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.

The Inextricable Link Between Pride and Outcome

Back in the 1970s, the leadership of railway equipment manufacturer, Budd Company, invited a select group of their assemblers to take an overnight ride on a train composed of the cars they had built. The leadership simply wanted to provide a bit of fun and recognition for those toiling in the factory. But then an interesting thing happened. Those aboard the train began to examine the “product” they had produced. They discovered missing rivets, windows that didn’t seal properly and other details that left them irritated that the work had not been done to their standards. All of it was within the company’s tolerances, but that wasn’t good enough for them.

Upon returning to the factory, they established new processes to ensure the railway cars they were producing were something they could be proud of every single time. I suspect Budd’s leadership had no idea this was going to happen. They just wanted to provide a reward for some hardworking souls. But there’s a universal truth illustrated here – there is an inextricable link between pride and quality of outcome.

Now, you may be thinking, “Of course there is. There’s nothing new here.” But how do people feel about it on your front line? How much pride do your people feel in the work they do? Chances are, the answer is all over the map. Some are totally invested. Others may be simply there for the paycheck. Then there are a bunch in the middle. If you directly supervise them, you probably know where along the continuum each person falls.

So, how do you build pride in those who don’t display a lot of interest or investment? Make it real. How? Here are a couple of examples:

Recognize little extra efforts – Many times, people toil away without being recognized for how well they’re performing. The key is to let them know that you know. Several years, I became acquainted with the general manager of a resort in the southwest. With 2500 people on his team it was impossible to know how everyone was contributing. Knowing this, he put the word out to his supervisors that when they saw someone doing something right, they should let him know via e-mail or a note to his office. Then once a week, he sat down to write complementary notes to the individuals identified. But he went a step further by mailing these notes to each person’s home. After all, a housekeeper who receives one of these notes while on the job will probably just stick it in her uniform and forget it. A handwritten note from the general manager that arrives at home gets posted on the refrigerator so the entire family can see it.

Share more customer feedback – Too often, customers wanting to share positive comments end up filling out a form on the company website these days. These kudos are then posted on behalf of the entire company. That’s fine, but what about the person the customer actually had contact with? If someone mentions a name, why not track that person down and share the feedback personally? Chances are, they weren’t even aware it was submitted.

You can also do this personally. When someone provides me with good service, I make a point of complimenting them, even if we’re on live chat. I’m not trying to make a big difference, just making the effort to brighten someone’s day. But while it might a little thing to me, it might be the best thing they’ve heard all week. Pride and outcome go hand-in-hand. What can you and your colleagues do to foster more of this connection?

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?

The Cowardice of “My Hands are Tied”

On December 23rd of last year, a young man attempted to make a withdrawal from his bank, hoping the $1000 due in his account had been deposited. The clerk he spoke to told him that she could see the money had been credited. Unfortunately, it would not be available until the next day. On the morning of the 24th, he checked his account and the funds were still not available.

Panicked, he called the bank and happened to get the same clerk. He told her he was just trying to get home for Christmas and needed $20 because his car had run out of gas and he was marooned. When she asked, she discovered the young man was about two miles from the bank. Taking pity on him, she asked her manager if she could drive over and give him $20 of her own money. After all, it was Christmas Eve. The manager gave her permission and the clerk did so.

We’d all like to think this story a nice reminder that there is still goodwill in the world. Unfortunately, that’s not how it ends. Several days after Christmas, both the clerk and her manager were fired because the clerk had had “unauthorized contact with a customer.” (I have not revealed the identity of the bank, but you can find the incident online.)

Some may argue that the person terminating these two employees did so because his or her “hands were tied” by bank policy. I would argue that was simply not true. Seth Godin once observed that when people don’t act in the workplace, it’s not out of a fear of failure, but out of a fear of blame. I suspect the administrator making this decision acted out of fear of blame. After all, sometime down the road this incident might have been examined by someone for some reason and the administrator might have been fired.

So, what message does this send to employees and customers? For the employees – “Generosity, goodwill and going out of your way for customers can get you fired.” Sure, there is a larger context to the situation in question. But most people don’t think that deep. For the customers – “Geez, the bank is always saying they care. But then they do something like this to employees who were just trying to help!” (Right now, the bank’s marketing department is thankful this story has been buried in the 24-hour news cycle.)

Every decision of significance we make in the workplace requires both judgment and courage. The more we promulgate policies to cover every possible instance and liability, the more our people will act out of caution and even cowardice rather than courage and a sense of goodwill. I have lamented more than once in this blog how rules have overtaken reason in our daily adjudication of society. As a result, much of our day-to-day decision making has become mired in caution and even fear. This incident over Christmas is a perfect example. While some may argue this incident is an anomaly, the more we rely on rules rather than reason, the more we’ll hear about anomalies like this.

