Let me take you back. It’s the 1970s and the world is going to hell in a hand basket. Gas prices are out of control, the economy is tanking, Iran is holding us hostage and once-proud American companies are panhandling up and down the halls of Congress for spare millions. You could feel the panic. So how did business respond? By slashing. Slashing overhead; slashing jobs; slashing service. And in the process they not only cut costs, they cut corners. Soon personalized service gave way to one-size-fits-all expedience. The gas station attendant, oil-checker and windshield cleaner went the way of the leisure suit, replaced by the steely efficient but highly impersonal self-serve pump. In fact, that term, self-service, became the American businessman’s new mantra. It was as though there was a competition to see just how cheaply you could run your business and still survive; like the evil cost-cutters who gave birth to the Chrysler K Car, drive-thru burger joints and all those Ronco and Popeil products had assumed control of the economy. In the years that followed, telephone operators were replaced by touch-tone answering systems, bank tellers were replaced by cash machines, and so on down the line. Yet, during that very time a company was started that is still around today. It started from scratch in an industry dominated by a handful of giants, an industry that would soon be deregulated (at the urging of those giants), and an industry that was about as capital-intensive as any in the world. And this company didn’t break the rules. In fact, its business model was patterned after one of its competitors. Yet, according to author and business analyst Jim Collins, of all the companies that launched in this country in the last 35 years, none would have brought you a greater return on your investment dollar than this one. And this company now stands as number one in its sector. That company? Southwest Airlines. And how did Southwest do it? By daring to offer the highest quality of service, when all around them airlines were doing the opposite. I bring this up because just as history repeats itself, you can look around and see once again that business in the service industry are cutting corners. They’re off-shoring call centers to places like India, hiring recent immigrants who barely speak English into customer service positions, and adding layers of response steps to automated phone systems that already seemed designed to confuse rather than assist consumers. And I bring it up too, because when I went into get a haircut this weekend, I asked my barber why he didn’t have cable. He told me he tried to get it and was sick and tired of getting a runaround every time he called his local cable operator. This came on the heels of at least three other conversations I had with people recently, all about their cable service. And believe me, while they didn’t reach the fever pitch that cable bashing attained a decade ago, the conversations still revolved around the same basic point: cable operators have a long way to go before they’ll be considered great service providers. My aim this morning is not to point my finger and scold anyone. It’s not to say you should know better. Rather, it’s to point out to you what people like my barber think, and to remind you that just as that fledgling airline did way back in 1971, maybe its time for this industry to take a radical approach and actually look at the money spent on service as not just money spent on customers, but money invested in them. After all, Symonds says there are a lot worse things than becoming the Southwest Airlines of cable. Curtis Symonds can be reached at curtissymonds@yahoo.com.

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Talking ‘Trafficked’ with Nat Geo’s Monroe

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