How to Benchmark Your Way to Mediocrity

An entrepreneur named Sara recently emailed me to ask about customer service benchmarks. 

She was writing a business plan for a new company and wanted to figure out what sort of Key Performance Indicators (KPI) would be right for her new company's customer service operation. 

Benchmarks are a good place to start. 

You can look at what other organizations generally do for things like customer satisfaction, response times, and first contact resolution. These metrics give you a starting point for developing your own standards.

So, I sent Sara this guide to using customer service benchmarks along with a few examples. I also sent her a word of caution: relying on benchmarks can be a great way to establish very mediocre customer service.

Here's why.

Photo credit: Sean MacEntee

Photo credit: Sean MacEntee

The Downside of Benchmarks

Benchmarks represent averages.

That's by definition the middle of the pack. Right now, the average customer service rating isn't very good. The American Customer Satisfaction Index is at a low point

Nobody says, "We're hoping for average customer service," but that's exactly what you're doing if you rely on benchmarks to set the bar for your team's performance. Average not a very high bar to shoot for. 

There's another problem with benchmarks. These studies often look at what companies are doing, but there's frequently a gap between what businesses are doing and what customers actually want. 

Email response time is a great example. Research suggests that companies need to respond to customer emails within one hour to meet consumer expectations. However, the benchmark response time for customer service operations is currently four hours.


Alternatives to Benchmarks

There are a few things that companies can do to be above average.

One option is to study consumer preferences. For example, you can read up on the 2016 State of Multichannel Customer Service report. You can provide better service if you focus on delivering what your customers expect rather than worry about what other companies do.

Another idea is to find out what your competitors are doing and then do it better. In Reinventing the Wheel, bicycle store owner Chris Zane described how he would look for opportunities to make his competitors uncomfortable. For example, he decided not to charge customers for any parts that cost less than a dollar. It was a goodwill gesture to customers but it also created an advantage over competitors who nickel and dimed customers for every little part.


When Benchmarks Are Good

Benchmarks aren't all bad. There are times when they can be really helpful. 

I once had a client who was having a hard time attracting talented customer service employees. The problem was the company paid well below market wages. This meant that a strong job applicant could easily earn more money doing the same job somewhere else.

The company's CEO initially balked at the idea of raising the starting wage. He was concerned about increasing costs without getting anything in return.

I used a benchmark to help change his mind.

First, I showed him the salary range for the customer service job. I was careful to highlight where his company's starting wage fell on the bottom of the range and where my proposed increase landed.


This got his attention. Next, I tied wages to business results by asking him what a new employee would need to do to justify a $2 per hour wage increase. 

The CEO did some quick calculations and figured that if a new rep could add a sale to 35 percent of customer inquiry calls, it would pay for the wage increase. The current rate was 33 percent, so this seemed well within reach.

Finally, I proposed an experiment. Let's raise the starting wage by $2 per hour for the next new hire and see what happened. The CEO agreed.

The results were striking. The customer service manager received many more qualified applicants for the open position than ever before. The person she hired ended up being a star! Within 30 days, she was adding a sale to 45 percent of customer inquiries, which more than paid for the $2 hourly increase.

The CEO was very happy. 

The salary benchmark helped me make the case, but I also had to add my own analysis on top of that. You can get similar results if you can apply your own critical thinking to benchmarks.

Don't Make This Big Mistake When Choosing Service Channels

Imagine you had to contact TSA.

That's the Transportation Security Administration, the government agency. The agency that's been blamed for long lines and missed flights

Surprisingly, you'd do well to use Twitter if you need to contact TSA.

I recently had an issue where I wasn't receiving TSA Pre-Check, even though I'm enrolled in the program. I sent a direct message via Twitter to @AskTSA. My message included my known traveller number and the airline's record locator for my itinerary (two essential pieces of information I knew they'd need.)

Within an hour, I received a helpful response from John at @AskTSA. Better yet, my problem was solved.

John had discovered the travel agent who booked my flight had made a typo on my birthdate. He contacted the airline for me and gotten the problem fixed. All I had to do was re-print my boarding pass and I'd get to sail through the pre-check expedited screening line at the airport.

Twitter isn't my preferred channel for this sort of thing. But, I know from previous experience that @AskTSA is very responsive and helpful. 

This example highlights why letting customers contact you via whatever channel they want is nonsense. (My preferred channel would have been email.) There's a better way that will leave them much happier.

