Another ulcer-inducing, road-warrior’s trek last week oh the horror, the horror. It starts with my arrival at the check-in counter in the main terminal. At least 10 available counters, but only six manned. More than 20 people waiting in line, and that’s for first-class passengers. Everything’s set for an 8:35a.m. departure. Everybody’s on board (a full cabin), door is about to be closed, when pilot announces that a malfunctioning toilet needs to be repaired before take-off. We’re advised that everybody must disembark. Only then can the toilet be fixed. The result our departure delayed an hour. Question: Ours was the first flight of the day. If they knew the toilet was broken, why wasn’t it repaired the night before? The return flight from Houston different airline, but more mechanical problems. This time a malfunctioning altimeter. Another 45-minute-late departure. We get the standard pilot’s drill about cruising altitudes and outside temperatures, but never any information about the one thing that matters most how late will we be on arrival? It seems that airline pilots have learned their behavior from Bill Clinton. It’s impossible to get an apology for the airline’s poor performance. How hard is it to say, “We’re sorry. We apologize for the inconvenience we’ve caused you.” It’s finally occurred to me that I’ve got it all wrong with respect to the airline business. They don’t care about the customer. In fact, they can’t care about the customer. The air transportation paradigm has changed so dramatically that the system no longer can allow for outmoded notions such as customer comfort. The airlines have mutated into aerial bus lines. Their primary motivations are to move as many people as cheaply as possible and make money in an operating environment that is constantly volatile and unpredictable. In a sense, airline behavior is reflected in the consumer marketplace at large. The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) shows that the nation’s overall opinion of service has dropped steadily from 1994-1997. A Yankelovich survey reveals that 90 percent of customers feel that they pay enough to get the highest level of service, yet 64 percent say that service representatives don’t care about their needs. According to Kurt Salmon Associates, 50 percent of the buying market says that shopping is a hassle they try to avoid. The statistics and data very clearly reveal that American business has viewed customer service as a cost, rather than an investment. At the same time, customer expectations continue to rise. The ensuing gulf between expectation and performance is what creates the rancor. Like the political electorate that has been continually lied to by its politicians, the consumer has been similarly misled by its marketers. How many times do you see the word “quality” misused and abused? Are we foolish to think that it can get better? The short answer is, it can. But it requires an adherence to a catechism of basic principles and beliefs that must be practiced with religious fervor. It’s nothing more than the eyeball theory: seeing the customer transaction through your customers’ eyes, from the moment they dial in to the time they sign the credit card receipt. All too often, familiarity breeds contempt. Our rigid adherence to our own systems and practices and our inability to detect the need for change results in contempt for the customer. How else to explain the consumer-unfriendly behavior of most auto dealerships and HMOs? Being obsessive is the hallmark of all great customer-driven organizations, few as they are. My recent trips to the Disney Complex in Florida were reminders of customer fanaticism and how it gets translated on a day-in, day-out basis. Disney management worships at the alter of the customer with cult-like fervor, and it shows in everything they touch from the street signs, to the impeccable landscaping, to the perpetual smile on every employee’s face. When it comes to training, a lot of companies talk a good game, but it’s usually nothing more than talk. Successful customer-driven organizations understand that training is the primary pillar upon which all else is built. They train and re-train to the extent that desired performance characteristics are imprinted upon the employee’s brain, much like learning the multiplication tables in school. Repetitive training guarantees that proper customer treatment will become rote behavior on the part of the employee. When it comes to consistency, most organizations can do some things well, but rarely do they perform all customer functions flawlessly. Consistency is hard to deliver because it means that every systemic element must work perfectly by itself and in harmony with those with which it’s linked. Hotels provide the perfect working example. The guest’s perception can be damaged by any number of interface transactions in a long string of activity from check in to check out. That’s why great hospitality providers like the Four Seasons and the Ritz-Carlton practice teamwork and lateral service. Communication is a subject that needs to be talked about ad nauseam. Management reinforces its obsession by constantly reminding the employee of the importance of the customer. Failures are dissected, debated and analyzed. Successes are acknowledged, highlighted and praised. The internal communications process demands meetings, memos, newsletters, e-mails, anything and everything that telegraphs to the employee that management is serious about the customer. I get my shoes shined at the airport every time I pass through. I’ve identified a master shoeshine man who can produce a shine so brilliant you can comb your hair in the reflection. My shoes command special care and extra minutes while others get more cursory treatment. Could that have anything to do with the fact that I praise him for his work, tell him he’s the best in the country and tip him very generously each time? Call me a hopeless romantic. I still believe that there are some providers out there who really do care and truly want my business. I don’t intend to give up. Somewhere, somehow there have to be a few hardy souls who believe as I do that the customer is always right. Alf Nucifora is an Atlanta-based marketing consultant. He can be contacted via e-mail at email@example.com, through his Web site at www.nucifora.com, or by fax at 770-952-7834.