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.