The Resource Management Challenge

Imagine a contact center that receives 1,000 contacts per day. Here's a hypothetical (but fairly realistic) breakdown of those contacts:

  • 50% phone
  • 30% email
  • 15% chat
  • 10% Twitter
  • 5% online community
  • 5% other

That's 500 phone calls per day and 300 emails. And, those 10 percent of contacts from Twitter pencil out to 100 contacts per day. It's a decent amount.

Now, consider how you would manage these channels. You'll need to consider a few things:

Hiring. Can you hire people who are skilled in all channels or will you need to create separate hiring profiles?

Training. Do you have a training program in place for handling each channel?

Scheduling. Can you put the right people in the right place at the right time for each channel?

Technology. Does your contact center technology solution effectively support all of these channels, or do you need to acquire additional resources?

These issues are tough to manage for one or two channels. It gets even harder the more channels you add to the mix.

The reality is lower-volume channels often get short-changed when it comes to these issues. For instance, a 2016 study from Execs in the Know revealed that only 64 percent of organizations provide their social media team with training.

So, each time you add a new channel, you dilute the resources you have available to support all channels.


The Importance of Trade-Offs

In their book, Uncommon Service, authors Frances Frei and Anne Morriss lay out a compelling argument for making trade-offs in order to deliver outstanding service.

Southwest Airlines is a prime example. 

The airline is consistently one of the top rated carriers for customer service. They have legions of adoring fans. Look closely, and you'll also see things that Southwest does worse than other airlines. 

  • No assigned seats.
  • Dirtier planes (they don't use cleaning crews between flights)
  • No first class or premium economy seats

Southwest succeeds despite these limitations because the company realizes the majority of their customers are very happy to live with them in return for what Southwest does do well:

  • Low fares
  • Convenient flights
  • Friendly employees

Let's go back to customer service channels and apply the same logic. 

Most companies can't provide amazing service via every channel under the sun. But, they can serve their customers at a high level if they concentrate on just a few.

Notice how TSA keeps things simple:

What Customers Really Want

Customers really want low friction.

My friend, Leslie, was recently traveling through Toronto's Pearson airport when she noticed vomit outside the restroom. It was a hazard (not to mention disgusting), so Leslie decided to report it.

She used Twitter.

I asked her why she used Twitter. It seemed an odd choice to me at the time, but Leslie's explanation made perfect sense.

“I didn’t see a janitor. I didn’t want to tell an airline employee because it’s not their job. Thus, my tweet.”

Keep in mind that Leslie was a busy traveler who wanted to alert the airport's janitorial staff to the issue but not spend a lot of time doing it. She naturally chose the channel she felt would be both easy and effective.

Studies show that customers frequently make these sort of calculations. People often look for self-service options first because they seem easier. Channels like the phone are increasingly becoming a fall-back option when the customer's first choice was unsuccessful.


Choosing Which Channels to Service

Ask yourself three questions before you add a new channel to your growing mix.

  1. Is there enough demand?
  2. Can you serve your customers effectively?
  3. Can you serve your customers consistently?

Here's a how-to guide that gives you an in-depth look at each question.

How Demanding Extras Can Undermine Service Quality

It's interesting to read other people's customer service stories.

There's often a valuable lesson involved. But, I'm also fascinated by how these stories are written. They typically follow a three step logic process:

  1. The author is a perfectly normal, reasonable customer.
  2. Company X does something astonishingly bad.
  3. Don't be like Company X.

It's the first point, "The author is a perfectly normal, reasonable customer" where many of these stories go off the rails. 

Unreasonable Customers

Here's an example from a well-respected author. She detailed a service failure where she was dining with her husband and had ordered a glass of wine with her meal. The author explained that she drank all the wine before finishing her meal, so she asked her server for a little more.

The author expected the wine to be free. 

She was incredulous that the server wanted to charge her for an additional glass of wine, even though she didn't want a full glass. 

The point of her story was about empowering employees to assess the situation and provide extras when warranted. It's a good point.

But, the author also did what many customers do. She undermined her own service experience by demanding something extra and then getting upset when she didn't receive it.

She hurt her credibility by writing about it as if her server was clearly in the wrong.


What Should Customers Reasonably Expect?

A customer's perception of service quality is a function of how the experience matched the customer's expectations. On a basic level:

  • Good service is when the customer's expectations are met.
  • Outstanding service is when the customer's expectations are exceeded.
  • Poor service is when the experience falls short of the customer's expectations.

This makes expectations crucial to customer service. A customer with unreasonable expectations is much more likely to receive what she perceives as poor service.

So, what's reasonable?

On a broad level, customers can reasonably expect to receive the products and services that a company promises to provide. 

It gets trickier when a customer wants something that's not explicitly promised.

