13 Reasons Why Customer Service Employees Don't Care

It's infuriating when a customer service rep doesn't care.

After all, that's their job right? They're supposed to take care of your issue, help you out, and make you feel better. They're expected to put aside their own emotional baggage and deal with yours.

But, so often they don't.

If you're upset, they answer with a shoulder shrug. If there's a problem, they say, "Yeah, I know," and then do absolutely nothing about it. You ask if something's in stock and their complete and final answer is, "I don't know, check over there."

There's no care. No hustle. No ownership. 

Take a moment to get inside these employees' heads. Forget what should be or what you think is right. See things from the employees' perspective. You might not agree with their lack of caring (I don't), but you'll begin to understand. 

Here are 13 reasons why customer service employees don't care.

Reason #1: It's not a career

I got my first contact center job because I suddenly found myself needing a job right away and it was one I could get. That's how many employees find their way into customer service. (Not all, but many.) They don't have some grandiose vision of saving the world. They just need a paycheck. 


Reason #2: It's not their company

Customers look at the employee as a representative of the company. Employees often see it differently. They're paid by the company to do a job and you, the customer, can either make that job easier or harder. Check out this video gem from Randi Busse that explains what she calls the difference between an owner and a renter mentality.


Reason #3: There's no purpose

Smart companies create a strong customer service vision that defines their brand of outstanding service. It can create purpose and meaning for employees that helps them think of their job as more than just a paycheck and their company as their tribe. Unfortunately, most companies haven't defined a customer service vision because they assume that great service is self-evident. (It's not.)


Reason #4: Poor fit

You probably know that not every employee is a great hire. The challenge is those poor hires end up serving customers. Imagine being in a job you don't like, working for a company you don't care about, and having no clear vision to guide you. That's a recipe for apathy. Smart companies create an ideal candidate profile to help them hire employees who will love their jobs. 


Reason #5: Incentives and Games

Managers often use incentives, games, and contests to motivate employees. It's based on the assumption that these employees need to be motivated. (They usually don't if you address Reasons #1 - #4.) Unfortunately, these incentives create a distraction where the employee cares more about getting the prize than serving the customer. They also create a disincentive to help customers in situations that don't contribute to earning an incentive. 


Reason #6: Rude customers

Customer service employees have to endure a lot of rude treatment. They're looked down on by condescending customers. They face the brunt of customers' anger, which can trigger an instinctive reaction to get away from that person. That's counter to what a customer service employee is supposed to do, but it's tough going to work every day and feeling like a punching bag.


Reason #7: Unpredictable schedules

Many customers service employees have their work schedules changed on a weekly basis. It's hard to explain how disruptive this is if you've never lived it. An unpredictable schedule creates child care issues, disrupts sleep cycles, and makes it impossible to make plans ahead of time. This amazing New York Times article profiles a Starbucks employee whose ever-changing schedule made life outside of work extremely difficult.


Reason #8: Misplaced priorities

Employees tend to understand something's importance by how often their boss talks about it. Unfortunately, many managers don't spend enough time talking about customer service. If the manager displays that sort of apathy, then it should be understandable when employees appear to be uncaring as well.


Reason #9: Blame

I recently wrote about a disturbing trend where companies blame their employees for poor service. A natural by-product of avoiding blame is to avoid taking risks. Employees tow the company line and become reluctant to bend the rules to help customers. This can come across as uncaring.


Reason #10: Disengaged co-workers

In my book, Service Failure, I wrote about Camille. She was a hotel associate who felt pressure from her disengaged co-workers to provide poor service. Sadly, this happens a lot in customer service. Employees aren't always aware that it's happening. So, one uncaring employee can lead to a whole bunch.


Reason #11: Broken systems

So much of customer service is outside the employees' control. Defective products, unfriendly policies, or a lack of coordination between departments can all make it hard for a frontline employee to help customers. Many employees lack the necessary empowerment. All of this adds up to create a feeling of learned helplessness, where employees perceive that any effort is futile so they stop trying.