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.

Customer Utensils? It’s Not on the Checklist

I frequent a particular fast-food chain because I like their salads. But I’ve noticed a little detail that can be annoying, yet easily fixed. That’s the issue of placing plastic utensils in the to-go orders. Twice in the past three visits, I have forgotten to grab a fork before leaving the store. In both cases I’ve ended up someplace and had no way to eat the salad except with my fingers. Now, you should know that I generally walk in to the store rather than going through the drive-thru. So perhaps the employees have been instructed to place utensils in those orders. Why not all to-go orders?

But then there’s the larger issue. Why should anyone need to instruct these employees to include utensils in to-go orders in the first place? Isn’t that common sense? Apparently not in today’s transactional-thinking world. As more and more of what we do every day is manipulated by algorithms and menu-driven options, the less we are we required to reason through everyday issues. This is especially true of the little details for which we should have some empathy. We are no longer compelled to place ourselves in someone else’s shoes. More and more of us just follow the instructions. The result? If including utensils with in-store to-go orders is not on the checklist, it won’t get done.

Consider your work environment. Where might there be these kinds of incidental details that get overlooked? What impact does it have customer service and work-flow within the firm? Most people never say anything to the people responsible for fixing it. They just grouse about it to friends and loved ones, as I did to my wife.

This means you’re left with two challenges: 1) What details need to be added to your checklists to make sure you’re not unknowingly irritating customers? 2) What can you do to encourage a more mutually empathetic environment within your workplace? We’ll talk about that next time.

So what’s my personal solution to the utensil issue? Simple, the last time I was in one of this chain’s stores, I grabbed a handful of forks and stuck them in my car. That way, I’ll never run out of forks again. Others are probably doing this as well. Now the managers are probably wondering where all their plastic forks go.


Are You Industrializing the Coffee Cake?

Coffee. Coffee Espresso. Cup Of Coffee

One of my small indulgences is the coffee cake at Starbucks. I’ve always loved digging into it with a fork and feeling its moistness in my mouth. Up until recently, it’s been served on a plate. They’d even heat it up for you if you asked. While I was waiting to order, I’d stare at the pieces in the display case trying to decide which one I’d like.

But apparently the company’s efficiency experts have gotten to my coffee cake. When I ordered it the other day, the barista reached into a drawer below the case, pulled out a piece wrapped in cellophane, and kind of tossed it across the counter. I wanted to yell, “This is not right! You’ve industrialized my coffee cake!” Then, realizing that there’s no going back, I picked it up and wandered dejectedly away.

Now, in an effort to save money and/or cut down on waste, I suspect some efficiency expert in Seattle decided that the customers will have to deal with assembly-line looking coffee cake from now on. After all, in a world of more important issues, customers need to settle.

Here’s the thing, however. Starbucks had conditioned me, and lots of others, to pay $2.75 for a small, but delicious morsel based on how it tasted and based on presentation. But in an effort to improve efficiency on their end, they’ve ruined the experience on our end. After all, anyone can buy a piece of cellophane-wrapped coffee cake at 7-Eleven for 99¢. The cake at Starbucks is just not that much better. What are decisions like this costing your company?

Secret Shop Yourself

Smiling employee using calculator on counter at the bakery

I was waiting for a flight at the Omaha airport. A roast beef sandwich might hit the spot. I walked over to the sandwich shop and ordered the 12” version with lettuce, tomato, mayo and banana peppers. The young man behind the counter took my order, grabbed the roast beef and turned to the slicer. It wouldn’t work. He turned the switch on and off a dozen times as if that would fix the problem.

He disappeared around the corner and came back with someone else. She took one look at the slicer and said, “Oh yeah. That broke this morning.” The minutes ticked away. He fiddled with it while the line grew behind me. Finally, I pointed to the chef’s knife on the counter. “How about using that?” I asked.

“I’m not allowed,” he said. “We have to stick with the portions.”

“How about just this once?” I asked

“I would get fired,” he said.

“We won’t tell anyone,” I said, pointing to the people behind me.”

“I really can’t,” he said. “Sorry.”

“So instead of using common sense,” I thought, “you’re going to turn away a half-dozen $10 sales?” I didn’t share this, however. I suspected my reasoning would fall on deaf ears. Instead, I walked away, along with those behind me.

If you are reading this, you’ve experienced the same kind of exchange, frustration and perhaps sadness. I say sadness, because these kinds of encounters are becoming increasingly prevalent. You might attribute this to a lack of training, poor supervision, apathy, or somebody’s foolish rules. Regardless, it is becoming sand in the gears of a functioning society. But as much as we complain about these behaviors in other organizations, they are being committed in ours as well.