Let's use the author's restaurant example. The restaurant sold wine by the glass. If a guest orders a glass of wine, it's reasonable that she would expect to receive a glass of that wine at the price listed on the menu.

It would also be reasonable to say that if there was something wrong with the wine, the customer could immediately send it back for a replacement without being charged.

But, what about asking for more than a glass of wine but less than two glasses?

The author made it clear she would be willing to pay for a second glass of wine if she had wanted that much. But, she wanted less than that so she expected it to be free. She requested what essentially amounted to a free sample or a bonus portion.

Some restaurants actually address this directly. A typical glass of wine contains five to six ounces while a taste of wine (like you'd get when visiting a winery) is usually about two ounces. So, a few restaurants have glass and taste prices for wines on their menu. (This restaurant apparently didn't have this option on the menu.)

I don't fault her for asking. But, I think the author was wrong to be upset when she wanted something that the restaurant never promised her.


Where Do Expectations Come From?

Just as the author was being unreasonable to demand free wine, it would be unreasonable to expect all customers to be reasonable!

So, it's helpful to understand how customers develop their expectations so we can help them avoid these types of situations.

Customers generally develop their expectations from four primary sources:

  1. Our communication to the customer
  2. The customer's past experience with us
  3. Word-of-mouth from others (includes online reviews)
  4. Experience doing business with other companies

Let's go back to the wine example. Can you think of ways that any of these expectation sources might have influenced the customer to expect a free taste of wine?

Two jump out to me:

The first is number two, the customer's past experience. Many restaurants are perfectly willing to give you a free taste of wine before you order a glass. It's a way to allow customers to try a wine before they buy it. 

If the restaurant had done this with the author, it would make more sense for her to expect a free taste. 

The second expectation source that may have influenced the author is number four. Perhaps she had gotten free tastes before buying a glass of wine at other restaurants. Or, she may have recently dined at a restaurant that had pricing on the menu for two ounce pours. 

Again, her expectations would be more understandable if she had had one of those experiences.



Dealing with unreasonable customers is a big challenge for customer service professionals. Here are a couple of resources to help you navigate through these situations.

One is Adam Toporek's book, Be Your Customer's Hero. It was written to provide practical advice directly to frontline employees. Chapter 59 focuses on this issue direction, "Focus on what you can do, not what you can't."

There are also two training videos on 

The first is How to Manage Customer Expectations for Frontline Employees. It focuses on effective communication techniques for situations like the one where the author demanded free wine.

The second is The Manager's Guide to Managing Customer Expectations. This video addresses the issue from a manager's perspective by providing tips for preventing situations where customer expectations go unmet.

You'll need a account to view the full videos, but you can get access with a 10-day trial.

How Popcorn Can Ruin a Good Training Video

A human resources manager recently contacted me to discuss some options for customer service training.

Her budget was limited and the small team of people she wanted to train worked in different locations. It would be logistically difficult and potentially cost prohibitive to get everyone together for an in-person class.

Naturally, I suggested video.

The HR manager told me that her organization had tried e-learning and video-based training in the past, but it wasn't well received. Participants thought it was boring.

I immediately recognized the popcorn problem. This issue causes learners to get bored with training and ultimately limits the new skills they implement on the job.

Here's an overview of the popcorn problem and what you can do to fix it.

The Popcorn Problem

Many people enjoy going to the movies.

Popcorn is a quintessential part of this experience. You get a bucket of popcorn to share with a friend, grab a favorite drink, and sit down to enjoy the movie. It's a relaxing form of entertainment. 

People often sit down and watch a training video the same way they'd watch a movie. This is not how people should try to learn valuable workplace skills, but they do.

It doesn't work out well.

The most obvious issue is it's boring. Even the most exciting training videos aren't great entertainment. You certainly wouldn't watch them just for fun.

(Side note: Here's where some readers will say, "But, I saw that video with John Cleese or the FISH! video and it was fun!" Ok, if you doubt me, then try inviting some friends over to watch a training video. Or, ask that special someone if they'd like to training video and chill this weekend. Good luck with that.)

The less obvious issue is employees learn very little by watching a video straight through. They implement even less back at work. The challenge is caused by something called The Forgetting Curve

People quickly forget what they learn in training unless they actively process it and apply it. This is necessary to move information from short to long-term memory, but this rarely happens when employees passively watch a training video.

That's not to say that training videos don't work. Blaming training videos for a lack of learning would be like blaming a hammer when you hit your finger and not the nail. There's nothing inherently wrong with the tool, but you'll get less-than-desirable results if you don't use the tool correctly.

