How to Empower Employees (It's Harder Than You Think)

Empowering customer service employees is difficult.

If it were easy, more employees would be empowered. This clearly isn’t happening. A recent study by ICMI discovered that a whopping 86 percent of contact centers don’t empower their employees to provide outstanding customer service. 

An empowered employee has the resources and authority to make decisions about serving their customer. The benefits seem obvious:

  • Fast decision-making
  • Happier customers
  • Happier employees

Best of all, less work for the supervisor, right?!

Perhaps not. Empowerment takes a lot of work. Avoiding all that work is one of at least five reasons why customer service leaders don’t empower their employees.

Empowerment isn’t for meek managers. But, if you’re up to the challenge, here’s how to do it.

Step 1: Establish a Vision

The first step towards empowering your employees is to firmly establish a customer service vision

This is a shared definition of outstanding customer service that focuses on the customer. Employees must be able to answer two questions about this vision:

  1. What does it mean?
  2. How do I contribute?

An employee who understands the vision will actively look for opportunities to be empowered. Employees who don’t understand the vision may view their jobs as completing a series of tasks or enforcing rules.

In my book, Service Failure, I shared the story of Brett Dodson, who managed the parking enforcement team at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU). The customer service vision for Dodson’s department focused on improving access to OHSU’s campus. 

Embracing the customer service vision initially proved to be a challenge:

They relished the opportunity to issue a [parking] violation and viewed their role as catching people parking where they shouldn’t. A few of the enforcement officers would even watch for someone to park illegally and then wait until the driver left the vehicle so they could write a ticket rather than ask that person to park somewhere else.

Dodson wanted his enforcement officers to spend more time engaging in dialogue with drivers, explaining rules, and providing alternatives rather than catching people doing something wrong. 

Enforcement officers were empowered to do all that, but it took several months of coaching and feedback for the entire team to embrace this as their role. Dodson needed to change the team’s culture before they could fully empower themselves.

Eventually, the team achieved great results. The number of citations went way down, customer satisfaction went way up, and fewer people parked where they shouldn’t.

It was a great turnaround for the team. It also took a lot of time, effort, and commitment to get there.

 

Step 2: Identify Red Lines

The Ritz-Carlton hotel chain is famous for their exceptional service. One of their secrets is each associate is empowered to spend up to $2,000 to delight a guest.

You’re probably thinking, “There’s no way I’m going to let my employees just give away $2,000!” 

That’s understandable. Every situation is different. But, what the Ritz-Carlton is really doing with the $2,000 is establishing a red line.

A red line makes empowerment clear for employees. It tells them where the boundaries lie. 

Your red line could be any number of things:

  • It might be a dollar amount (you decide what makes sense).
  • It could be a policy that employees can waive.
  • It might be extra goodwill that an employee can provide, like a shipping upgrade or a free dessert in a restaurant.

There’s a second part to the red line. Employees must understand it’s the limit, not the only option.

Associates at the Ritz-Carlton don’t automatically spend all $2,000 in every situation. They’re expected to use their judgment to decide what’s best.

Anything less than the limit is a gray area. 

 

Step 3: Share Feedback

You should never punish an employee for making a gray area decision they felt was right.

Employees will shy away from empowerment if they feel every decision they make will be second-guessed and criticized. It's also confusing to be told "you are allowed to do this" and then be told "you shouldn't have done that."

You should, however, discuss empowerment decisions so you, the employee, and the rest of the team can learn from them.

Here’s an example:

A small contact center empowered its agents to get product samples from the warehouse so they could answer detailed questions from customers.

Employees were simply asked to follow an inventory control procedure that tracked these items since they weren’t in their normal location. Following the procedure was the red line.

A gray area was when an employee should get samples from the warehouse.

Should the employee immediately go to the warehouse whenever a question arose so the customer could receive a call back within just a few minutes? Or, should they make the customer wait until later in the day, when the employee had more time?

What if it was a busy time of day? In a small contact center, just one employee getting off the phone to do some research could extend wait times for other customers.

Should it matter if the customer wants to place a large order versus a small one? 

Should a customer with a large order history (i.e. VIP customer) get faster service than a new customer?

The challenge is you can’t just come up with a rigid policy that covers every situation. There’s always a new twist that you hadn’t anticipated.

A better solution is for the employee and manager to discuss these types of gray area situations. It’s an opportunity for the manager to listen to the employee’s perspective and to provide some feedback on the employee’s actions.

Valuable lessons learned inevitably come from these conversations. Lessons that can be shared with the rest of the team so that everyone eventually shares a similar philosophy.

 

Empowering employees isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of effort and commitment from the customer service leader.

In most cases, the payoffs make it worthwhile:

  • Your employees will be more engaged (nobody likes to feel controlled)
  • Your customers will be happier
  • You’ll eventually spend less time putting out fires