Reason #12: Emotional labor

Emotional labor is the amount of effort it takes to display a certain emotion. If you're feeling happy, then it's easy to smile and show people you're happy. But, looking happy and friendly (key customer service emotions) becomes much more difficult when you don't actually feel that way. Over time, expending too much emotional labor can leave people feeling burned out.


Reason #13: Poor leadership

Customer service leaders must set a positive example for their employees. Many don't. They talk down to their employees. They treat customers indifferently. They think they're too busy to deal with customer service. (What the heck are they doing?) It's hard to ask an employee to be inspired if his manager isn't.



There are many things we can do to inspire more caring among customer service employees.

If you're a customer, try to be a better customer. Treat employees with respect, kindness, and courtesy. Don't wait for the employee to be nice to you, even if you think that should be there job. I've seen many interactions turn from negative into positive because the customer went out of her way to be easy to serve.

If your a leader, don't assume your employees care. Create a clear customer service vision so they'll have clear direction. Talk about service constantly so they know it's important. And, work like crazy to clear obstacles out of their way to employees feel confident that they can do a great job.

That may seem like a lot, but you can't expect employees to care unless you do too.

Companies Are Trying to Blame Employees for Service Failures

Sandee gave the same speech to every customer.

"If you give me a 10 on the survey, the whole store gets credit. If you give me an 8 or less, I'll get in trouble."

This was a classic case of survey begging. It was annoying and inauthentic, but it was easy to understand why she did it. Sandee was try to avoid getting some heat for anything short of a top tier survey score.

This is an example of a corporate blame system. The frontline employee is set up to take the fall for anything that goes wrong, even if it's out of her control.

It's a disturbing trend. 

The Blame Game

Surveys are a common tool used against employees.

Employees like Sandee face sanctions if they're named in a survey that's anything short of spectacular. A car salesman recently told me he received a customer survey full of glowing comments, but the overall rating was an 8 out of 10. The salesman's reward was getting some of his commission docked for the "poor" survey result.

Company PR teams like to blame employees too.

Two years ago, a Comcast customer recorded the cancellation call from hell. He spent ten minutes trying to cancel his service while the Comcast rep continuously badgered him about keeping his account. 

Predictably, Comcast's PR strategy was to blame the employee for the incident. I took a closer look and discovered it wasn't the employee's fault. Comcast had intentionally designed a system that made it hard for customers to cancel and then hired a team of Retention Specialists who were trained and incentivized to prevent cancellations.

In another example from 2015, protesters lined up outside an Arby's in Florida after an employee allegedly refused to serve a police officer. It turned out the officer wasn't refused service, and the store manager was fired for creating an unfortunate incident. Yet, somehow, the exonerated employee was still suspended.


Is It Fair to Blame Employees?

Sometimes, the answer is yes.

Let's draw a line between unacceptable, lone-wolf behavior and the behavior you'd naturally get when you put an employee is a difficult situation or don't give the employee the resources or empowerment to help their customers.

Recently, a Starbucks employee (called Partners at Starbucks) typed "Diabetes here I come" on a customer's drink label. It made national headlines and caused the company a lot of embarrassment.

This is clearly unacceptable behavior. Kudos then to Starbucks for issuing a statement that still spoke to collective responsibility:

“We strive to provide an inclusive and positive experience for our customers, and we're disappointed to learn of this incident. We are working directly with the customer to apologize for his experience, and with our partners (employees) to ensure this does not happen again.”

Of course, there are many times when it's not fair to blame the employee. 

Don Peppers recently reported that Delta Airlines was asking customers to rate their phone service reps with a single question: Would you hire this person?

The problem is a customer can easily direct their anger towards a hapless customer service rep. Flight delays, cancellations, lost baggage, exorbitant flight change fees, and a myriad of other issues are all beyond the agent's ability to control. 

Granted, a terrific customer service rep might be able to turn things around despite all those obstacles. Perhaps the employee can learn to be more successful in these challenge situations, but blaming them when they fall short takes it too far.


Why Companies Blame Employees

The big picture is PR. 

They'd like the public to view any service failures as the work of a lone wolf rather than a systematic issue. Companies that use this tactic are depending on us customers not being able to see through this charade.

