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.


The impact of conformity on customer service

Have you ever wondered why a company tends to have consistent service levels amongst all its employees? Sure, there are exceptions here and there, but a company known for poor service tends to be consistent. A company known for great service tends to be consistent too.

Why is that? One explanation could be the pressures of social confirmity. Employees may give in to social pressure to behave the same way other employees do. This means that if the culture supports poor service, otherwise good employees may lower their own performance rather than feel ostricized by their co-workers.

I've discovered some interesting psychological studies on conformity while conducting research for my book, Getting Service Right. Here is a short and entertaining YouTube videos that highlight some of the results:

The video below recreates the famous Asch conformity experiment:

So, what do you think? Can a good customer service employee turn bad in the wrong environment?

3 things small business owners must know about service

Most small business owners face an enormous customer service challenge when they start adding even a few employees. How can you build the capacity to continue growing while preserving the customer-focused culture that fueled your growth in the first place?

If you own a small business, here are three things you should know about customer service.

1. Your employees don’t think the way you do
A small business often becomes part of the owner’s personal identity, so it’s no wonder that business owners take customer service personally. The tough part is realizing your employees don’t look at things that way. Even if they have exceptional customer service skills, it's extremely difficult for them to view customer service through the eyes of a business owner. It's up to you to ensure your employees clearly understand your customer service expectations.

2. Experience and talent are not the same thing
Small businesses all have their unique cultures, so it is important to hire employees who will fit with that culture. A talented employee may or may not have a lot of experience, but they should have a strong desire to work in a company like yours. Perhaps more importantly, they must have the right attitude to work with an owner like you.

3. You need to get out of the way, but don't stop leading
Your employees aren't going to handle every customer interaction exactly the same way you would. Some owners waste time and stifle productivity by over-managing their employees. Other owners risk poor customer service by being too hands off. A good small business owner finds the right balance of leadership and empowerment to get the most out of their employees while still offering the proper coaching and guidance to help their employees grow.

What else should a small business owner know about customer service?

Why customer service training is essential for younger workers

Businesses who tend to employ younger employees are doing themselves, their customers, and their employees a disservice if they fail to provide training on basic customer service skills.

Here are three reasons why:

Young employees lack experience
Much of our customer service know-how comes from the experience of seeing what works and what doesn't. Unfortunately, young employees are gaining less and less experience. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that only 48.9% of of Americans ages 16 - 24 had a summer job in 2010. That figure is closer to 30% in my home town of San Diego according to Mark Cafferty, the CEO of the San Diego Workforce Partnership. 

All of this means that young employees will be gaining their customer service experience courtesy of your company. If you don't provide them with training they'll likely learn most of their skills from trial and error. I don't think your customers would appreciate the error part.

Young employees find it harder to empathize
A core customer service skill is the ability to empathize with a customer. This allows employees to see things through their customers' eyes and prevent or resolve problems quickly. Empathy comes from having a similar or relatable experience, but younger employees simply lack many of the life experiences that could allow them to empathize. 

Employees can be taught to empathize through training and coaching. Ironically, one of the qualities younger employees need from their supervisor or customer service trainer is the ability to empathize with being young and inexperienced.

Great customer service isn't obvious
Businesses often fail to provide customer service training to their frontline employees because great customer service seems obvious to business owners, managers, and supervisors. Unfortunately, the steps to providing great customer service may not be obvious to your employees. (Check on my previous post on the subject.)

Younger employees who lack on the job and life experience may have the most difficult time figuring out the right thing to do. Leaders should set clear expectations for customer service and then provide all employees with the required training, tools, and resources to meet those expectations. They should also be especially patient with younger employees who are learning on the job.

Are your supervisors creating service problems?

"Praise in public, reprimand in private" is a business maxim that almost everyone has heard of. I witnessed a prime example of why this is true while enjoying a light breakfast in a bakery last week.

My morning serenity was shattered by a loud, piercing voice coming from behind the bakery counter. It caught my attention and I looked up to see a woman who appeared to be a supervisor addressing three other employees.

“This is the second ticket mess-up! Ladies, this ticket has been sitting here for five minutes! Please be careful!”

Her words, tone, and demeanor were all unpleasant and all the customers in the bakery were staring as her employees shirked away from her verbal tirade.

My breakfast was suddenly much less enjoyable. 

The obvious point to this story is it is never a good idea to reprimand an employee in public unless someone is in immediate physical danger. However, I’m willing to bet that even the screeching supervisor would know this if you removed her from the heat of the moment.

So, why did she do it anyway?

It's hard to know her specific motivations, but if I owned the bakery I certainly wouldn't want to see this type of behavior from one of my supervisors. 

Business leaders and owners need to do three things to make sure their supervisors are effectively representing the business and not becoming the source of poor customer service.

Assess job fit. People often get promoted because they are really good at their job, but leading others is a completely different skill set. Business leaders need to make sure their supervisors have what it takes to effectively lead other people. If the bakery owner hired a supervisor who doesn't have the make-up to do that job then I blame the bakery owner, not the supervisor.

Reduce pressure. Supervisors are expected to handle pressure, but everybody has their breaking point. When business owners cut costs, they can sometimes leave their supervisors feeling like they are trying to put out a blazing house fire with a squirt bottle. Business leaders need to make sure they provide the resources necessary to get the job done. 

Supervise the supervisor. Supervisors are entrusted with a lot of responsibility, but they are employees too. They need coaching, guidance, and support like everyone else. If the bakery owner is never around to see and correct poor behavior, it’s likely that the supervisor will make a habit of yelling at employees in front of customers.

Searching for examples of outrageous customers

Would you like to be in a book?

I'm searching for examples of outrageous customer behavior for my forthcoming book, The Unnatural Act of Customer Service. (Check out the whitepaper to get a preview.)

Are you a current or former customer service employee? If you worked as a frontline customer service employee, I want to hear from you.

Please post a comment to this blog to submit your story for consideration. Here's what I'd like to know:

1) First name

2) Your job (server, sales associate, etc.)

3) Type of company (restaurant, hotel, call center, etc.)

4) Short story about an outrageous customer's behavior

A few expectations:
If I publish your story it will be first name only to keep it anonymous. I won't be able to include everyone's stories in my book and some may need to be edited for length and clarity. I'll be sure to email you a draft with any edits before putting it in the book.

If your story does make it into the book I'll also send you a free copy.