How processes can hurt customer-focus

I’m picky when it comes to ordering breakfast at a restaurant, so I almost always order a la carte. And, almost always, my meal arrives on several plates. It’s a minor annoyance, though it's become expected. 

Combining my a la carte items onto one plate seems like such an obvious move, but there’s a simple explanation as to way it infrequently happens. The culprit is process.

Why is process to blame?

Processes get drilled into employees’ heads. That’s how they learn and it’s often how they’re managed. It’s also how work flows in many service environments. As a result, it's what employees often focus on.

Take my a la carte order for example. It’s not a specific meal on the menu, so the server has to ring it in as individual items to generate a price and get the order into the kitchen. Plating my entire meal on one dish requires the server to think outside the normal process and consider my needs as a customer. Again, it seems obvious, but here process usually causes the server to lose customer-focus.

Why is customer-focus so important? 

The rare server who puts all my breakfast items on one plate really stands out. My colleague, Liz, recently wrote to tell me about a similar experience she and her husband had where the focus was on her and not the process:

“We frequently stop for a sandwich at Great Harvest Bread Company in Temecula. Their sandwiches are enormous, so we only eat half, and save the other half for the next day’s lunch. Apparently their staff has noticed, because the last time we visited, they served up half the sandwich in the basket, and half in a to-go bag. It was a very pleasant surprise, and you can be sure we will remain loyal customers.”

In another example, a client of mine recently asked me to develop some sales scripts for his call center employees. After a spirited discussion, he agreed to let me develop guidelines that would help reps steer the conversation towards a sale while using their own brains and personalities to adapt to each customer’s unique needs. My client initially feared that his reps would be inconsistent without a strict script to adhere to, but thankfully he relented. Customers aren't the same, so why should we approach each on the same way? The results have already started paying off in the form of increased sales. (See a previous rant about scripts here.)

How can you achieve customer focus?

A good place to start is by designing customer-focused processes, such as using broad guidelines rather than scripts.

Training can help too. For example, cashiers often give change by scooping coins out of their till, grabbing the bills, and then flipping the whole thing into the palm of the customer's hand. The result is the loose coins end up on top, making it more difficult for the customer to put their money away. A customer-focused way to do it is take the extra half-second necessary to place the coins in the customer's hand first. Last week, I received an email from Jesse who reminded me how this little move can make a big impact:

"I had a cashier who was aware of this very small thing and just by consciously giving me my coins in a manner that let me put away bills in my wallet first, I felt like it was the best customer service I had gotten all week! And all I got was a small juice at a coffee stand.  Also because she gave me change first it was easier and quicker for me to tip her with a bill."

You lost me at "Hello"

There’s something magical about a warm, friendly, and authentic greeting in customer service. As a customer, you feel immediately at ease and gain confidence in the other person’s ability to serve you well.

So why doesn’t it happen more often?

Here’s an example that can help us better understand some of the reasons why so many greetings fail.

Rep: “Thank you for calling The Bayside Grill. This is Jane. How may I help you?”

Me: “Hi Jane. My name is Jeff. I’m calling to make a reservation please.”

Rep: “It will be my pleasure to assist you. What's your name?”

Here are just a few misses in this very typical exchange:

  • I gave my name, but Jane missed it.
  • Jane sound rushed when she answered the phone.
  • Jane sounded robotic when she said, “It will be my pleasure to assist you.

I know, the fix is easy, right? Jane should just answer the phone with a bit more enthusiasm, listen carefully, and then respond with sincerity.

Unfortunately, the problem is often created by management practices that influence Jane's performance.

Here are a few other factors that may contribute to poor customer service greetings.

Employees are distracted. In many customer service situations, the person greeting you is expected to simultaneously perform other tasks, depriving you of their full attention. For example, Jane may have be staring at a line of guests waiting to be seated when she took my call. (Check out my recent post on how multitasking hurts customer service.)

Scripts are for robots. Many customer service greetings are scripted, presumably because employees like Jane can’t be trusted to create an acceptable greeting on their own. The problem is that employees start focusing on nailing the script instead of nailing the greeting. (I wrote a post in 2009 on getting more consistency by ditching the script.)

