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“A customer is the most important visitor on our premises; he is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption in our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider in our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favor by serving him. He is doing us a favor by giving us an opportunity to do so.”
— Kenneth B. Elliott

In 1946, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) was formed in Geneva, Switzerland. This venerable group set standards for customer service. “The customer is always right” remained a popular adage until the 1980s. During the 80s, agencies such as the Service Quality Institute began providing customer service training with seminars, books, and videos, and the first use of electronics as a training medium emerged. During the 1990s, the focus was more on giving back to the customer and surveying customer attitudes and needs. In the field of educational facilities, things were changing as well. Three decades have brought additional concentration on service skills due to the proliferation of firms that outsource the facilities management function as a part of facilities management. In a time when college costs are rising rapidly, the days of in-house facilities resources as the sole option are past, and more and more frequently the facilities leadership is being asked to consider the business case for outsourcing. While outsourcing can be a viable option, most educational facilities professionals see value in an in-house capability.

Customer Service by Definition


By one formal definition, customer service is the “provision of service to customers before, during and after a purchase.” It can also refer to the culture of an organization. An additional definition for this process is related to customer satisfaction, or when a customer is satisfied with the service provided, and that service meets his or her needs, wants, and most importantly, expectations.

Customer Service in a Service Industry


In today’s facilities management organization, most education-related entities are endeavoring to survive with very limited resources. The rising cost of the educational enterprise has become a prime issue for both public and private institutions. Unlike a manufacturing environment where you can stockpile resources for peaks and valleys in production, human capital is finite and far more difficult to plan for when considering the demand for services. This challenge presents one of the best cases for a strong customer service program/culture. In short, in a service industry what you really have to market is service, and that service must be top-notch.

The Customer Experience


Most educational facilities organizations operate within the framework of a work control and dispatch function that addresses some combination of the following: preventative maintenance, operations and maintenance, planning design and space utilization, deferred maintenance/capital renewal and replacement, renovation and alternatives, estimating, and construction. In these units, the customer requests a service, receives a design and estimate, if applicable, and then the service is scheduled and completed. Service, good or bad, can occur at any touchpoint within any of these functions and may involve one or many facilities team members.

It has been said by many that the customer experience is only as good as the last contact with the service provider. When you consider how that “last contact” is multiplied by the sheer number of customer contacts in an average facilities organization daily, it means there is great room for error or a great opportunity to succeed.

Who is the Customer?


By simple definition, the customer is the individual who requests your service. But in an educational facility that concept is too finite. For us as educational facilities managers, the customer is anyone who utilizes our facility. Faculty, researchers, students, parents, visitors, and staff all are consumers of what we offer. For the purpose of this chapter we will focus on the person to whom services are being rendered at any given moment. In addition, to truly grasp the complexity of the service concept, we must also include internal customers with whom we interact to do business. These internal customers are key to achieving great customer service, as service to these customers reflects directly to our external customers; we simply cannot expect our team to treat external customers in a different way than the internal customers are treated.

Understanding Customer Needs


The art of understanding customer needs is dependent on an excellent communication network. Separating needs from wants is a delicate and challenging process. In most facilities organizations, customer requests are filtered through a work control section that is charged with receiving requests, tracking progress, and communicating status information to the campus clients. However, most work control units have a stronger concentration on data entry, dispatch, and financial entry than on customer service and follow-up.

“The black hole theory surfaces time and again as one ventures from one facilities management organization to another. As the campus feeds information into the facilities organization, it disappears from view, is transformed, passes through several hands, and eventually is acted upon. The campus client asks: Where does it go in the meantime?

“The perceived bottomless pit into which the campus pours information and requests for service can be viewed by clients as an incorrigible monster. Pieces of information from the client enter the system and somehow, within the guise of plant management, are then formed into tangible products (designs, specifications, construction, maintenance, renovation, and repairs). How this happens is often viewed as a perplexing and frustrating process by campus users; a process that most prefer to view only from a distance.”

—Paul F. Tabolt, Director, Physical Plant Operations, University of California at Berkeley

Efforts to communicate effectively with the customer base can take many forms.

