5 Simple Changes That Will Boost Your Customer Service

Distractions are the bane any customer service employee.

They slow you down, break your concentration, and ultimately lead to service failures. In one silly email exchange, a customer service rep took three emails to answer a simple question that could have been answered in one, simply because she was too distracted to concentrate for just a moment.

Worst case scenario?

The cumulative impact of all that distraction leads to something called Directed Attention Fatigue that has symptoms similar to Attention Deficit Disorder. This can eventually lead to the dreaded burnout.

Let's face it. You're probably distracted right now. Am I right?

The good news is you can do something about it. Here are five simple changes to your normal routine that can help.

Spend Time Outdoors

My wife, Sally, and I spent a lot of time outdoors while vacationing in Ireland last month.

We hiked, biked, and even took a couple of boat rides. Here's an example from a hiking and boating trip we took through the Gap of Dunloe.

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Over the course of the week we felt increasingly relaxed and clear headed. The "Black Belt" Sudoku puzzles that sometimes take me two hours to complete suddenly started taking less than 15 minutes.

Regular, outdoor exercise is good for the head that way. It's calming, reduces stress, and restores your ability to concentrate. The challenge, as Sally and I discovered when we returned from vacation, is spending regular time outdoors while you're juggling your busy schedule.


Hide Your Cell Phone

It's increasingly common to see customer service employees handling their personal cell phones.

They linger on desks at workstations. They're toted in pockets as retail associates serve customers and restaurant servers assist their guests. 

The problem is your cell phone causes distraction that leads to errors. One study found that just having your cell phone present increased errors by more than three times!

Try putting your cell phone away when you're serving customers. As in, out of sight. You'll be more focused. And, as a special bonus, your phone will be much more interesting when you haven't been checking it every five minutes.


Turn Email Off Between Uses

Email is a multitasking nightmare. 

The typical person has email up on their computer all the time. Incoming message notifications constantly distract them from other work, or else the waiting program tempts them to check messages every five minutes.

Unfortunately, this leads to less effective communication. People respond less carefully. They miss subtle cues about the sender's real intentions. Their lack of attention inevitably leads to unnecessary back and forth.

A recent study concluded that the average employee wastes 24 percent of their day on useless email.

The way to reduce this problem is to focus on email and then not focus on email. Give messages your full attention and then shut down your email program entirely. Set regular intervals when you'll open up email and check it and then resist the urge to check email outside of these times.


Turn On Your Red Light

Open offices are an open invitation for multitasking.

You're constantly distracted by your neighbors. Colleagues drop by your workstation to chat, ask a question, or just make faces at you. (I apologize to everyone I've done that to.) There's even some speculation that open offices pose a health risk.

A client of mine has a good solution to reduce distractions in their open office.

Each workstation has two small lights above it, one red and one green. A red light means "Please don't interrupt me - I'm busy." A green light means it's okay to disturb that person.

In many ways, the light system is similar to an open or closed office door.

You don't need a light system to create a busy signal in your open office. I've seen other workplaces use simple signs. The key is to send a clear, but polite signal to co-workers that you're immersed in something and don't wished to be disturbed.


Try the Pomodoro Technique

I discovered this simple technique a few years ago, and it works wonders for projects that require a little concentration.

You can watch the short video on the Pomodoro Technique website, but here's a quick summary:

  1. Pick a task that needs your focus.
  2. Set a timer. I use 13 minutes (my lucky number), but the Pomodoro Technique suggests 25.
  3. Block out all distractions that aren't related to that task. This includes hiding your cell phone, shutting down email, and turning on your red light.
  4. Focus on the task without distraction until the timer goes off.
  5. Re-evaluate.

Using this technique, I've often found myself so absorbed in a task that I instantly re-set the timer when it goes off. The end result is the task is completed faster and at a higher quality than if you did it in bits and pieces between other distractions.


Are Your Alert or Distracted?

The theme of all these suggestions is concentration. 

It seems so simple, but concentration is a rarity among today's customer service professionals. There's just too many distractions that get in the way. 

