By Bill Prosch 

Service. Almost every client I interview tells me that what sets them apart from their competition is great customer service. Really? Over the decades, I believe that the true meaning of service has gotten lost. Britannica.com defines service as “the act of helping or serving customers.”   

Let me tell you what I see more of in today’s business climate: self-service. Oxford Languages defines self-service as “having concern for one’s own welfare and interests before those of others.” Unfortunately, this is what I see a lot of today.    

Mistaking “Busy” for “Service” 

Before we go pointing fingers, naming names, or calling everyone out, let’s clarify. I think today’s workforce mistakes “busy” for “service.” And in this mistaken interpretation, the customer and their needs frequently get overlooked. Let me give you some examples of what I have personally witnessed lately.   

Yesterday, I went to one of the big box stores to pick up some cabinets I had ordered. I went straight to the customer service area and obediently waited behind the sign that read, “Please wait for the next customer service agent.” There were six customer service agents at their stations behind their plexiglass shields, which, by the way, were designed to protect them from all sorts of maladies their customers could expose them to. Of the six, three were laughing and joking with each other. The other three had their beaks buried in their cell phones. None of them were serving customers.    

It took a full three minutes for one of the agents to even notice me. Now, three minutes sounds like nothing, I admit. But in the world of a grouchy old man, three minutes of being completely ignored seems like a fortnight (I like to use this word because most Americans have no clue of what a fortnight actually is! According to my Australian friends, it’s two weeks). 

What would it have taken for one of those six customer service agents to extract themselves from their intelligence-sucking devices long enough to look up and at least acknowledge me? Or, better yet, perhaps smile and ask how they could assist me? Isn’t this what they’re there for? Instead, all six were practicing the art of self-service as defined above. This company’s tagline is “How doers get things done.” I guess they’re referring to their customers and not their employees.  

Another recent example I can cite of companies (yes, multiple companies) failing when it comes to customer service is from an experience I had with my home builder. Let me get the cards on the table first: I recently bought a home from the nation’s largest home builder. It’s a production home, not a custom-built home, so I know I didn’t pay for top quality. However, when installing the cabinets, they installed the wrong size cabinet above my stove, resulting in the vent hood for the range being exactly one foot too low. While this doesn’t sound like a problem, the result was that every time I tried to cook something on the stove, the front of the range hood hit me squarely on the forehead. Fortunately, after months of arguing, the builder acquiesced (probably because it was pointed out to them that this was a building code violation) and they agreed to rectify the problem—in my house and approximately fifty others.  

What should have been a simple, one-day fix for one lead carpenter turned into “The March of The Eight Subcontractors,” each showing up (or not showing up) on eight different days. The one thing my wife and I found consistent among seven of the eight workers who showed up? They did work that would be kind to describe as pathetic (the eighth worker, the electrician, was a true craftsman). 

Do you know what else was common among the seven subcontractors? They all spent a tremendous amount of time telling us how great they were at their craft. Now, having been a restoration contractor for well over forty years, a Certified Restorer, and a licensed general contractor, I feel I’ve had enough experience to determine who were the true pros and who were hacks. Let’s add poor workmanship to the fact that they were all scheduled, by the builder, to show up between 8:00 am and noon on the day allotted for their individual trade. Do you know when these seven showed up on their assigned days? After 2:00 pm in the afternoon. One was a full two weeks late. Do you think they were practicing customer service or self-service?  

My last example comes from my experiences in visiting clients over the years. Some clients claim to have outstanding customer service, and they back this up by living it every day in every interaction they have, not only with their customers but with each other. Some of them actually include “service” as one of their core values, and my hat’s off to them, as they truly understand what service is. For others, I can tell the minute I walk in the front door that they just don’t get it.   

The companies that understand customer service will greet me pleasantly at the door and offer a bottle of water or a cup of coffee. They’re making sure my needs are met and clearly understand that when you truly serve others, it all comes back to you tenfold.   

Then there are those companies where you arrive and are immediately thrust into serving their needs. Now, mind you, I understand my place and these are my clients; I’m not theirs. But how I am treated as a guest in their place of business tells me all I need to know about how their customers are treated. What’s strange to me is that this type of company usually claims “outstanding customer service” as what differentiates them from their competitors.  

Does your company claim to have great customer service? If so, step back and take an outsider’s view to make sure you’re not really serving yourself instead. In today’s world where far too few are doing everything they can to satisfy the customer, this is what will set you apart from your competition.  


Bill Prosch, CR, is a Business Development Adviser for Violand Management Associates (VMA), a highly-respected consulting company in the restoration and cleaning industries. Prosch is a leading expert in operations and a Certified Restorer. He has a deep understanding of entrepreneurial challenges having owned and operated a successful restoration company for more than 30 years. Through Violand, he works with companies to develop their people and their profits. To reach him, visit violand.com or call (800)360-3513.