The Customer Service Survey

Service vs. Hospitality

by Peter Leppik on Tue, 2010-11-30 11:08

As much as we like to complain about customer service in the U.S. (and it can be very bad at times), there's also no question that some other parts of the world have it far worse.  In a blog last week, Keith Humphreys observes that customer service seems to be particularly bad in the Arab world, yet those cultures also have a strong tradition of hospitality towards strangers.  Could the two be related, and good service implies poor hospitality (and vice versa)?

The thesis is that people have a certain need (and capacity) for kindness from strangers, and this need can be either filled through the commercial space (customer service) or through voluntary acts of kindness (hospitality).  If you have a lot of one, you don't need the other.

It's an intriguing supposition, but I don't buy it.

As long as we're dealing in stereotypes, there are places known for both a strong hospitality tradition and customer service--for example, North and South Dakota, where Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon friendliness runs rampant, and where call centers are a thriving industry thanks to the customer service ethic and relatively modest wages.

Unless you accept the dubious notion that we have a finite supply of friendliness, there's no reason to suppose that a region's mercantile traditions and hospitality culture should be in any way related.

As an armchair sociologist, I suspect that the hospitality toward strangers is likely to come from external threats: in both the Arabian desert and the frozen Upper Midwest, a stranger lacking shelter could easily die from the climate in the days before ubiquitous climate control.  A tradition of hospitality was necessary for survival.

The customer service tradition, in contrast, likely grows from an environment where companies rely on repeat business and reputation to grow, as opposed to single transactions with customers who are unlikely to return.  Providing better service than the competition is a way to encourage repeat business, but it also sets customers' expectations and forces everyone to improve their service levels.  In other words, we get better customer service because we expect better service, and we expect better service because (at least sometimes) we get better service.

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