Good Service in Canada
So where can you go in Canada to get good service these days? For starters, cross Toronto off your list. Canada's largest city is where you're most likely to be ignored, roped into an argument or even sworn at by a sales representative, according to the results of a major new survey. That conclusion is just a small part of the wide-ranging study conducted by ACNielsen for Rogers Media and the National Quality Institute, but will surely give the haters of Hogtown new ammunition in a country that has long prided itself on its courtesy.
Still, even Torontonians agree you get better service in Canada than in the U.S. - by a somewhat surprising five to one margin among Canadians who had dealings in both countries. The data refutes the commonly held belief that our neighbours to the south are more hospitable when it comes to pouring our drinks and fluffing our pillows. More broadly, the results indicate that consumers' overall satisfaction with the service they get in 15 different industries is pretty high. More than three-quarters - 77 per cent - of those polled felt that it's excellent or good. But more - 25 per cent - thought the quality had declined in the past three years than improved - 21 per cent; the rest said it stayed the same. And there's a big east-west split: in question after question, people from Quebec to Newfoundland felt the service they got was better than did the malcontents of Ontario and the West.
So which industries are seen as having the best and worst records on service? Not surprisingly, resorts top the rankings of the 15 industries - after all, their main job is to make their guests feel good. Following close on their heels are small retailers and credit unions. But that's not to say the bottom-ranked industries are out to make you feel bad. It's just that telephone companies and cable and satellite firms (including Rogers Cable, part of the parent group of survey sponsor Rogers Media and Maclean's) have huge challenges - house by house - in keeping the customers satisfied. The unhappiness with the highly regionalized communications companies was consistent across every province. Banks, another common Canadian whipping-boy, finished 12th on the overall rankings.
"There has been a lot of focus during the last 30 years on product quality, but today service is becoming the determining issue in more and more cases," says NQI president and CEO Dan Corbett. "The results should be a wake-up call for some and an affirmation for those who are doing some really good things."
In each industry, a series of questions on such things as promptness, clarity and courtesy kept confirming the results. "A sector couldn't be great in one and two of the characteristics and get up near the top," says Tom Higgins, a sales and marketing manager with ACNielsen. "You had to be strong right across the board. When it comes to quality, you can't just pick and choose what you want to do well at. If you try you'll get punished."
While most sectors retained ratings comparable to a similar ACNeilsen survey for NQI in 1997, there were some notable exceptions. The postal service, which for years has been criticized for inefficiency, seems to have turned a corner with consumers. "In the past Canadians did not see us as being bold and innovative," says Daniel Sawaya, Canada Post's chief marketing officer. "We invested close to $300 million in new technology in the last few years. At the same time, we invested in a new management system and put the customer at the centre of our decision-making process. And we've had peace with our union for the last six years, which has helped build customer confidence."
Canada's courier companies also seem to be taking service more seriously these days, and it's paying off. The industry saw improvements in quality ratings and rankings across all characteristics. Robert Johnson, president and CEO of Purolator, Canada's largest courier (and owned by Canada Post), says his firm recently improved its service capacity by building 13 new distribution facilities across the country. Changes to delivery schedules now make it easier for the Mississauga, Ont.-based firm to achieve earlier distribution and later pickup times, especially for its business customers. "We view our service as the extension of our client's customer service," says Johnson. "If we can't improve their ability to improve customer service, they're going to go elsewhere."
One surprise was the strong performance of large retailers - which catapulted from 12th to eighth in the rankings - since it debunks a widely held view. "There's a perception that when you go into some of the larger stores it's hard to even find service," says Corbett. "And then, once you finally get it, it's not all that good. But the survey result makes it clear that there have been some improvements taking place."
Not all sectors came away with a glowing result. The telephone industry took a serious hit, dropping in the overall ranking from number six to 14. "A lot of smaller companies are in the phone business now and things have gotten worse," says Corbett. "Obviously something has gone wrong because the whole reason for deregulating the industry was to improve the service."
The airline industry also plunged sharply, from a respectable fifth in 1997 to 10th. Here the lack of competition is no doubt a key reason. With 73 per cent of the domestic market, Air Canada is under little pressure to work hard on service. Corbett says prompt delivery and courtesy are two of the most important factors in determining service quality of an industry. Turns out resorts, hotels, small retailers and credit unions were the top performers in these two categories, while the airlines, telephone companies and cable/satellite firms finished at the bottom of the heap.
Keeping service quality top-notch is not only an important domestic issue. "Canada has been able to compete globally with our natural resources," Corbett says. "But as more developed countries move away from heavy manufacturing and begin looking to improve their service industry, Canada needs to think about its ability to provide good service if we want to compete."
The survey is nothing if not definitive. Conducted between Aug. 12 and Sept. 21, it used ACNielsen's Homescan consumer research panel, a massive test group of 13,354 people who are considered demographically and geographically representative of the Canadian population.
And among all those people, how did Toronto earn the dubious distinction as having Canada's rudest service reps? Turns out a higher percentage of Torontonians than any other group in the survey claim to have been subject to all the negative experiences listed in the questionnaire - including being sworn at or treated with hostility. Torontonians also felt they got worse service overall. But the rich, too, are picky - nationally, the lower the income, the less likely it was for consumers to say they had a negative experience. Young people also had a harder time. So, corporate Canada, the message is clear: some of your best customers - young, wealthy and urban spenders - aren't very happy with you.
Are You Being Served?
Selections from the Service Quality Study conducted by ACNielsen
How Do You Rate Service Quality?
Per cent of respondents, across all industries
Excellent or good fair poor
All 77.6 20.8 1.6
Maritimes 82.5 16.7 0.8
Quebec 81.8 17.0 1.3
Ontario 75.8 22.0 2.3
West 75.0 23.3 1.7
Rich 72.4 24.9 2.7
Middle-class 78.5 20.3 1.2
Toronto 72.0 24.7 3.3
The Best and Worst
Service rated 'excellent' or 'good' (per cent)
1. Resorts 91.7 not ranked
2. Small retailers 90.2 87.1
3. Credit unions 88.7 87.1
4. Hotels 87.9 88.6
5. Restaurants 85.9 85.4
6. Courier services 84.6 76.8
7. Auto dealers 81.9 76.3
8. Large retailers 78.8 65.7
9. Insurance companies 76.7 74.2
10. Airlines 76.6 81.9
11. Postal services 76.5 64.3
12. Banks 75.2 72.3
13. Real estate agents 74.0 73.4
14. Telephone companies 66.8 80.7
15. Cable/satellite TV 62.0 61.1
Where Do You Receive Better Service - Canada or the United States?
Remainder had no U.S. experience.
Ever Had This Happen?
Respondents selected all that apply, with any service provider. In all cases, Toronto was highest in the country.
Rep has displayed surly or hostile attitude
Rep has provoked an argument
Rep has sworn at you
Rep has refused to deal with you
Has Quality Changed Over the past Three Years?
Improved 21% (National)
Stayed the same 54% (Toronto)
Declined 25% (National)
See also SERVICE INDUSTRY.
Maclean's October 21, 2002