create newsletters that are sent to members of the production team and plant management. They include case studies of “saves” and explain reliability-enhancing projects taking place throughout the facility. The best newsletters I’ve seen go out of their way to acknowledge production’s role in the work. Saying “thanks” is a recurring theme.

I’ll leave you with this quote from British author Nelson Boswell. You may not have heard of him (he’s no Disney or Deming), but the words are appropriate: “Here is a simple but powerful rule – always give people more than what they expect to get.”

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