There's also another reason that corporate executives may not realize. I call it the intermediary problem. It's something that I discovered while conducting research for my book, Service Failure.

The intermediary problem suggests that it's easier for us to treat someone else poorly if we do it through an intermediary. 

For example, a 2009 experiment by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University gave subjects $10 to share with a partner. They found that subjects shared an average of $1 less when they used a intermediary (i.e. an employee) to determine how much to share.

Here's a real life example of the intermediary problem that's happened to many customer service teams. 

A customer service executive is contacted by a furious customer. The executive feels bad about the situation and promises to make it right. The executive passes the case to a customer service manager and demands swift action.

What the executive never realizes is that the customer's problem was caused by staffing cuts that the executive had made to save money. The executive didn't think about the thousands of customers those cuts would affect because those customers were served by intermediaries (i.e. employees). The executive did care about the one furious customer because that person contacted the executive directly.


The Solution

All of this leads to a simple solution.

Executives need to spend time on their frontlines. They need to talk to customers directly. They should spend time listening to frontline employees who serve customers everyday.

Then, and only then, can they truly understand the obstacles their employees face. That will make it much more difficult to throw employees under the bus.

The Undeniable Power of Using Experts to Get Better Service

Coppa seemed all wrong.

It's an Italian tapas restaurant in Boston's South End. That's a neighborhood I avoided when I had lived there in the 90s.

They didn't have any reservations available. My wife and I didn't like that uncertainty. We had other things we wanted to do that night and didn't want to get stuck waiting for an hour.

It was tiny. I've been in a lot of tiny places in Boston. Tiny usually equals cramped, crowded, and unpleasant.

Coppa turned out to be perfect.

They had amazing food, a wonderfully cozy atmosphere, and great service. The restaurant was crowded, but they found a comfortable spot for us at a small bar looking out the window.

We never would have gone there if we had relied on Yelp. Good thing we asked an expert instead. When it comes to getting great service experiences, a knowledgeable person is still the go-to option.

The Limits of Yelp and AI

Yelp makes recommendations based on two things: algorithmically-culled recommendations of an anonymous crowd and the searcher's ability to enter appropriate search criteria.

It generally does a good job. 

Just last week, I was traveling and needed to find a place to get a haircut. Yelp was able to narrow down my search to a few highly rated places that were all within walking distance of my hotel. A quick scan of the reviews helped me pick a winner. It worked out well.

But, there are a few problems with how Yelp delivers its recommendations.

First, how do I know that the anonymous crowd shares my interests and tastes? Coppa has over 500 Yelp reviews and a strong four star rating, but I really don't know who is rating them. 

There's been plenty of times when the crowd has absolutely loved something that I just couldn't get into. For example, I've tried many times to love The Godfather movies and still don't like them.

The second problem with Yelp is the user. It's limited by whatever search criteria you use. So, if you decide to exclude the South End, then Yelp won't recommend anything in that neighborhood. That's why Coppa didn't appear in my Yelp search.

The problem, of course, is customers often don't know exactly what they want. Or, they think they do, only to be delighted later on by an option that didn't fit their criteria at all.

I experienced a similar challenge when I tried to use IBM Watson to pick out a jacket. Watson was limited by the search criteria I thought matched my needs. I received better service from an in-store sales associate who could interpret my criteria and think laterally to suggest options I hadn't considered.


The Power of Experts

My friend, Patrick Maguire, had suggested Coppa. 

Patrick knows a lot about restaurants in Boston. He writes the popular I'm Your Server, Not Your Servant blog about hospitality service. He also consults with Boston-area restaurants on PR, promotions, and hospitality. I definitely consider him an expert.

I had told him my wife, Sally, and I were looking for a place for dinner. He asked a few thoughtful questions that led to his recommendation.

Patrick used his extensive knowledge of area restaurants to make his suggestion. He used his perceptiveness to interpret my criteria and understand what was truly important to us. And, he used his relationship with me to effectively persuade me that things I saw as obstacles (South End, no reservations, etc.) weren't really obstacles at all.

Yelp couldn't do that. 

