Five Common Assumptions About Employees That Are Totally Wrong

The restaurant manager approached the table. "How's everything?" he asked.

One of the guests told him she was disappointed her salad was soaked in heavy dressing. She didn't want it replaced because the rest of her party were already halfway through their meals.

The manager brought her a free dessert as a goodwill gesture. He assumed the dessert would be a welcome surprise. He overlooked the fact that the guest had ordered a salad in an effort to eat healthy. The dessert was completely wasted.

Assumptions can be dangerous.

In some ways it's natural. Our brains are wired to naturally jump to conclusions. An over-eagerness to please our customers makes this even worse. And, once we land on a verdict, something called confirmation bias makes it hard to change our minds.

This isn't just a problem with customers. Customer service leaders often make dangerous assumptions about their employees that turn out to be totally wrong. 

Here are five examples to avoid.

Assumption #1: They Know What You Want

Employees aren't mind readers. They don't know what you expect them to do unless you explain it clearly and confirm their understanding.

Many leaders assume their expectations are obvious. They don't spend enough time setting expectations or establishing a customer service vision because they assume their employees already know.

In some cases, leaders over-communicate. They create confusion by providing so much information that employees can't tell what's important and what's not. 

You can avoid this assumption by doing two things:

First, verify your employees understand your expectations. Quiz them, test them, or observe them. Just make sure they get it.

Second, make sure they agree. Have them tell you what they plan to do to achieve expectations. 

Assumption #2: They Need Incentives

Incentives create all sorts of problems.

There's a mountain of research to back this up. Outstanding books like Drive and Predictably Irrational chronicle study after study where incentives make performance worse, not better.

Yet, customer service leaders continue to assume that employees need incentives to give their best performance. This comes from a sense that employees require motivation.

My own research suggests the opposite is true. Employees are naturally motivated. The real problem is demotivation. Customer service managers should focus their energy on making sure demotivation doesn't happen.

Assumption #3: They Care

This one is the opposite of #2. Not every employee is fully committed.

Many customer service employees don't consider their job a career. Some people just end up in customer service. Others view their job as a convenient way to pay the bills while they go to school for something better.

These folks aren't highly motivated. They won't move mountains or leap over tall buildings to make customers happy. They'll do the minimum and that's it. 

Customer service leaders need to be careful not to assume every employee is gung-ho about service. If you want to these people to perform, you need to make it easy for them to deliver outstanding customer service.

Assumption #4: They Need Training

We all have our pet peeves. My pet peeve is that training is the solution to every performance problem.

Managers often assume that's all that's needed. They think that training will someone "fix" employees who aren't providing great service.

I really wish that were true. I love training. I've been doing it for more than twenty years. Heck, I even volunteer to train in my spare time. 

Sadly, training can only fix a small percentage of employee performance challenges. My own estimates show that training is only responsible for one percent of customer service.

What should you do instead of training? Check out my next level service action plan to get step-by-step instructions.

Assumption #5: They're Content

No complaints doesn't equal no problems.

Many customer service leaders are surprised when a talented employee suddenly leaves the organization. They had assumed the employee was happy because he or she had never complained.

Some companies do exit interviews to find out what went wrong. These only help prevent the same thing from happening in the future.

A better approach is to conduct stay interviews. Sit down with your best employees and find out what's keeping them. Take time to learn about their goals and ambitions. You might be able to use that information to help them stay.

Are There More Assumptions to Avoid?

These are just five common examples. What others would you add to the list?

Here's What Experts Say Is The #1 Way To Improve Customer Service

Customer service leaders are constantly trying to improve service. A new report from OneReach asked 63 industry experts to weigh in on what companies can do to get started.

It was an honor to be asked to contribute since "Where do I start? is a challenging question for many customer service leaders. I've tackled this topic here before with an action plan for taking customer service to the next level. 

My take is the first step in any journey is to select a destination. For customer service, this means defining outstanding service by creating a customer service vision.

Not all experts agree with me. The OneReach report is valuable because it provides a variety of different perspectives. It's interesting to see that 63 experts had 11 different ideas for where to get started!

On a side note, this report is also a great list of customer service experts to follow on Twitter!

Below is an infographic that summarizes the results. You can read an overview on the OneReach blog or download the full report.

Do you enjoy reading this blog? Sign up below to receive each new post via email. 

How Customer Service Problems Quite Literally Get Moldy

Some service failures are hard to believe.

It's not just the problem itself. It's the fact that employee after employee either fails to notice it or fails to fix it. 

Here's an example. This picture was taken in a small market and deli. Just in case the color throws you off, these are Valencia oranges.

Notice the mold on the two oranges at the top of the picture. Disgusting. It shouldn't happen, but it did. The real question is why?

I explored several potential root causes in my book, Service Failure. They range from apathy to employees being so focused on their individual tasks they fail to see the big picture. 

There's one big reason that stands out at this market: management.

Here are a few more observations about the market with the moldy oranges:

  • There were at least five employees on duty when I spotted this.
  • I told the employee behind the deli counter who shrugged and did nothing.
  • I had to tell a second employee before someone took care of it.

This reveals a few things. 

