Five Proven Ways to Sharpen Customer Service Decision-Making

When was the last time you heard the sentence, “Let me ask my manager?” It might have been on the phone. It might have been in a store. It might have been in a restaurant. Wherever it was, you probably wondered, “Why can’t this person just make a decision?”

Chances are, one of two things was going on. 1) The manager was such a control freak that no one wanted to break the rules, even for a request that seemed reasonable. 2) The employee lacked the confidence to make a decision that their common sense told them would be okay. As a result, they left you on hold or at the counter to ask for the permission they knew was coming. If we added up all the times this happens across the US marketplace every day, it would number in the millions.

So, how do you solve this problem in your corner of the world? Here are five suggestions, gleaned from my interviews with managers who have dealt with this challenge:

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Give them a spend – Richard manages an auto dealership. He authorizes every one of his employees to spend up to $500 to make a customer happy without checking with him. This relieves the burden of them checking with the manager and reassures customers that the person they’re dealing with is capable of making reasonable decisions. By the way, not one has ever spent anything close to $500. Mostly it’s coffees, car washes, and new floor mats.

Provide clear boundaries – LaWanda takes time during staff meetings to discuss unusual customer questions and issues that have come up in the past month. She presents the situation and asks for input on how it can best be handled. Then the group comes to consensus on what to do the next time the issue arises. This encourages her people to think for themselves rather than rely on her every time.

Refuse to give them an answer – Greg is the owner of a heating and cooling service company. His technicians were forever calling him from customer locations to ask if they could do this or that. It became so overwhelming that it was consuming an hour or two of each day. So he stopped answering their questions and told them to use their best judgment. “It was a bit rough at the beginning,” he said. “But once they figured out that I meant it and wasn’t going to penalize them for the occasional mistake, everything worked just fine.”

Process and reward the use of common sense – Jayme pulls her servers together before the restaurant opens every evening. She begins by briefing them on special menu items. Then most days, she recognizes someone for the way they handled a customer issue. She explains what happened, hands the server a $10 gift card, and reminds everyone to think for themselves. In return for a couple thousand dollars in gift cards, the restaurant has been receiving thousands of dollars in customer kudos and increased traffic.

How many of these ideas can you implement? The long-term boost in productivity and reputation will be enormous.

Make Sure Your Systems and Service People are on the Same Page

The internet in our home died earlier this week. After cycling the modem a couple of times, I called the service provider’s toll-free number. The digital assistant told me to cycle the modem and it would text me in ten minutes. I did so once again and after ten minutes the system informed me that I did not have working internet. Well, duh!

It then offered me four appointment windows to have a technician come out to take a look. I chose the 9-11AM option. At 8:25, the system texted me that the technician was on his way. “Super,” I thought. At 8:49, the system texted me that the technician had arrived. My wife and I stopped what we were doing and I went to the front door. There sat the truck. I could see the technician inside, typing away on his tablet.

A couple of minutes passed. Then a few more. “He’s here,” I thought, “Why doesn’t he come to the door?” A few more minutes passed. Then, at exactly 9:00AM, he emerged from the truck and rang the bell. “Why,” I wondered, “did he sit in the truck while my wife and I stood there in limbo?” We could have been working on something for another ten minutes.

After stewing about this for a bit, I have come to three possible reasons: 1) The technician was finishing up his paperwork from the last call; 2) He said to himself, “I’m not on the clock until 9AM, so I’ll sit here and relax; 3) He and his colleagues have been given instructions not to knock on the door outside of the appointment window.

I don’t really care about the reason, except that the system texted me that he had arrived and set my expectation. Once the technician introduced himself, I found him competent and personable. But this was overshadowed by the eleven-minute gap in our lives. Sometimes a firm’s technology undermines the service and erases that extra polish you’re trying to achieve. Does this happen where you work? What are you doing about it?

Empathy and Smart Decision Making

Like most people, I have become wary of the customer service in most establishments these days. Maybe it’s because of our impersonal communication. Perhaps it’s because so many people feel overwhelmed with their own worries. Maybe it’s due to a lack of effective hiring and training. Whatever the reason, customer service has become more of an adventure.

