How Employee Overconfidence Causes Service Failures

Hubris created one of the funniest and saddest moments in my training career.

I had been hired to conduct customer service training for an airport parking operator. The night before the classes, I drove through some of the facilities to see whether employees were following the company's five service standards.

The results weren't good.

Only one out of five employees I visited demonstrated all of the service standards. The other employees only delivered on one or two. Most barely paid any attention to me.

I shared the overall results the next day in class. Employees were shocked. They had been convinced they were all doing it right, each and every time.

One woman was particularly upset. She asked me to point out which employees had failed. I refused because I didn't want to embarrass anyone, but she persisted.

She stood up and angrily asked, "Who was it? Who is making us look bad?"

I didn't have the heart to tell this woman that she was one of the employees I had shopped. She didn't recognize me because she had been too busy yacking with a co-worker while she served me.

This employee's overconfidence was comically bad. It was also sad that she didn't realize she was part of the problem.

Employees like this believe they're awesome when they clearly aren't. This post explores why overconfidence is a problem, how employees develop it, and what you can do about it.

The Overconfidence Problem

Overconfident employees believe service is a breeze. They think of themselves as rock stars who can virtually do no wrong.

When things do go wrong, overconfident employees are quick to blame someone else. Do any of these statements sound familiar?

  • "I'm awesome, but management doesn't have it's act together."
  • "I'm awesome, but our customers are a pain."
  • "I'm awesome, but my co-workers don't know what they're doing."

It's very difficult for overconfident employees to learn new techniques or improve their skills. They refuse to learn because they're stuck in the first phase on the learning curve, which is known as Unconscious Incompetent. 

People in this stage don't know what they don't know. It's only when you progress to the next stage, called Conscious Incompetent, that you realize you don't know something. You won't learn something unless you think you need to learn it.

The transition from Unconscious Incompetent to Conscious Incompetent is called the Magic Window because it's essential to learning. Overconfident employees rarely make this transition.

 

How Does Overconfidence Happen?

Blame the Dunning Krueger effect. 

It's a phenomenon where the less someone knows, the more they overrate their ability. David Dunning and Justin Krueger ran a series of experiments where people were asked to rate themselves on a topic and were then tested to see how good they really were. 

The only group that didn't overrate their ability was the top 25 percent. Everyone else suffered from some degree of overconfidence. The people who scored in the bottom 25 percent were the most overconfident of them all.

The explanation is two-fold.

First, people with less knowledge, skill, and ability have a more difficult time distinguishing between good and bad performances. So, your overconfident customer service employee might not truly know what a good customer service rep looks like.

The second problem is the Magic Window problem. Overconfident employees don't feel they need to improve because they already think they're the cat's pajamas.

I've run a similar experiment several times.

I start by asking members of a customer service team to rate their own ability on a scale of 1 - 5, with 5 being highest. Next, I ask them to rate the team's overall ability on the same scale. The results are remarkably consistent:

  • Individual Average: 4.0
  • Team Average: 3.0

The math doesn't add up, but that's because nearly everyone thinks they're better than the group. Just like the Dunning Krueger experiments, the top performers typically underrate their ability just a tad.

This is a big reason why poor customer service performers don't benefit from customer service training, but good ones do.

 

Overcome Overconfidence

Many customer service leaders have overconfident employees. The good news is there are techniques that can help. The bad news is not every overconfident employee wants to be helped.

Here are a few things you can try.

Start by making sure employees have a clear definition of outstanding service, called a customer service vision. You can't help them become more awesome if you can't clearly define awesome.

Next, make sure they're getting feedback on their performance. It's often helpful to give overconfident employees the ability to self-diagnose.

  1. Have them review their own calls, emails, chats, etc.
  2. Ask them to self-assess against the customer service vision.
  3. Invite employees to describe what they would do differently.

It's important to understand that some employees either can't or won't overcome their overconfidence. They'll continue to believe they're amazing despite strong evidence to the contrary.

Unfortunately, these employees might not be keepers. You may need to let them go if they are unwilling or unable to improve.

 

Resources

Overconfidence can plague everyone, from frontline employees all the way up to senior executives. 

I tackled this topic in my book, Service Failure. You can download a free chapter to read about overconfidence or buy the book on Amazon.

You may also enjoy this short video that describes why customer service is so hard. Overconfidence is part of the problem.