One is that at least some of the employees on duty didn't believe the fruit bin was their responsibility. Either they chose to ignore the problem or their lack of care caused them to miss it. It's a manager's duty to instill a clear sense of responsibility amongst employees. 

Another issue is inattentiveness. The oranges had clearly gone unchecked for several days. It's a manager's role to make this attention part of the procedure. Somebody should be checking the merchandise.

I've written about this before. In one instance, multiple employees missed an obvious problem because none of them were paying attention to the big picture.

Another one was about an inexplicably dirty hotel room. The comments from hotel professionals were particularly interesting.

It's easy to write-off problems like this. It couldn't happen to you, right? Perhaps not. But, the best customer service leaders are constantly checking just in case.

Customer service managers should ask themselves a few questions. 

  • Do you have any moldy oranges in your organization?
  • Are employees on the lookout for these sorts of problems?
  • Do people know what to do if they see one?

The Strange Effect of Surveys on Consumer Behavior

The survey equation seems simple.

You ask a customer a few questions. Their answers help you spot problems. You then use their feedback to improve. If all goes well, customers become more loyal and sales go up.

It's applying feedback that's been a sticking point. Many companies don't. One study suggests that only 10 percent of companies use survey data to improve service.

It turns out that a survey has influence, even if you don't use the data.

A 2002 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research determined that the mere act of surveying customers increased sales and loyalty. Here's a summary of what the study's authors found.

The Study

The research was conducted by Utpal M. Dholakia and Vicki G. Morwitz. They separated customers at a financial services firm into a test and control group. The test group took a customer satisfaction survey while the control group did not.

Dholakia and Morwitz then used actual customer transactions to identify any differences between the customers who were surveyed and those who were not.


The Results

Two conclusions jumped out.

First, the surveyed customers were much more likely to open new accounts with the financial services firm.

Second, the surveyed customers were much less likely to defect. 

The Implications

It would be a mistake to just assume you can launch a survey and watch sales soar. 

There's a bit of nuance here. For example, the study was conducted in 2002 when surveys weren't nearly as constant as they are now. It's entirely possible the study would see different results if it was conducted today.

My guess is the survey itself isn't what's driving consumer behavior. My hypothesis is there are two parts of the survey that are really making the impact.

The first is the act of story telling. 

Customers relive their experiences when they complete a survey. Retelling their story through a survey can make strong feelings (good or bad) even stronger. And, like so many stories, the details change and become exaggerated over time to create a stronger narrative.

The second part is a survey can demonstrate that a company actually cares.

It was probably easier to do that in 2002 when surveys were less common than they are in 2015. The big take away should be that if companies can show customers they care then customers will likely reward them.

Why You Should Stop Being So Eager to Please

Customer service professionals are naturally eager to please.

They want to make their customers happy. It's what fuels them. My research suggests it's the biggest thing that motivates employees.

This eagerness can also cause service failures. 

There's such thing as being over-eager. Too much eagerness can cause people to stop listening and jump to conclusions. It can also lead to an employee telling little lies in an effort to make a customer feel temporarily happy. 

Here are three examples of how being over-eager can lead to poor service.


Less Listening

Our brain naturally detects familiar patterns. It recognizes a few details and then instantly completes the picture. We use this skill constantly. In fact, you're using it right now -- it's how we're able to read written words.

This same function can get us into trouble.

Let's say you're trying to help a customer solve a problem. They start describing a situation that you've heard a hundred times before so your brain instinctively stops listening and the solution flashes into your brain.

Unfortunately, your brain mis-recognized the pattern. Even worse, you missed important details when the customer continued talking while your brain shut off listening.

We can detect and override this instinct if we're working slowly and methodically. It becomes a lot harder to do when we're under pressure to work fast.

That's where an over-eager desire to please causes problems. It's an internal pressure to work quickly.


More Assumptions

Less listening can lead to more assumptions. Here's an example:

Two couples were traveling together. They arrived at their hotel and attempted to check-in. The front desk agent assumed they wanted adjoining rooms since they had booked their reservations together.

An over-eagerness to please caused the agent to jump into solution mode. Rather than confirming the couples' room preferences, she assumed that's what they wanted.

She scanned her system for two adjoining rooms that were both clean. There were none. Dejectedly, she told the couples they'd have to wait another two hours before they could check in. 

What the agent missed was there were plenty of clean rooms that weren't adjoining. The couples never requested adjoining rooms and it wasn't really important to them. The agent's over-eagerness caused her to miss this critical opportunity and instead caused a service failure.


Prolonged Misery

Nobody likes to deliver bad news.

Customer service professionals who are too eager to please will sometimes tell small lies to help customers stay temporarily happy. 

  • They'll say, "maybe" when they know the answer is "No." 
  • They tell a customer they'll look into it when they know it won't happen.
  • They'll say "I'll get right on it" when they know it will take awhile.

These over-eager pleasers don't lie maliciously. They just have a hard time sharing the truth. Unfortunately, these little lies create unpleasant surprises in the long run.

It's a much better policy to tell the truth up front. Customers might not be as happy right away, but they'll be less angry over time. It's the classic under promise, over deliver approach.


A Little Less Eager

Being eager to please isn't inherently a bad thing. Just be sure you aren't so eager that you miss out on the opportunity to actually deliver.