A big city public transit system just released a report addressing its terrible service and image problems. While some of the panel’s recommendations deal with the organization’s culture, much of it is focused on “fixing” drivers, counter staff, and other frontline service people through training and “attitude change.”

The way too common “fix our customer service staff” is a natural outgrowth of the deadly assumption that frontline service people are fully accountable for the quality of service they are delivering. That’s a very narrow and incomplete understanding of how organizations work. The quality of external customer relationships is a direct reflection of the quality of internal customer/supplier relationships. Just as a chain is no stronger than its weakest link, an organization’s service/quality is usually no stronger than its weakest internal customer/supplier relationship.

The service deliverer is but the last link in the chain. Granted, he or she may well be the weak link, but usually he or she is no worse than the many who provide the myriad of production and support services backing up that person. The success or failure of first-line service providers is strongly determined by the quality of service leadership they receive. In fact, many frontline servers provide good service in spite of, not because of, the organizational support systems and culture they work within. Given the many obstacles, it’s a minor miracle that service is being provided at all by some exceptionally caring employees!

There’s no question that basic courtesy skills are sadly lacking in all too many organizations. Rude, gruff, or indifferent treatment can quickly make service encounters negative experiences. But the painted-on smiles will be quickly wiped off server’s faces by poor organizational support, lack of teamwork, or an abrasive supervisor. This kind of customer service training can send the wrong signals to participants about how bright management thinks they are. Many smile training packages or one day wonder seminars are insulting to employees with their simple minded approach and “you’re the problem” messages.

Customer service culture, habits, and attitudes start with management. Teach managers how to better serve their servers and watch customer service levels soar.