Why Some Employees Are Always Late

Many years ago, a coworker and I decided to walk across the street to the deli to grab a quick lunch. It was a hectic day and we both planned to eat at our desks.

”We'll be back in three minutes," she told her assistant.

"No, we won't." I replied. There was no way we were going to be back from the deli that quickly. My colleague insisted we were just walking across the street, ordering sandwiches, and coming right back.

"It will still take longer than that," I replied. She relented a bit and told her assistant we'd be back in five minutes rather than three. 

Being the kind of person who would time that sort of thing, I started my watch. From start to finish, the entire errand took us 15 minutes. This was three times longer than my coworker had promised.

Chances are, you routinely make similar promises or you know someone who does. 

Tardiness can be dangerous in a customer service setting. We might promise to get something done for a customer and then fall short of expectations when we're late. Or employees might be chronically late to work, which puts pressure on coworkers to pick up the slack until they finally arrive.

Here are some reasons why it happens.

 Woman holding up a clock, accusing someone of being late.

We're Unrealistic About Time

There are numerous studies showing that people are generally bad at estimating how long a task will take. Here are just a few examples:

  • People underestimated how long it takes to get gas by 51% (Konecni & Ebbesen,1976)

  • Students underestimated how long it would take to complete their honors thesis by 39% (Buehler, Griffin, and Ross, 1994)

  • People underestimated how long it would take to complete their Christmas shopping by 12% (Buehler and Griffin, 2003)

Put these results in everyday customer service contexts and you can see a recipe for disaster. Chronically late employees underestimate:

  • How long it will take to get to work.

  • How long it will take to finish a project for their boss.

  • How long it will take to complete a task for a customer.

Type Bs Are Overly Optimistic

You may have heard of Type A and Type B personalities. Here are the definitions from the American Psychological Association:

Type A: a personality pattern characterized by chronic competitiveness, high levels of achievement motivation, impatience and a distorted sense of time urgency, polyphasic activity [i.e. multitasking], and aggressiveness and hostility.

Type B: a personality pattern characterized by low levels of competitiveness and frustration, an easygoing approach, and a lack of aggressiveness and hostility.

It's easy to imagine that many customer service employees fall closer to Type B on the personality spectrum. There's just one small problem—those people are much more likely to be late.

Studies conducted by psychologist Jeff Conte compared how Type A and B personality types perceived how long it took for one minute to elapse. Type As were pretty spot-on, guessing on average 58 seconds. Type Bs, on average, let 77 seconds go by before they felt one minute was up—33 percent more time than Type As.

This suggests it can take coaching, planning, and a great deal of patience to help some of your customer service employees develop a more realistic sense of time.

We Don’t Plan for the Unexpected

The way we structure our work day often becomes a recipe for tardiness.

Some people are unrealistic about their commute. They might leave their home 30 minutes before work starts because it takes 30 minutes to drive there. But that doesn't take into account a stop at the coffee shop, time spent looking for a parking space, and time walking into the building and to their workstation. 

Back-to-back meetings put pressure on our calendar, especially if the first meeting runs late or we must inevitably answer the call of nature. Most people don’t start dialing into a phone or web conference until the meeting start time, even though it can sometimes take a few minutes to get connected.

Many customer service employees have work schedules that don't allow enough time for essential tasks. For example, a contact center employee might need to document notes after speaking to a customer, but they'll struggle to keep up if they're expected to be immediately available to take another call.

Overcoming Tardiness

There are a few things you can do to overcome chronic tardiness.

Perhaps the biggest change is to decide that being on time is important. People who are chronically late often have a more laid-back approach to deadlines. So there's no incentive to change until they adopt a different attitude about being on time.

I’m a stickler for starting on time whenever I facilitate a meeting or a workshop. This quickly sends the signal that the start time is the start time, and I’ve noticed that people generally arrive on time after that expectation is set.

Another way to improve timeliness is to measure how long tasks actually take, and use that information to plan more realistically in the future. So if you think it takes just five minutes to walk across the street to get a sandwich, but each time you do it actually takes 15 minutes, you can adjust your planning.