The good news is there's an alternative approach to using training videos that's much more effective.


Bite Sized Learning

You can overcome the popcorn learning problem by breaking the training into bite-sized chunks with short assignments in between.

Here's an example using the Working With Upset Customers training video on

The course is organized into short video segments that are each two to five minutes long. They're further organized into sections like "Introduction" and "Serving Angry Customers." This design makes it easy to dissect the course into small learning bites.

So, you might have your team watch the video this way:

  1. Watch the three Introduction videos
  2. Complete a Learning Plan and discuss with supervisor (there's a downloadable worksheet)
  3. Watch "Understanding Our Natural Instincts" video
  4. Go back to work and identify situations where you experience the Fight or Flight response
  5. Watch the next video, and so on.

The key is watching a short segment of the course, applying those skills on the job, and then returning to the course to continue learning.

Let's look at some of the advantages of using this approach:

  • Participants apply their new skills as part of the training.
  • Applying lessons helps make off-the-shelf training more relevant.
  • It's not boring!

That last one is key. The entire Working With Upset Customers course is 55 minutes long. There are no explosions, car chases, or sappy love scenes to spice things up. It's simply too long a video to enjoyably watch all in one sitting.

But, watching a five minute segment is a breeze. That's roughly equivalent to just three cat videos.

The Controversial Workplace Ban You Need to Consider

Look around you. Do you see your cell phone?

It's probably nearby. In a pocket, on your desk, in your bag, or even in your hand. Perhaps you're reading this blog post on your cell phone.

Now, let me ask you another question. Does your company have a cell phone policy?

Many do. These types of policies are common for customer-facing employees. For example, a study from Contact Center Pipeline found that 87 percent of contact centers have a workplace cell phone policy.

Most policies say that your phone can't interfere with your job duties. I've uncovered data that suggests the only way to do that is to ban cell phones completely.

Why Cell Phones Should Be Banned

A 2015 study from researchers Cary Stothart, Ainsley Mitchum, and Courtney Yehnert at Florida State University provide some compelling evidence for instituting a workplace cell phone ban.

The study, summarized nicely in this Harvard Business Review article, had participants complete a Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART). The subjects were seated at a computer and were asked to click on some items as they appeared on the screen while avoiding others. 

The participants' error rates were measured after one round of the activity to establish a baseline. They were then asked to complete a second round where subjecs were selected to be in one of three groups (unbeknownst to them):

  • Control Group
  • Group Receiving Text Messages
  • Group Receiving Phone Calls

The researchers sent participants in one group several text messages while they were completing the second SART. Another group received several phone calls during the second round. A third group didn't receive any texts or calls from the experimenters so it could act as the control.

The researchers found that just hearing a text or call notification from your cell phone can hurt work quality. Here are the error rate increases for each group from Round 1 to Round 2:

Some increase in error rate is expected. People have the attention span of a gnat these days. But, look at the difference between the control group and the groups distracted by their cell phones!

Amazingly, the study found that the phone notifications had a lingering effect. Participants made errors at the same rate after the notification as they did during the notification. That's because our mind wanders away from the task at hand and thinks about who might be calling or texting.

This data tells us the mere presence of a personal cell phone is a subliminal invitation to multitask. Not only is multitasking bad for customer service, sustained multitasking can ultimately lead to something called Directed Attention Fatigue which has symptoms identical to ADD.

So, it makes sense to ban cell phones in the workplace if you want to prevent service failures.


The Case Against Banning Cell Phones

Your employees are adults.

Banning their personal phones completely smacks of big-brotherism. It feels like an unwelcome intrusion and sends a message that you don't trust your employees to handle themselves.

Some might argue that these types of workplace policies lead to higher rates of employee burnout. While I didn't research that question in my recent burnout study, it's certainly a believable hypothesis.

It also opens the door for hypocrisy. Show me a manager who isn't walking around with his or her cell phone in hand! Letting the boss do one thing while employees do another isn't a great way to build morale.

And finally, there's the amazing story from Rackspace where employees used their personal cell phones to save the day when the phone system went down. You can read all about it by downloading the first chapter of my upcoming book.


Where Do You Come Out?

So, should you ban cell phones at work or not? Here's my preferred approach to the issue:

  1. Share the data with employees to make them aware.
  2. Discuss ways that distractions can hurt service.
  3. Let them decide what to do, but hold them accountable for results.

I always want to treat customer service employees with respect. This includes implementing as few policies as possible. 

Some employees can deliver outstanding service with a cell phone nearby. Others can't. I'd let them decide for themselves. What matters most is the quality of service they provide.