The other thing that Yelp couldn't do is validate my choice. Getting some insider information makes me feel good. Heck, look at the title of my blog and you can tell this is something I obviously value.


Accessing Experts

I wrote a little about connecting with experts in this blog post about Do-It-Yourself Learning. 

Chances are, you know a lot of people who are an expert in one thing or another. The thing I've learned is you have to approach them directly.

So, if I had made a general post on Facebook asking for restaurant recommendations, I might have gotten several suggestions from well-meaning friends who may or may not have been on-target. If I was lucky, Patrick would have seen my post, but there's a good chance he wouldn't have. 

The direct approach worked much better. I went to him because he's an expert in that area.

This means you have to think about who's in your circle that knows something about what you know. Check up on your friends' profiles on Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social networks if you can't remember who knows what.

Employees are often experts too.

They've received specialized training. They spend a lot of time answering questions and familiarizing themselves with their company's products and services. And, I can tell you that most customer service employees love getting the chance to share their knowledge.

This means your restaurant server knows the inside scoop on how menu items really taste. A retail employees knows the ins and outs of their products.

As I noted in a recent blog post, self-help tools like Yelp are gaining in popularity, but employees (and your friends) still hold the edge when it comes to nuanced or complex requests.

Spot the Customer Ownership Mentality Before It's Too Late

Customers think they own things they really don't.

It's an instinctive thing. I first noticed this quirk of human nature years ago as a customer service trainer. Whenever I'd facilitate a multi-day class, people would invariably return to the same seat on day two.

Seats weren't assigned. It's just that people felt it was their seat.

Participants would even get a little uncomfortable if they arrived to find someone sitting where they had sat the day before. No reasonable person could lay claim to that seat, but you could tell they secretly thought it belonged to them.

I've since noticed this in many customer service situations. Here's an overview along with some tips on handling it.

Hey! That's My Seat

The seat issue happened on a recent Southwest Airlines flight that was delayed because of weather. Southwest doesn't have assigned seating, but that didn't stop people from thinking they owned their seat.

The flight crew handled flight delay very well. They made an announcement and told us it would be awhile. We could de-plane if we wanted to. Most people did.

A few people from our flight were re-booked on different flights so they wouldn't miss their connection. Other passengers from later flights joined ours. This meant the passenger mix was slightly different when everyone re-boarded the plane.

Per Southwest's open seating policy, the new passengers sat wherever they found an agreeable open seat. Of course, this often meant they chose to sit where someone else had been sitting before we de-planed because of the weather delay.

I could hear more than a few passengers exclaim, "Hey! That's my seat!"

Seats weren't assigned, but passengers felt they owned the seat by virtue of having sat there first. Some displayed some genuine distress despite the frequent and gentle reminders from the flight crew that Southwest Airlines has open seating.


Other Ownership Examples

There are other situations where customers can think they own things they really don't.

It happens when customers are assigned dedicated account managers. They start to develop a relationship with that person. They think their account manager is their account manager.

Trouble can happen when that account managers leaves the company or some accounts need to be re-assigned or re-distributed. Customers get upset. They feel slighted. Often, their business follows the account manager to the new company.

Perks are another great example. 

It's tired news that airlines have made people unhappy by taking away inflight meals. What people conveniently forget is that nobody liked those meals! They were the target of universal disdain. Comedians made a living by poking fun at how bad airplane food was.

But, now that they're gone, we feel slighted.

My local hardware store used to offer customers free bags of freshly popped pop corn. One day, the popcorn machine was gone. A store employee explained that they had to get rid of the popcorn because of some sort of health code issue (apparently, you need a permit or something - I didn't fully understand it, but it sounded reasonable). It made sense what the store had to do, but customers were disappointed.

At the grocery store, try shopping out of someone else's shopping cart and see how they like it! (Just kidding - don't try that.)


Prevent The Ownership Problem

There are a few things you can do to prevent the customer ownership mentality from causing service failures.

The first thing you should do is get proactive. Identify situations where this is likely to impact your customers. Create a plan to ease the pain.

The second thing you should do is set clear expectations.

The Southwest Airlines flight crew did a great job of continuously reminding people that the flight featured open seating. This prevented the ownership issue from getting worse.

