Your employee's viral service failure is your fault

This week’s viral service failure was a waiter who identified a trio of diners as “Fat Girls” and allowed this label to be printed on their bill. The waiter’s identity is unknown, although his first name is Jeff. (Thanks for giving the rest of us Jeffs a bad name, idiot.)

What we do know is the name of the restaurant is Chilly D’s Sports Lounge. We don’t know the name of an employee who typed “lady chinky eyes” on a receipt earlier this year, but we do know they worked for Papa John’s. You might scratch your head at the name Steven Slater, but I bet you’ll remember the JetBlue flight attendant who exited a plane via an emergency evacuation slide after directing a profanity-laced tirade at a passenger.

It's your company, not your employee, that everyone will remember.

It’s not a training issue
When viral service failures occur, the offending employee is typically fired while the remaining employees undergo some type of training. I’m not a gambling man, but if I were, I’d lay down a big bet that it wasn’t a lack of training that caused the problem and no amount of training will prevent it from happening again (more about the training = performance myth). 

How you can prevent it
If training won’t stop your employees from creating the next viral service failure, what will? Here are three things:

#1 Hire right.
Take the time to hire for organizational fit, not just the right skills. Many business invest too little time in the hiring process to get it right, or they pay such low wages that they can’t attract even mediocre talent. If you want to hire right, take the time to identify what makes an employee right for your business (see my handy competency model tool) and consider offering a competitive wage that will allow you to attract more talented, stable employees.

#2 Pay attention to your supervisors
The most influential person for an employee is their direct supervisor. Chances are employees will treat their customers well if their supervisor sets a positive example, meets regularly with them to discuss expectations, and provides regular feedback and coaching to guide performance. Unfortunately, studies show that 50% or more of frontline supervisors receive little or no training on how to lead others. You need to invest in your supervisors and give them training like my Getting Started as a Supervisor program to help them capably lead their team.

#3 Mind your culture
While doing research for my book, Service Failure, I discovered some strange ways that organizational culture can influence employee behavior. In some cases, employees can knowingly do something they know is wrong in an effort to fit in with everyone else. In other cases, employees lack the maturity or experience to truly differentiate between right and wrong and will instinctively follow the examples set by their co-workers and supervisors.

The opposite is also true. Employees will emulate positive examples from their co-workers and supervisors. This leaves business owners with a clear choice: create a positive work climate or risk bad behavior.

Having your business gain national media attention for all the wrong reasons has got to be a nightmare for any business owner. However, in almost every case, these business leaders were asleep long before one of their employees did something on camera.

Jeff Toister is the author of Service Failure: The Real Reasons Employees Struggle with Customer Service and What You Can Do About It. The book is available in paperbook, e-book, and audio book formats.

You can learn more about the book at or purchase a copy online at AmazonBarnes & Noble, or Powell's Books.