Virtually every adult has a horror story to tell about pitiful customer service. Racetrack patrons, unfortunately, probably have many, as racetracks in general have a notorious reputation in this regard.

A problem of inadequate customer service seems to be endemic in today’s society. Consider some failures outside racing:

  • Several news reports of late have told of an airplane full of passengers being parked on a tarmac for hours on end, and in at least one instance the passengers did not have the benefit of food and water, air conditioning, or even a restroom facility.
  • Apple’s iPhone 4 had a reception-interference issue. Steve Jobs reportedly advised purchasers “to hold it differently.” In other words, it was the customer’s fault, not Apple’s. Rather than do what is right, blame the customer. This episode is contrary to Apple’s usual strong showing on customer service.
  • Time Warner Cable offers a “deal” periodically if an individual will sign up with the company for a land line, cable TV, and an Internet connection. Lo and behold, within a few months of installation the “deal” price has escalated by 20 percent with adjustments and fees. Bait them in with a low price and then switch the “marks” to a high price.

Close to one hundred percent of you could provide multiple anecdotes from personal experience about a disregard for you by a company or a government organization? Here is my most current example.

Have you ever had a dispute a with cell phone company over technical problems or overcharges? Recently, I purchased a brand-new high-tech LG cell phone from Sprint. Problem is, I found that the phone would send email accurately only part of the time. I told Sprint that 50-50 odds of an email message arriving were not acceptable. To make matters worse, the new phone quit completely within three weeks of my purchasing it. Sprint gave me a rebuilt phone to replace it, telling me that I could not have a new one because I had misplaced the cardboard box that the malfunctioning new phone came in. The old “hide behind corporate policy” runaround. When my next monthly bill arrived, it had a $75 charge for Internet and email usage, even though Sprint, at my request, had disabled the data package on my phone because of the technical problems Sprint could not fix. The disable date preceded my supposed data usage by eight days. Only after a lot of contact with Sprint via phone and three or four trips to one of its stores, did I get the $75 charge partially ($60) reversed. No adjustment was made for the three days I was without a phone at all while my replacement phone was being shipped.

What an aggravation and waste of time! When I consulted Consumer Reports and several other online sources for ratings on the various cell phone companies, I found that none of them fare particularly well on customer service.

Racetracks per se, like the cell-phone firms, are known for wretched customer service, though there are exceptions. This includes mediocre food, unclean surroundings, indifferent or rude employees, and an overall uninviting atmosphere. In my experience, the quality varies greatly from track to track, so it is not an immutable law that racetracks must treat their patrons in a shoddy manner.

A racetrack executive told me that some of his pari-mutuel reps were impolite to customers and that there was not much he could do about it because it was almost impossible to discipline or fire anyone due to the employee union. While I understand the obstacle, this kind of “give up” mentality is hard to fathom because there are other organizations with unions that deliver well on customer service. Pari-mutuel reps are under stress not to make a monetary mistake, but this does not mean that they have to be sour apples to the very people who account for their paychecks.

Any organization can improve customer service if management makes it a priority. For racetracks, at least for many of them, this has apparently not been the case.

Service is a key component of customer retention and racing cannot afford to let the patrons it has vote with their feet by leaving and never coming back. Moreover, racetracks will never get a second chance to make a good impression on first-time customers. One bright spot for racing is advance deposit wagering operations, which, in my judgment, overall get high marks for interacting with and servicing customers.

Ever read online customer evaluations of restaurants or hotels? Sometimes it is perplexing how the same business can receive reviews that are 180 degrees apart. One customer says the place is great and another person writes that it is lousy. Even businesses that overwhelmingly receive high marks typically have a few former customers who write negative things about them. The most effective way for management to discern how customers really feel about their business is to throw out the outliers–the comments that say the customer-service experience is the worst ever or the best ever—and listen carefully to what the remainder of the people have to say.

High-quality customer service is an ever-elusive goal. It requires hiring the right people and training them on an ongoing basis and dismissing employees as need be. It is no accident that the people who work at companies like UPS, FedEx, and Marriott are cordial and helpful. Corporate culture and management processes make it happen.

One of the most valuable and eye-opening jobs I ever had was as a host at a fairly upscale steakhouse during my college years. What I saw made a lasting impression about the vital role of customer service that one can not adequately learn in a book or a training session. Therefore, my suggestion would be for the chief operating executive of every racetrack to spend at least an hour on business days actually intetermingling with bettors of all strata–from $2 players to the high rollers–observing and soliciting their comments. An executive might even work periodically as a service employee (a pari-mutuel clerk, concession worker, etc.) to see what life is like on the frontline. What the racetrack is doing right and wrong will crystalize like no market research report can convey.

The now-retired chairman of one of Fortune magazine’s “most admired” companies told me that he spent many Saturday mornings at his firm’s retail outlets chatting with customers in order to get their feedback. Call it management by walking around. Call it commitment to customer service. Call it savvy.

Click here to see the 2010 MSN Money “Customer Service Hall of Shame.” 

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