Employees aren’t monitored for friendliness. When I worked in a large call center I remember having endless debates over what friendly sounds like. It’s easy to observe whether or not Jane used the correct, scripted greeting. Unfortunately, friendliness is inherently subjective. It might be very difficult for Jane and her supervisor to come up with a shared definition of what “friendly” looks or sounds like.

What’ the solution? Here are three simple things customer service leaders can do to improve their employees’ greetings:

  1. Eliminate distractions. Give employees the tools, training, and coaching to help them focus on one customer at a time.
  2. Ditch the script. Replace cumbersome scripts with more general guidelines. Employees like Jane can use their own personality to come up with something that works or them and still achieves the desired result.
  3. Hire naturally friendly people. Obvious, I know, but this practice isn't as common as you would think.

What else can we do to make greetings more friendly, warm, and authentic?

Outstanding customer service you'll never notice

Our regular UPS driver came to the door yesterday afternoon. I had to sign for the package because he was delivering a shipment of wine. As I was signing, he remarked that the package had the wrong address on it. "I'm glad you knew where to bring it!" I said.

He replied that it was easy for him to track down the correct address because of my unusual last name and the shipment contained wine. (Yes, I am a huge wine enthusiast: 

I paused for a moment to think about what had just happened as I brought the wine in the house. The wine shipment had arrived just as expected. That by itself wasn't amazing, but the fact that it arrived on time was due to the actions of a very alert UPS driver who knew the regular customers on his route. He took extra initiative to ensure my expectations were met.

Could it be that some of the very best customer service happens behind the scenes? 

Customers tend to notice service service that is either exceptionally good or exceptionally poor. We are unlikely to notice when things go exactly the way we expect them to. 

What would have happened if the UPS driver had not taken the initiative to deliver my wine to the correct address? The shipment could have been delayed a day or two while a customer service representative tried to track me down. I might have been inconvenienced if I had to go to the UPS station to pick up the package instead of it being delivered to me. The wine might not have been delivered on time for an upcoming party if it took too long to resolve the problem.

All of those situations would have landed squarely below my expectations. I would have likely been upset at the winery, UPS, or even both. 

Instead, I'm happy.

How many times do unsung customer service heroes spot a problem before it occurs and just fix it? When it does happen, the experience will likely register as "average" on the customer's radar, but we should all agree that the effort was outstanding.

Listening to customers is harder than you think

I was halfway through my question when the customer service representative interrupted me. “That’s actually a separate password than the one I’m resetting for you. That one is just for billing.”

Great, except that wasn’t the question I was about to ask. “I know, but I was going to ask if I can reset the billing password myself so that I…”

He interrupted again, “But you don’t need the billing password to access your online account.” 

Sigh… Still not the question I was trying to ask. Why do so many knowledgeable customer service representatives find it difficult to truly listen to their customers?

Believe it or not, one explanation is poor listening skills are a product of our brain’s natural wiring.

Our brains have a unique design feature that allows us to take a small amount of information and compare it to familiar patterns. This enables us to make quick sense of large amounts of data without getting bogged down in the details. It’s an ability that comes in handy in many ways, such as determining if something is safe or dangerous, recognizing people we know, or even reading.

Here’s a simple example. Try reading the sentence below:

People can easliy raed misspleled wrods as long as all the lettres are there and the fisrt and lsat letters are in the corerct position.

You can read sentences like the one above thanks to this handy pattern recognition ability. Your brain recognizes the pattern presented by the arrangement of the letters and the context of the sentence. It doesn't matter that the letters aren't perfectly placed. They are close enough for your brain to quickly interpret their meaning.

Unfortunately, this same ability gets customer service representatives into trouble when it comes to listening. The customer service representative I mentioned at the beginning of this post had likely heard questions similar to mine many times. The start of my sentence fit a familiar pattern so his brain naturally stopped listening and presented an answer to the question he thought I was going to ask. The problem occurred because my question was a new variation this pattern, so the answer that leapt into his mind was incorrect.

In other words, it was a natural behavior that caused the customer service representative to keep interrupting me.

We can learn to short circuit our natural wiring and become more adept at listening, but it takes training, effort, and practice. Here are a few things you can try the next time you are listening to a customer:


  1. Eliminate distractions and concentrate on what the customer is saying.
  2. Don't interrupt customers while they are speaking.
  3. Ask clarifying questions to confirm you understand their needs.