“Typically, new construction or major capital improvements create a host of related relocations, renovations, and alterations, yet while all of the demands for designs and estimates for renovations and alterations are pouring into the facilities management organization, so are the pressures to care for capital renewal in the form of deferred and major maintenance projects. The community will be interested in major maintenance projects they can see or feel, while the facilities management staff silently cares for the hidden enemies that are waiting for an opportunity to disrupt the smooth operation of the plant. Deciding what information to communicate will vary from individual to individual and from campus to campus, but whenever the activities of one organization disrupt the activities of another, some form of communication is advisable.

“An interactive process that enables projects of the highest priority to surface for appropriate review enables the facilities management staff to educate, coordinate, and share problems and concerns with college and departmental appointees. By drawing upon the support of those at the highest levels, facility coordinators can be appointed to deal with specific renovation, alteration, and major maintenance projects that impact a specific college, department, or building. Alternative approaches can be employed for this formal communication structure. One approach is to create appointments by buildings, such as one appointment for a major building or several buildings, or one appointment for individual colleges or departments.”

—Paul F. Tabolt, Facilities Management: A Manual for Plant Administration, 2d Ed., (APPA, Alexandria, VA,), Part III, pp. 1175–1176.

In other organizations, facilities councils, customer advisory panels, and focus groups are utilized to solicit information on the needs and quality of services. These may be comprised of major campus user groups or any combination of users that present a balanced picture of service delivery.

Another feedback possibility is the use of survey instruments. Though popular due to simplicity of implementation, in a survey-rich world, return statistics may be sparse and not yield as much feedback as more personalized contact. Some facilities professionals have utilized a semester visit concept to great advantage. In this scenario, the leadership of the facilities organization schedules appointments with major campus customers (i.e., deans, vice presidents/provosts, athletics, research, students and housing). An open-ended discussion may begin with a simple question such as, “How are we doing?” As a rule this will solicit a response on services and quality. From there a discussion of improvements or additional needs may take place. The bonus to this concept is the positive feedback, often forthcoming, that can be passed on to team members.

Leadership and the Creation of a Customer-Service Culture


Perhaps the most critical factor in the creation of organizational culture is the leadership component. A strong focus on customer service as an organizational value must be led from the top of the organization.

Leaders of facilities organizations can manifest this focus in many ways:

  • Visible messaging: Talk the talk. Bring your message to the team in all you do.
  • Modeling: Walk the walk. Lead to facilitate or serve your team in accomplishing the job. Show good customer service skills and attitude at all times.
  • Review of Processes: Review to assure ease and clarity of customer use and team member use. Few things discourage use more than dysfunctional processes.
  • Repetition: Send multiple messages on an ongoing basis. Repeat, repeat, and repeat the message. Write about the message. Talk about the message. Make customer service a central focus in every way.
  • Rewards: You get what you reward. Find ways to celebrate service success and excellence. Team members are more likely to repeat good customer service behaviors that are rewarded by recognition and encouragement.
  • Training: Assure that your team has the skills and tools needed to provide a great customer experience. Seek ways to enhance their abilities with technology where appropriate. Training in basic customer communication is a critical component of team development. In addition, team members should receive training on managing customer service breakdowns. The following provides a good synopsis of recognizing how to guide effective customer communication:
    • Let them vent.
      • Encourage them to describe what happened.
      • Listen and pay attention to what is said.
    • Apologize.
    • Ask what you can do to help.
      • Get the customer’s ideas on how to solve the problem.
      • Attempt to reach an agreement on a mutually acceptable solution.
    • Thank the customer and follow up (do what you say you will).

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz indicated that “you can’t expect your employees to exceed the expectations of your customers if you don’t exceed the employees’ expectations of management.” Coach your leadership team to model excellent customer service with team members. After all, the leader is there to serve the team and should lead the effort to develop organizational philosophies that define and describe what those expectations are.

Development of Functional and Service Philosophies


A strong component in the creation of a customer service culture is the need to develop functional and service philosophies. The creation of these guideposts defines the what and the how of your service mission. The functional philosophy should include:

  • What you do
  • For whom
  • Your uniqueness

The questions that you should address as you create this philosophy are:

  • What is the unit mission?
  • Whom do you serve?
  • What added value do those you serve receive?
  • What contribution is your organization making to society as a whole?
  • What are the strengths of your organization; what are you especially good at providing?
  • How is your organization distinctive and unique?

Now that the functional philosophy has been developed, it is time to develop a service philosophy. This service philosophy is the roadmap for the organization’s approach.

