The Marketing Bureau

Specialist Marketing & Communications Resourecs



The Myth of Service America

I have just come across an article that I wrote in 1996 about the myth of Service Economies and in which I sounded a warning for New Zealand business. Seems it wasn't widely read as the message is still valid and more pressing than ever. Here's that article....

It is now a decade since Karl Albrecht and Ron Zemke first coined the phrase “Service America”, in their book of the same name and subtitled “Doing Business In The New Economy”. This important work proclaimed that “ a powerful wave is shaking the already turbulent business world. It is a wave of service (italics added) - or more specifically, an intense interest in quality of service”.

They heralded their contention that “We no longer live in Industrial America. We now live in Service America, where organisations must perform rather than produce and where physical products are distinguished by the quality of the accompanying service”

Now, apart from the fact that here are yet another two U.S. authors proving that business (or anything else for that matter) seems not to exist beyond the boundaries of the good old US of A, their book (and the arguments it contained) was a powerful and important one.

So, ten years on, are we living in a Service economy (whether that be in the USA of here in New Zealand?).

Have we learned that success in any business pivots on the central core of ensuring that those whose money we seek to acquire (customers) must be treated with the absolute care and nurturing attention that is due to anyone from whose money we wish to separate them?

Well, relatively speaking, I have to say that New Zealand is way ahead of the USA. There is a warmth and degree of caring evident here that, whilst a long way short of perfect is, nonetheless, something to be encouraged by. Even good old Telecom must take significant credit for the service culture that it has created. At least they are trying!  Having recently returned from visiting Malaysia, U.K. and California, I can report that Service America (and Service U.K. I have to say) is a gigantic myth.

Sure, the growth of Service Industries has well outstripped that of  Manufacturing Industries. But does that mean that Service as a verb, rather than simply a noun, has entered the psyche of American business? Sadly, no.

And why?

Although arguably a little simplistic, I believe that two key factors are dominant. The first is the way the American people approach so many things - they have, in the last ten years, hurtled headlong, and with admirable gusto, into “making this Service thing happen” They have done this through training in Service Systems, implementing Service Systems and monitoring Service Systems. Many Courses. Many Trainers. Many Textbooks. Many Thick Manuals. Just about every public John (Toilet to us Kiwis!) now has its Chart of Cleanliness prominently displayed to show that it was last inspected just milliseconds ago, will be inspected once again in another few milliseconds and has been left in an immaculate, neah, sterile state for our comfort and convenience. (Although I have never actually spotted this chart being filled in, however many times I have visited the place!)

The System is in place.

If you are unlucky enough to get a cold cup of coffee on Room Service and bother to call them and complain, you will immediately be asked if you would like to “speak to a Manager sir?”. You don’t want a Manager - you only want a hot cup of coffee - but, the System is in place. In fact, if you should have cause to complain, however meekly and politely, about any little thing in any hotel, airport, restaurant or just about anywhere else, the System will be in place and the response will be “would you like to speak to a Manager sir?” That’s the System. But you still don’t have a hot cup of coffee.

And why?

Because the whole business of service provision in the USA has been honed down to a finely tuned System where people have been completely ignored. Staff are not taught and then empowered to deal with customers problems. They are not taught and then empowered to carry out their service provision by treating customers are human beings with likes and dislikes, wants and needs, feelings and emotions.

They are taught to implement a System.

There is no soul.

There is no care or pride even vaguely visible in the staff of Service America.

They are cold, uncaring automatons. That is what is required of them - they have a System and they are implementing it.

In fact, the harder you might try to get that hot cup of coffee, the harder the brick wall you will come up against. Don’t bother trying to appeal to the human being at the end of the line - they’re not there. They’re going through the motions - they just have not been equipped to deal with a stroppy customer who, after ten minutes of being offered a Manager, is becoming desperate to find a real, live, living, breathing human being who can, simply, make them a hot cup of coffee.

Am I exaggerating a little for editorial effect?

Not one little bit.

It’s endemic in every area of Service Provision in the US The right words are spoken but somehow, the eyes look dull. Lights on, no-one home. You’re not a person or a human being. You are, simply, “a service event” in a System that is probably as finely tuned and carefully monitored as a Shuttle Launch. (And with a Manual that’s nearly as big!) But a person? Oh dear me no.

Oh, and I promised a second reason for this sorry state of affairs.


So litigious has the US become (and its continuing to get worse, not better), that its impact can be observed in a myriad of daily experiences and transactions. Just about everything that a service provider says to you has that distinct feeling of being as much about covering themselves against some possible future litigation against them as it is about making sure that you are a happy little customer.

So, the next time one of them tells you to “Have a nice day”, think about what’s really going on - they are protecting themselves against a Negligence Suit should you not have a nice day. “I clearly advised them to Have A Nice Day Your Honour. If they failed to comply with my instructions, it’s cannot be deemed  negligent on my part”.

Y’all have a nice day too!

(No, really!!)

Brian H Meredith


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