You can also avoid disappointing customers by using the right language to set realistic expectations about how long something might take. For example, I like to pad my promised delivery date a bit just in case something unexpected comes up. This provides a bonus of frequently allowing me to get things done earlier than my customers expect.

Interview with Shep Hyken about The Convenience Revolution

NYT bestselling author and customer service expert Shep Hyken has a new book coming out October 2, just in time for Customer Service Week.

It's called The Convenience Revolution.

The book focuses on the next wave of service—making it easier for customers to do business with you. It's chock-full of case studies from top companies, both big and small. The best part is it contains practical ideas that can allow businesses of any size to out-service the competition.

Shep shares six convenience principles and invites readers to decide which principles work best for their business:

  1. Reduce Friction

  2. Self-Service

  3. Technology

  4. Subscription

  5. Delivery

  6. Access

I recently had a chance to interview Shep and discuss his new book.

Shep's always an entertaining interview, and he shared lots of great examples and ideas. You can pre-order the book now or buy it on October 2.

Shep's Special Offer

  1. Buy the book on Amazon before October 2

  2. Email your order confirmation to info [at] hyken [dot] com

  3. Shep will email you an electronic version of the book so you can start reading it immediately!

The Best Time to Provide Service Culture Training

Advertising disclosure: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Any service culture initiative will eventually involve training. The big question is, "When?"

I've gotten a lot of calls from customer service leaders lately who have wanted advice on service culture training. My answer almost invariably surprises them:

“You aren't ready just yet. There are a few steps you should take first."

Read on to see the advice I share with these leaders and discover the pre-work that should be done before any service culture training program. You'll know it's time to train when you've completed these assignments.

 Team attending a service culture training session.

Define Your Culture First

Imagine you decided to invest in new accounting software for your company. There are a lot of different products on the market, so you decide to conduct a search for the best option.

Is that the time to train employees on the new accounting software?

Of course not! You must first decide which software you're going to acquire and then install the software so employees can actually use it before training them.

Service culture is the same way. 

There's no sense sending employees to training until you've defined your culture with a shared definition of outstanding service called a customer service vision

The vision should be the basis for your service culture training. Without one, your training will be generic and won't be customized to your organization's unique culture.

I outlined the process I use to create a customer service vision in The Service Culture Handbook. You can also read this step-by-step guide.

Create Learning Objectives

Let's go back to the accounting software analogy.

Imagine you've selected a software vendor and installed the new software so it's ready for employees to use. Now is surely the time to train employees, right?

Not so fast!

You must first know exactly what you want employees to do with the software. This might involve mapping out the various tasks employees will perform in the software and then designing a curriculum to teach employees those specific skills.

Service culture training is the same way. You must start by identifying what you want your employees to know and do after completing the training.

I always advise clients to focus their service culture training program on helping employees answer three questions:

  1. What is the customer service vision?

  2. What does it mean?

  3. How do I personally contribute?

Using these questions has a guide will make your training much more specific and focused. 

Plan for Sustainability

Okay, let's go back to the accounting software analogy one more time.

Imagine you implement the software and create a training program for your employees. Surely, now it's time to train, right?!

Not necessarily.

You want to time the training so employees learn to use the software right before they start using it. If you do the training too far in advance, employees will inevitably forget what they learned and they'll need to be trained again.

Service culture training works the same way. Before you train employees, you want to be sure that their work environment will help sustain and reinforce the training.

This means aligning two things with the training program:

  1. The employees' daily work.

  2. Messaging from the employees' boss.

Examples of daily work include policies and procedures, resources, and tools. If the service culture training encourages employees to go "above and beyond" for customers, but employees are bound by strict by policies that don't actually allow them to go above and beyond, the training will fall flat.

Likewise, managers must be aligned with the training as well. A boss who constantly harps on employees to be efficient and control costs will probably override a service culture training program that encourages employees to find ways to "surprise and delight" the people they serve.

Take Action

When I talk to leaders who are using The Service Culture Handbook, the biggest obstacle I observe is impatience.

Many people are tempted to skip crucial steps in the process and jump to training on the hope that training alone will change a service culture. 

