Major issues can emerge which disrupt everything from our business to our personal life. Recently, we have been dealing with the issue of security, one of a number of major concerns for the corporation and the individual. And, while security is a huge issue for many, it is perhaps about to be overwhelmed by an even larger and potentially more devastating trend — human and technological incompetence.
Let’s examine the human half of the incompetence issue. Lack of qualified or trained labor has forced people into positions for which they may not have the ability to perform or training to undertake the job successfully. Demand for competent labor is increasing, while the supply of workers with the right skills to work in this industry appears to be decreasing. This is further compounded by the end product of our educational institutions (high schools, colleges and universities) showing both deteriorating academic preparation and less than the historic work ethic of past generations.
Employers say they now reach out to applicants they would normally send to the rejection pile because most are trained to handle the job at hand.
This has had a particularly severe effect on the services industry where the basic skills such as mathematics, reading and writing all appear to be lacking in many younger employees. How often have you experienced service industry employees who cannot function (i.e., make change) should the cash register, computer or calculator fail?
This brings us to the second half of the issue: technological incompetence.
We are living in a society which has grown virtually totally dependent on the mechanical or, if you prefer, technology. And, when the technology fails or malfunctions, we are then channeled to the human, who may or may not be competent or trained to resolve the problem. Again, the service industry is the victim of the incompetence, as it functions with some form of interaction between the provider and consumer in every phase of the consumption process. When technological and human incompetence occurs, the dynamics of consumption becomes static.
Many have begun to recognize human and technological incompetence as a major issue for the service industry. Many also have realized the need to address a newly emerging work force whose values, motivations and reward systems each create challenges unto themselves for the employer — not to mention the customer. What can be done and is being done to address these issues?
Here are a few glimmers of hope on the horizon. Many institutions are revisiting their “standards,” expectations, and end-product capabilities. Some institutions have begun to establish their own (not government concepts) standards, such as competency testing, tougher grade standards, reintroduction of traditional math and, yes, even writing competency. Some more progressive companies have established new basic training programs, new team concepts, new incentive programs and yes, like Marriott, even their own high school. We should applaud and encourage these efforts, for they are sincerely needed.
A recent national survey indicated that consumer satisfaction with electronic products and automobiles had risen every year for the past five years. The same survey demonstrated just the opposite for airlines, hotels, rental-car services and food service. In fact, the overall satisfaction levels were higher for electronics and automobiles than for any hospitality-related service.
Now there is hope and certainly action steps the industry can take to turn this trend around. First, technology is moving forward with new self-diagnostic or correction programs built into the product. Technology also realizes that in order to have a repeat customer, it too needs to provide customer service. So let us make the assumption we can fix the technological incompetence through vendor selectivity and better training of our own employees.
As for the human incompetence, the solutions are more challenging.
Institutions must be encouraged to raise the bar and provide a better-prepared end product. Industry must not only demand higher standards, but also help institutions to achieve the competencies desired.
Industry must get more involved and, yes, consider greater support of external educational institutions. Internally, industry must refocus on basic training and also innovate. Innovative training approaches, changing internal systems and processes to reduce error, developing new service delivery approaches, and employee motivational incentives are but a few of the steps that can lead to more competent employees and technological systems.
All other factors being equal, a company that is committed to training its employees will be more attractive to the best job candidate than a company where training is not a priority. Training will help companies retain good employees. More satisfied customers equal more repeat and referral business. Reduced workplace tension and more motivated employees translate to less turnover and better customer service.
Winners will take these steps and raised their competence level. Losers will go with the flow — a flow of lost support, departing customers and high turnover rates. Both educational institutions and service industry corporations have so much to gain through working together in strong partnerships with a rededicated focus on raising basic competency levels for both future and existing service industry employees. This is the challenge of the decade — let’s meet it head on and together.
Ronald A. Nykiel, dean of the College of Business at Husson University, is a member of the National Association of Corporate Directors, has written books on management and marketing, counseled the President’s Commission on Executive Interchange and chaired a governor’s revenue forecasting commission.