If you have dedicated account managers, make sure your customers get to know a few other people. This might include other support staff or a back-up account manager who can help out if the regular person is on vacation or out sick. Setting up multiple relationships will ease the transition if their favorite account manager leaves the company or is re-assigned.

The final thing you should do is avoid taking something away from a customer that they are likely to think is theirs.

That means keeping perks in place whenever possible. Or, if you have to take something away, give customers something better in exchange.

Squarespace is a great example of this. They provide cloud-based software that makes it easy to create websites.

A few years ago, they upgraded their platform. This upgrade had many new features, but existing users had to convert their websites to the new platform to take advantage of those new features. 

Squarespace's remarkable decision was to continue supporting the old platform indefinitely while giving existing customers the option to upgrade their website to the new platform at no charge.

They gave, without taking away.

How To Assist Customers With Self-Service Kiosks

Note: This is a revised version of a post that originally appeared in 2014.

It's weird to see an employee standing by a self-service kiosk.

These kiosks are, by design, intended to be self-service. They're supposed to be cheaper than the humans they replace when it comes to handling basic transactions. 

(Side note: Check out this recent blog post on who is better at service, Employees or Robots?)

The reality is customers often need extra help, especially if they are a first-time user or use the kiosk infrequently. 

You see this at the airport where a mass of infrequent travelers are trying to check-in for their flights. It happens at the post office, where a postal worker is available during busy periods to help people figure out how to buy their postage from the machine. You also see it at the grocery store where there's usually one employee stationed in between a bank of four self-serve check-out lanes.

Unfortunately, the employees assigned to help customers use kiosks are rarely given any training on how to do this.

There really is an art to it. Do it wrong and you'll annoy your customers and actually slow things down. Do it right and you've convinced another person to join the self-service revolution.

Here are three steps employees should follow:

Step 1: Ask

The first step is to ask customers if they’d like assistance. Never assume they need or want your help.

It can be seen as an annoying intrusion if you just start offering assistance. Many times, your customers already know how to use the kiosk. Or, they'd really prefer to figure things out on their own.

You can even make it sound like an invitation.

When the Portland International Airport installed kiosks outside their parking garage to allow customers to pay for their parking, employees were stationed by the kiosks to help out. They invited customers to save some time by paying for their parking right there.

This embedded a clear customer benefit inside their offer of assistance.


Step 2: Guide

Avoid pushing buttons.

If a customer would like some help, guide them through the transaction using verbal directions and pointing to the appropriate buttons. This approach incorporates a basic tell, show, do learning approach into a mini-training lesson on how to use the equipment.

  • Tell: give the customer verbal instructions
  • Show: point to the correct button on the kiosk or visually describe it's location
  • Do: have the customer complete the transaction themselves

Two bad things can happen when employees operate the kiosk for the customer.

The first bad thing is it can be rude. I've experienced this several times where an aggressive employee just cuts in front of me and starts pushing buttons faster than I can even read the screen.

The second bad thing is operating the kiosk for the customer prevents the customer from learning how to use it. That means they'll likely need help again the next time around.


Step 3: Encourage

The final step is to encourage the customer. Making sure they have a pleasant self-service experience is key to getting them to do it again.

This can mean the difference between self-service kiosks taking off or being neglected. My local post office provides a great example.

During busy times, a postal employee is stationed in front of their self-service kiosk. He or she invites people over to try the machine, but this same employee frequently sabotages the process. The employee takes over each customer's transaction, shooting out rapid-fire questions and pushing buttons before the customer really understands what's going on.

Confusion and anxiety are apparent on most customers' faces. The self-service kiosk isn't a pleasant experience for them. 

Meanwhile, the employee adopts an aggressive attitude. It's clear their top priority is to process each transaction as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, their lack of encouragement actually slows things down.

This spills over to slower times. There is almost never someone using the kiosk when I go to the post office. People would rather wait in line because it's less stressful.

Meanwhile, I cruise over to the kiosk and complete my transaction in less than a minute. With nobody there to push my buttons, using the kiosk is a breeze.