The service philosophy should include:

  • How you will approach service and interactions with others
  • The type of environment you want to have
  • The mindset used to approach interactions

The questions you should address as you create this philosophy are:

  • What do we want people to say about the way we approach service?
  • What kind of environment do we want to have?
  • What words or actions demonstrate a service-oriented approach?
  • What benefits do the constituents get from what our department does?
  • How do we want our constituents to feel about their interactions with our organization?

Development of a Service Strategy


Once the organizational philosophies are completed, implementation of a focused customer-service culture relies on developing a service strategy and method of delivery that understands and addresses the customer perspective in evaluating services. The “customer voice” is critical to the process. The following areas are a “starter list” for how the customer evaluates services:

  • Waiting time, delivery time, process time
  • Hygiene, safety, reliability
  • Responsiveness, accessibility, courtesy
  • Competency, dependability, accuracy, completeness, credibility
  • Effective communication

Once the service strategy is developed, it is crucial to evaluate all operational processes to include a service-quality emphasis. These process evaluations must include:

  • An emphasis on reliability. Processes impacting customers must work well over the long term.
  •  A process with service emphasis that is easy for customers to use. Instructions are simple, clear, and convenient.
  • The process must be easy for employees to use. Processes that form impediments to positive employee behavior send a mixed message.
  • Processes must be accurate and produce results.
  • Processes must be fast for both customer and team members, demonstrating both an understanding of the need for urgency in response and respect for a customer’s time.
  • Processes must be integrated where possible and proceed in a logical order without passing responsibility from team member to team member or unit to unit. Few subjects are more frequently the subject of complaints than when the customer is passed around among team members and receives no resolution.

An organizational team charged with developing and implementing process improvement can be a major component of an effective strategy. This team may be comprised of team members from involved process units or any combination of units, but should also include a customer voice. Processes to be reviewed should be identified and analyzed for the following:

  • Efficiency
  • Cost effectiveness
  • Outdated procedures/tools
  • Metrics (as developed by the team)

Next, the team should evaluate the tools that are available to implement a service strategy. The increased use of technology has created opportunities and challenges. The facilities management unit’s increasing ability to input, store, and analyze data has provided many tools to track progress and offer more immediate response to customers. In many cases, accessing information on projects and work orders can be controlled at the customer level. However, too much reliance on this type of communication removes a personal touch that can result in the customer feeling ignored and uninformed. Voicemail, auto answer and email can combine to create an “invisible assistance” culture.

One example of technology in the culture of customer service is email and texting to handheld devices. It’s an opportunity to combine high tech and high touch.

Tim Sanders, author and chief solutions officer at Yahoo!, notes five rules of email:

  • Don’t send angry emails
  • Don’t send “Reply to All” messages unless it’s necessary
  • Don’t carbon copy unnecessarily
  • Don’t send emails at a time of day or night you wouldn’t phone
  • Don’t send emails to someone who is in close proximity and could speak to in person

The last rule is perhaps one of the most frequently abused. In the high-tech age it has become too easy to email rather than actually go next door and discuss the issue. While emails can be an efficient paper trail or file record, this also applies to customer contact. In addressing customer concerns, the time often comes when the arrival of a team member in person to discuss an issue that has been ongoing is not only preferable, but in many cases necessary.

On his blog, author and entrepreneur Seth Godin names three things customers really want: results, thrills, and ego.

Results from an FM organization most often mean an acceptable response time, resolution of the issue, and good communication. The organization needs to produce and track metrics to monitor this.

Thrills, or heroism, are more difficult to quantify but most often result from emergency responses. These are the responses that go above and beyond what the customer expects, when the institution really needs the facilities management team.

Ego addresses the team’s ability to make our customers feel important, the ability to treat a customer better than anyone else. This is the area for the little “extras” that combine to say “We Care.” The short phone conversation or personal visit will develop the customer relationship that gives you valuable feedback about your services and the process improvements needed.



Now the organization has defined the customer, developed a functional strategy and a service strategy, and the leadership has been tasked with building and sustaining a customer service culture. As facilities professionals, we are responsible for the physical assets of our institutions and the physical well-being of the members of our campus community and their workplace. It is our responsibility to be constantly vigilant for new methods and techniques to communicate with our customers and to lead for a customer service culture. To accomplish this task we must remember that “customer service is not a department, it is everyone’s job.”

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