The New Definition of Employee Empowerment

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An empowered employee flexing his muscles.

The classic definition of employee empowerment never seemed right.

Most customer service leaders I talk to think of it as giving employees a certain degree of autonomy. A quick Google search brings up this very typical definition from

Employee empowerment is giving employees a certain degree of autonomy and responsibility for decision-making regarding their specific organizational tasks.

Here's a quick story that illustrates the challenge with this definition:

A technical support rep, let's call him Scott, was empowered to take as long as necessary to help a customer solve an issue. One particular challenge routinely took Scott about 30 minutes to fix, which was much longer than the 5 minute average for a typical call.

Scott was empowered in the classical sense—he had the authority to spend an unusually long time on the phone to help his customer.

Where the definition falls short is one of Scott's colleagues, let's call her Janet, figured out how to solve the same issue in just five minutes. Yet there wasn't a good way for Janet to document this best practice or share her innovation with Scott. So giving Scott authority to spend extra time on the call still didn't add up to great service.

Here's another example from a small online retailer:

Contact center agents had the authority to upgrade a customer’s shipping to compensate for a delayed order. Unfortunately, orders were often delayed by a poor inventory management system that showed items were in stock when they really were not. Upgrading shipping is meaningless if the product isn’t physically available to ship.

When researching customer-focused companies for The Service Culture Handbook, I discovered that authority is just one part of empowerment. Here's the full definition:

Employee Empowerment is a process of enabling employees to deliver outstanding service to their customers.

I learned that customer-centric companies combine three elements to empower their employees:

  1. Resources

  2. Procedures

  3. Authority

Resources refer to the materials, tools, and equipment necessary to serve customers. For Scott, the technical support rep, this meant creating a knowledge base where he could quickly access solutions to common challenges. At the online retailer, this meant ensuring products were actually in stock.

Procedures refer to the best-known way to get things done. It's incredibly inefficient for Scott to take 30 minutes to solve a problem that Janet knows how to solve in 5; Scott would be more empowered if he was able to follow Janet's solution. For the online retailer, this meant installing a better inventory tracking process.

Authority is still that classic definition of autonomy. There are times when the standard procedure just doesn't make sense, and employees need a bit of leeway to do what's right. So Scott could still spend 30 minutes on the phone with a customer, if that was necessary for a new or tricky issue.

You can put this definition to the test by looking at a list of top customer complaints for your company. Identify any that your customer service team is unable to resolve quickly and effectively, and you’ll likely see an opportunity to improve empowerment.