It won't.

Time and time again, the most customer-focused leaders I see have the patience to commit their organization to the process. It may feel like slow-going at first, but you'll soon pick up steam and will suddenly be surprised at your momentum!

How to Get Customer Feedback Without a Survey

Advertising disclosure: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

I frequently use subscriber feedback to improve my Customer Service Tip of the Week email newsletter. Yet I've never used a survey.

Customers are inundated with surveys, so it's important to think carefully before rolling out yet another one. With my newsletter, I've found I can get a lot of useful voice of customer feedback from several alternative sources.

Here are five ways I collect and use voice of customer feedback.

 Business people sitting around a conference table analyzing survey data.

Issue Alerts

The weekly email will occasionally have a small issue such as a typo or a broken hyperlink. I try to proofread each email and test all the links, but problems occasionally do happen.

Typos are my kryptonite.

Thankfully, I can count on subscribers to let me know when there is an error. It's usually just a handful of people who email me about the problem, but that's all the feedback I need. Keep in mind most customers won't bother to tell you about small issues, but that doesn't mean they don't notice!

I have a process in place where I can flag a problem and fix it the next time I send out the same tip. In some cases, such as a broken hyperlink, I may re-send the email with the correction, although I try not to do this very often because I don't like swamping people's inboxes with extra emails.

Discussion question: What process do you have in place to allow your frontline agents to resolve or report problems?


Investigate Icebergs

A customer service iceberg is an issue that seems small and isolated on the surface, but is actually a sign of a much larger and more dangerous problem that's hidden from view.

Someone recently emailed me to let me know she had tried to sign-up for the Customer Service Tip of the Week email, but never received a confirmation. This was a classic iceberg because it was easy to dismiss the problem as a one-off where maybe she just missed the email or the confirmation wound up in a spam folder. 

I was tempted to just manually subscribe her to my list, but I decided to investigate. 

My research led me to a helpful exchange with a support agent at MailChimp, the company that powers my newsletter. With his help, I identified a technical setting in my account that would make my emails more recognizable to corporate email servers.

Here comes the kicker—my weekly subscription rate instantly doubled!

Some of those extra subscribers undoubtedly came from a marketing campaign, where I'm promising to send a PDF of my new book to anyone who is subscribed to the email by September 30, 2018.

But some of that huge increase was certainly due to this technical issue. And I never would have found it if I hadn't investigated the iceberg that came from just one email.

Discussion question: What do frontline employees do when they encounter a strange or unusual problem? Are they trained to search for and identify icebergs?


Invite Conversation

There are a few books that have absolutely changed the game for me. One was Kevin Kruse's book, Unlimited Clients.

A key piece of advice in the book was to invite conversation with your customers. The first version of the book had Kevin's phone number and email address right on the cover, and I can tell you from experience he actually responded!

So I took Kevin's advice and added a special invitation to the welcome email I sent to new subscribers. 

 Excerpt from Customer Service Tip of the Week welcome email.

Subscribers have always been able to reply to any email and send a message directly to my personal email address. However, this invitation substantially increased the number of people who actually emailed me.

It's not everyone. (Thankfully—I don't know if I could keep up!) But a couple times a day I get an email from a new subscriber who tells me a little about themselves.

It helps me learn more about them and I often try to share something helpful in response. I've also learned those subscribers are more likely to share their feedback as they begin to receive the weekly tips.

Discussion Question: How can you invite individual customers to engage in a one-on-one conversation?


Catalog Unstructured Data

Something really amazing happens when you take all those individual conversations you have with customers and categorize them.

I went through hundreds of emails from subscribers and categorized the customer service challenges they shared with me. When I decided to put my weekly tips in a book, I put the top ten challenges in a chart and identified tips that could help with each one.

Going through several hundred emails may seem like a lot of work, but it really doesn't take that much time. I probably spent an hour or so. 

It goes even faster if you catalog feedback from individual customers as it comes in. A lot of customer service software platforms have a tagging feature that allows agents to do this on the fly. If your technology won't do it, you can have agents use a spreadsheet or even a piece of paper.

Discussion Question: How can you capture and analyze unstructured data?


