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It's The Service, Stupid!

On a recent holiday shopping excursion, my wife and I decided to hit one of the several chain restaurants that can be found around most malls in America.

After waiting the customary hour to be seated, our table was not yet cleaned or set, and evidence of the young children who dined in the booth before us lay at our feet in the form of smashed french fries.  After more than ten idle minutes, a harried server finally made an appearance to take our order, and didn't return with our drinks for another ten. 

Needless to say, our dining experience did not get off to a good start. But alas, it is what we've come to expect when dining at like establishments these days.

Now comes news that the restaurant industry is hungry for business. Should this surprise anybody?

Diageo -- Burger King owner and the world's largest liquor maker -- wanted to sell the troubled place where kids are king so bad that it lowered its asking price by over half a billion dollars.  McDonald's Corporation CEO Jack Greenberg has recently stepped down from the world's largest restaurant chain amid falling profits, and earlier this month during a conference call, fanchisees of TGI Friday's restaurants blamed a poorly conceived television ad campaign for a less than stellar fourth quarter.

Clearly, something is not sitting well with American diners.

So what is it that's turning people off ? Is it the economy? Is it the ads? I don't think so. It's bad service.

When I was a kid, one of my first jobs was working as a bicycle mechanic at Roy's Bike Shop. Roy gave me this advice on being a valuable employee: "treat the business like it was your own." 

These days consumers are hard-pressed to encounter service industry professionals in the larger retail and food chains who treat the business as if they owned it. There is very little sense of pride in the workplace anymore, where underpaid or more accurately, undertrained staffs serve as poor representations of their employers' principles. 

There are no winners in this scenario. Investors lose value as stock prices fall, workers lose jobs or are paid lower wages when business is bad, upper-management is replaced under pressure from Wall Street and consumers get shoddy service.

Good service does not come without sacrifice. Employees have to develop a "customer first, me second" mentality, and conversely, companies have to work hard to set an example and properly train employees.

"Service is our key component of differentiation," says Kip Tindell, president and CEO of Texas based retailer The Container Store, which has topped Fortune magazine's list of best places to work in America three years in a row, and is one of the more profitable privately held retail chains in the country.

Tindell says the responsibility for good customer service falls on the shoulders of employers first -- employees second.

"It's the old 'take care of your employee and they'll take care of the customer' philosphy," says Tindell, whose employees -- from sales to distribution -- go through some 230 hours of training. 

Even more important than hiring and training great people, Tindell said, is communicating company policies and financial information to them, "so they feel like they are a part of it, and you wind up with people who care."

Terrie Dort, president of the National Council of Chain Restaurants, says blaming the decline in business on bad service is way too simplistic. "It's the shift in competitive forces," says Dort, who also points her finger at home meal replacements, where consumers buy prepared meals from specialty stores to eat at home.

"They are entering the marketplace in a way they have never before, and newer concepts are muscling in on more established franchises," she said.

I don't buy it, but if I did, I'd still say it's the bad service that forces me to seek out alternatives such as prepared meals, or online shopping.

Mike Straka is the project manager for Fox News's Internet operations and contributes as a features reporter and producer on Fox Magazine (Sundays 11 p.m. on FNC) and as a reporter for Foxnews.com. 

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