That’s why I was so pleasantly surprised when dropping off my wife’s car at the autobody shop this week. Jack greeted me with a smile and asked how he could help. After I told him, he said, “May I offer you a cup of coffee?” I declined, but he pointed to the Keurig machine in case I changed my mind.

Then he said, “This must be a pain in the neck for you.” I told him it wasn’t that big a deal, but was a bit time consuming. He assured me he’d do everything he could to minimize the headaches. Then he spent about 45 seconds explaining how the process worked and asked what questions I had. I had none at that point, so he walked me out to the car. He took about 15 minutes to assess the damage and build an estimate on his tablet. As he did so, he narrated what would need to be done, from disassembly to re-assembly to paint and polish. That put my mind at ease. I would not be leaving the car in the “black hole” of auto-body repair.

When he was finished, he told me he would be taking a few days of vacation and that Gary would be covering for him. But rather than just telling me, he called Gary over for a couple of seconds so we could shake hands and I could put a face to a name. You may wonder why I’m making such a big deal out of this twenty-minute encounter. Two reasons. 1) It has become increasingly unusual. 2) It didn’t take any extra effort. Jack offered me coffee. Let me know that he empathized with me and introduced me to Gary since he was going on vacation. Would I recommend Jack and his team to someone else? I have already.

Over the years, I have dealt with numerous body shops and service firms. Pretty much all have been competent and stayed with the budget. What sets Jack and his team apart is that he has developed an empathy for his customers. He has learned to anticipate the emotions associated with dealing with decisions, such as spending thousands of dollars in repairs and with leaving your car with a bunch of strangers.

How about you? Do you and your colleagues empathize with your customers and anticipate their concerns? If so, do you communicate that clearly so they know you understand those concerns? It doesn’t require a lot of effort to do so. But it can make all the difference in the world when you’re asking customers to make big, expensive decisions.

The Cumulative Impact of Apathy

Dear Fast-food Franchise Owner:

I want to thank you. I teach employers how to improve workplace decision-making and my experience this morning was a perfect example of how even small decisions can have a cumulative impact on profitability. I stopped by your restaurant at Belleview and Kipling at about 7:45AM for a small decaf coffee with two creams. The young man behind the counter took my money, handed me a receipt and then walked away to do something else. I sat down and set up my laptop to write my weekly column.

After about ten minutes, it dawned me that the coffee had not come up at the counter and no one had brought it around. I went up to the counter. The young man who had taken my money saw me and said, “Oh yeah. The decaf is brewing.”

After another five minutes, I went up to the counter again. The young man saw me and said to a manager, “Hey, we need a small decaf at the counter.” The manager, without appearing to pay attention said, “Ok” and continued to prep other orders. This kind fascinated me. So I began to study the manager and how he worked – methodically, low energy, no apparent investment in what he was doing.

I waited another five minutes, watching him all the while. Nothing changed. He didn’t communicate with anyone around him. He just continued to prep orders. No conversation. No encouragement. No collaboration. Nothing but a blank stare as he went about his tasks. Meanwhile, the young man got something to eat and sat down at a table across from the counter. At one point, our eyes met and I could see he was thinking, “Oh yeah. Small decaf.” But he did nothing to resolve the issue.

Finally, I’d had enough. I waited at the empty counter and eventually the manager came over and asked, “What can I get you?”

I said, “I’ve been waiting 20 minutes for a small decaf with two creams, but at this point I just want my buck back. Without saying a word, he punched a few buttons on the register, handed me a dollar and walked away. I wanted to say to him, “Don’t you care at all?” but I don’t think it would have sunk in.

I have to wonder how many times in a shift the ball in this restaurant gets dropped because no one has empowered the young man to fix a simple problem, in an environment where the manager couldn’t care less. I realize you’re in a volume business where you may write off customer concerns like this. And yes, I will probably end up at this store again because it is convenient. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not offering my services to you. I just thought you’d like to be reminded that some of us are actually watching.