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Have you ever made a purchase you regret?
I bought a jacket, wore it for two months, and just didn't like it. Fortunately, I bought the jacket at REI, so I was able to take it back for a full refund.
That kind of empowerment makes a lot of managers nervous.
They worry about losing money. Or they wind up spending too much time watching over employees, which doesn't feel much like empowerment. One customer service leader told me her team works in a highly regulated environment, and she just couldn't let employees do whatever they wanted.
Employee empowerment was a big theme in the companies I researched for The Service Culture Handbook. One thing that stood out was how customer-focused companies approach empowerment much differently than typical organizations.
Here's how they do it, and how you can, too.
How Customer-Focused Organizations Define Empowerment
Customers hate to wait.
In 2014, the cable company Bright House Networks answered just 50 percent of customer calls in 30 seconds. Imagine a customer frustrated because their cable or internet wasn't working, and now they have to sit and stew on hold.
It's traditional to think of empowerment as giving employees extra authority. But you could give these agents gobs of authority to make things right and they would still struggle to appease customers who were irritated by the wait plus whatever prompted them to call in the first place.
While researching customer-focused companies, I found a new definition of empowerment:
Employee empowerment is a process of enabling employees to deliver outstanding service to their customers.
Authority is just one of three key ingredients an employee needs to be fully empowered:
In 2014, Bright House customer service reps lacked the resources to answer calls quickly. They were also hamstrung by a time-consuming approval process required to issue account credits, and didn't have the authority to issue many of those credits on their own.
Like many cable companies, Bright House grew from acquiring smaller companies with different systems. By 2014, the company had two billing systems running six different versions to support its customers.
This meant calls could only be routed to agents trained to handle the particular system. Sometimes, agents supporting one system might have a lengthy call queue while agents supporting another system were idle.
Bright House leaders recognized the issue and invested in a major initiative to consolidate the billing systems into one. This gave the company far more flexibility to route calls to available agents. Just one year later, 90 percent of calls were answered in 30 seconds.
REI has a procedure for accepting returns like my jacket.
As an REI member, my purchase history is automatically stored. So it was easy for the associate to find proof of purchase even without a receipt. Refunding my money took a few keystrokes in the computer and a signature from me.
The associate also asked me a few questions. This wasn't an interrogation. Rather, the questions were designed to determine why I was unhappy with my purchase. After sharing some feedback, the associate recommended a different jacket she thought I'd be much happier with.
I promptly bought it. Plus a few other items since I was in the store.
Leaders may worry about customers abusing returns (and some do), but look at what REI has done with its simple return procedure. It brought me back into the store, where I immediately spent the money I was just refunded plus a little more. I've been back many times since, and I'm giving them positive word-of-mouth by telling you about them now.
Without that return policy and simple procedure, I may not have returned the jacket, but I'd feel the pang of regret every time I wore it. I might not return to the store as a result.
Procedures can seem counterintuitive to empowerment, yet they're essential. Think of them as capturing best practices that can be consistently used across the organization.
For example, I once worked with a client where it would take one rep 30 minutes to solve a particular problem while another rep figured out how to solve it in just five minutes. These reps had the authority to spend as much time on the phone with a customer as needed, but as a customer, wouldn't you rather get your issues resolved quickly?
The 30 minute rep wasn't fully empowered until someone shared a best practice procedure with him so he could also resolve that problem in five minutes.
When Bright House Networks implemented its new billing system, it also empowered its support agents to issue account credits up to $1,000 without prior approval.
This was a significant amount of authority, but notice it also had a limit—$1,000. And there were still guidelines to be followed when deciding when to issue a credit and how much.
The agents also needed the right resources. The new billing system made it possible to issue credits up to $1,000 without getting a manager override. This was something that wasn’t possible in the old systems.
There were also procedures in place to monitor the credits. For instance, any credit over $250 was automatically flagged on a report for a manager to audit. The good news was six months into the new procedure, not a single credit over $250 was deemed to be inappropriate.
By the end of 2015, Bright House Networks led its larger competitors in customer service on the American Customer Satisfaction Index. Empowering its employees had a lot to do with that success. (The company was purchased by Charter Communications in 2016.)
Let's go back to that definition of empowerment for a moment: empowered employees are enabled to provide outstanding customer service.
The starting point to empower your own employees is to look for areas where they are not able to make customers happy, even if they are doing their jobs correctly:
Start by identifying your top customer complaints.
Identify any complaint an employee is unable to resolve.
Investigate what resources, procedures, or authority is required.
The end goal is to make sure that employees are able to make customers happy. Defective products, broken systems, unfriendly policies, and a lack of knowledge can all get in the way no matter how much authority you provide. Clear those obstacles out of the way and your employees can soar.