Be a Customer

I learn a lot by subscribing to my own email.

This was a trick I learned from working in the catalog industry. Catalog companies would mail themselves a copy of each catalog so they could time how long it took to arrive and could verify each catalog arrived in good condition.

Subscribing to my own email allows me to do something similar.

For example, the Customer Service Tip of the Week goes out each Monday at 8:45 am Pacific time. One week, the email didn't arrive as expected. I double-checked the system and discovered I had set that particular email for 8:45 pm

Oops! Fortunately, I was able to quickly change the send time and the email went out only a few minutes later than normal.

Discussion Question: What can you learn from being your own customer?


Take Action

This post is a bit longer than normal, so here are all the discussion questions in one spot:

  1. What process do you have in place to allow your frontline agents to resolve or report problems?

  2. What do frontline employees do when they encounter a strange or unusual problem?

  3. How can you invite individual customers to engage in a one-on-one conversation?

  4. How can you capture and analyze unstructured data?

  5. What can you learn from being your own customer?

All of these questions can yield terrific customer feedback without ever resorting to a survey! Best of all, the feedback you get from these sources can often be quickly used to make improvements.

You can get five more survey alternatives from this old post.

And, if you really want to use a survey, my course on LinkedIn Learning can guide you. Here's a short preview.

The First Step to Fix Poor Customer Service

Note: This post originally appeared on LInkedIn.

I've talked to a lot of customer service leaders recently who want to improve customer service, but aren't sure where to start.

One of their biggest challenges is they struggle to articulate exactly what "improve" means. Here are some actual statements I've heard:

  • "We want to deliver world class customer service."

  • "We need to get back to the basics."

  • "Things need to get better around here."

The challenge with all of those statements is they aren't clearly defined. You'll struggle to take action if you can't be specific about what you want to do.

It's helpful to imagine you wanted to go on a road trip. You'd need two data points to plug into your GPS:

  1. Your destination

  2. Your current location

This calculation is exactly the same for improving customer service. You need to know what success looks like (your destination) and you must understand where you are now (your current location).

Here's how to find both.


Define Success

This can be done in general terms through a customer service vision, which is a shared definition of outstanding service that points everyone in the same direction.

You'll need to get more specific if you want to improve. Start by thinking about what's concerning you most about your team's current customer service.

  • Is customer satisfaction too low?

  • Is service quality inconsistent?

  • Are you getting too many complaints?

  • Does it take too long to resolve issues?

  • Do customers have to frequently contact your team multiple times?

Whatever the issue, try to focus on something specific and clearly define what success would look like. That includes putting a specific measurement to it.

For example, perhaps you'd like your team's average customer satisfaction rating to be 85 percent on your customer service survey by the end of March. That's a specific, non-ambiguous destination.

You can't skip this step. If you aren't measuring customer service right now, there's no way to improve it. Just like your GPS will be confused if you ask it for directions but don't provide a destination. 

Find something important to your organization and start measuring it to establish a baseline.


Identify Your Current Location

Now you need to measure where you are now.

Let's say you want to achieve an 85 percent average on your customer service survey. You can find your current location by simply looking at your current average survey score. 

This step should be relatively simple if you've clearly established your destination. Did you skip that step? Then go back and try again! You need a destination to plan your route.


Determine the Gap

The last step is to determine the gap between your destination and your current location.

Let's say your goal is to increase first contact resolution to 95 percent. Your current first contact resolution rate is 82 percent. That makes your gap 13 percentage points.

It may be helpful to express your gap in a SMART goal statement. A SMART goal fits five criteria:

  • Specific

  • Measurable

  • Attainable

  • Relevant (to your customer service vision)

  • Time-Bound

Example: "Improve the average monthly first contact resolution rate from 82 percent to 95 percent by July 31, 2018."

You can use this SMART goal primer to help you. This short video can also provide more instructions on finding your customer service gap.

Looking for the next step? 

Watch the full Quick Fixes for Poor Customer Service course on LinkedIn Learning (or Lynda.com) or download this Quick Fixes worksheet to find solutions for closing the gap and reaching your destination.