The solution? Secret shop yourself. Yes, this is a well-established practice in retail. But is works just a well in manufacturing, financial services, hospitality, and anywhere else customer service is considered important. Surveys indicate that fewer than one in ten people complain when their request or encounter is handled poorly.

Secret shopping is easy to implement. Make a list of the ten most common questions or situations where service is likely to break down. Then pose as a customer and call, e-mail, or walk in the front door and ask the first person you see. If you’re easily recognizable, ask a confederate to do so. Think of it as your own personal version of Undercover Boss.

We’ve all heard this advice before, of course. But how about committing to it for a few minutes a week. You’ll be pleased, surprised, amused, frustrated, shocked, maybe even apoplectic. Whatever the outcome, you’ll save customers from the kind of experience I faced in Omaha and add money to your bottom line. It’s up to you.

Do You Really Trust Your People to Make Good Decisions?

Businessman With A Jigsaw Puzzle

The former owner of an automobile dealership told me recently that he initiated a $750 “customer spend” for his organization. When I expressed curiosity, he went on to explain that he authorized everyone in the firm to spend as much as $750 to make sure a customer was happy if an issue arose. This could range from the receptionist buying coffee for a couple delayed because of a service mistake to a salesperson throwing in a new set of floor and trunk mats because he thought it would close the deal. All of this could be done without checking with a manager.

When I expressed a bit of surprise, he said, “Look at the big picture. It empowered everyone to act on the customer’s behalf. It impressed the customers that we trusted the employees and it instilled a belief in the employees that we trusted them. Besides, it was rare that anyone spent more than $50. In fact,” he continued, “we had to encourage them to use this resource when it made sense. Our customer service ratings, by the way, went through the roof.”

This strategy is not new. You’ve probably heard about it before. Maybe you’ve experienced it as a customer. But too often it fails because those encouraged to use it are fearful that they’ll get into trouble for really doing so. Its effective implementation has to come from a place of trust – your trust in your people. That means the authorized spend needs to be large enough to be meaningful. You have to embrace its use and you have to demonstrate that it has an impact on customers. So how do you implement this idea successfully?

Introduce it in a meaningful way. Begin with the big picture. Why $750 in a dealership? Because the customer is spending tens of thousands of dollars over time. Adjust for your customer’s average spend. In a restaurant, it might be $100 for instance. Provide examples such as why one situation warrants a bit of spending when something similar does not. But don’t get too specific with the examples or your people will stop using their reasoning and try to follow the “rules.” It’s better that they make an attempt and spend too much than not try out of fear.

Reinforce its use. Make it a regular topic at meetings. Celebrate the employees who use this strategy to save a customer relationship. Process with those who seem hesitant to execute. Their hesitation may be costing you customers.

Hire people who understand the perspective. Make this strategy a part of your interview process. Provide applicants with a tough customer service scenario and the opportunity spend some money to make it right. If they are apprehensive about using it, they may lack the confidence to thrive in your workplace. Comments like, “That’s a lot of money,” or Wow, how can you do that?” are signals that they probably have too limited a perspective.

Daily decisions on the job require reason. Reason requires trust – trust in yourself and trust in those supervising you. Implement this strategy in your firm and watch this trust skyrocket.

Decision Making and Breaking Promises

Lost Baggage

My daughter returned from Europe this week. Unfortunately, one of her bags did not show up on the carousel. We went to the baggage office to track it down. The cheerful clerk discovered that the bag was due in on the next flight a couple of hours later. “No worries,” he said. “We’ll have it delivered in the next four hours.” Twenty hours later, it finally arrived.

When we are providing service, it is always tempting to give an optimistic estimate of task completion. In today’s world of immediate outcomes, this has become especially true. Yet when we do this, we can start a chain reaction of frustration and disappointment. The customer is disappointed by the missed deadline. The customer service agent she calls is frustrated that he or she has to deal with a situation caused by a colleague. The organization is disappointed and frustrated by the service rating it receives.

The solution? Provide a bit of information and temper the optimistic promises. Perhaps Gary, the baggage agent, could have said, “I’m terribly sorry about this. Delta handles about 45,000 bags per day. Only about 3 out of every 1000 are mishandled. Unfortunately, your’s was one of them. As much as I would love to say that you’ll have it in the next few hours, I don’t want to disappoint you a second time. You can track the bag on-line and follow its progress to your home. My apologies for the inconvenience.

The empathy alone will diffuse the majority of concerns. The vast majority of customers understand the volume of orders or packages being handled in a business and will accept the long wait time if they think it’s more accurate. Will there still be the occasional angry customer? Of course, and there’s not a lot we can do to assuage their emotions.

But each customer service provider has to make the personal decision to implement this practice. The way to encourage is through training and a clear message that it’s okay to commiserate with the customer. In other words, tell them it’s okay to empathize, but never over-promise and under-deliver.