A true customer service master understands these distractions and takes steps to block or eliminate them so each customer receives full attention.

Why Culture Initiatives Fail

“We’re working on culture this year.”

I wish I had a dime for every time I heard an executive make that announcement. I’d have a lot of dimes.

It seems like everyone wants a great culture. One that’s customer-focused. And why not? A strong culture promises many benefits:

  • Employees will happily do the right thing
  • You’ll attract top talent
  • Customers will sing your praises

CEOs like to boldly announce that culture is a priority. Even Comcast is getting in on the culture game by announcing a major new initiative.

Most of these initiatives will fail. Here are three reasons why.


It’s hard to be good at something if you can’t define it.

The vast majority of organizations I talk to do not have a clearly defined culture. I’m not referring to the standard set of cultural artifacts like mission, vision, values. Let’s face it - most of those are hollow and empty.

I'm talking about something real. A clear compass that points people in the right direction.

The litmus test is to ask any random employee to describe the culture. Chances are, you’ll get a puzzled look or an answer that’s inconsistent from one person to the next.

The few companies who succeed with culture ensure every employee can answer three questions:

  1. What is our culture?
  2. How are we doing?
  3. How do I contribute?



Culture initiatives fail when companies try to copy someone else’s culture. 

That doesn’t stop companies from trying. A CIO once told me he wanted his team to be like the Apple Store. When I pressed him for details, the best he could do was say, “I want them to be good at service. You know, like the Apple Store.”

There’s a long list of books extolling the greatness of other company’s cultures. The Nordstrom Way, The Disney Way, The Virgin Way, The Cleveland Clinic Way, and the Southwest Airlines Way are on all sale right now. 

The absolute peak is when you can turn your culture into its own brand. The Ritz-Carlton and Disney offer classes on how to be more like them. Zappos now charges 10 bucks a head to tour their Las Vegas headquarters. 

Trying to copy another company’s culture fails because it’s their culture, not yours. Each company is unique. And, copying another culture ignores all the hard work the other company needed to get where they are today.

Great cultures can provide ideas and inspiration. But, they’re not paint-by-numbers guides.



Culture initiatives don’t work when they’re a side project.

Here are a few excuses I’ve heard for delaying a culture initiative:

  • “We’re knee-deep in system stuff right now.”
  • “We’d like to do it, but we don’t have the funding.”
  • “We’re focused on employee engagement right now.”

These excuses are convenient, but they really reflect a deeper misunderstanding about culture. Developing a strong culture is core. It’s fundamental and strategic.

A great culture would help make all of those decisions easier!

You have to live your culture if you want it to succeed. In-N-Out and McDonald’s started with the same three words to define their culture, but only In-N-Out actually lived them.

Treat it as a side project at your own peril.


Building a Strong Culture

You might want to start by reading about a successful cultural initiative.

Here are two resources to help you build your own customer-focused culture:

These resources can help, but there are no short-cuts. Culture initiatives can only succeed through a deep commitment.

Defining Your Customer Can Be Complicated

The definition of a customer is broad.

Customer (noun)

  1. a person who purchases goods or services from another.
  2. Informal. a person one has to deal with.

Source: Dictionary.com

This seems fairly straightforward in some businesses. 

Let’s say you own a restaurant. Your guests would be your customer. You might also include vendors and employees as customers under part two of the definition. But, there’d be no confusion that guests are your ultimate customer. They’re the people who purchase goods or services from you.

This gets more complicated in other organizations.

The nonprofit Goodwill has three primary customers. The people who donate clothing and other items, the people who shop in their thrift stores, and the people who receive jobs and job training.

Organizations like this have to decide how to manage the needs of their different customers. This is especially true when there's an apparent conflict or limited resources. 

There could be trouble if you choose poorly.

The Forgotten Customer

McDonald’s has long had a reputation for poor customer service. Last year, I wrote a post detailing how their problems boil down to three areas:

  • Lack of focus
  • Lack of quality
  • Lack of control

It’s that last part that’s starting to bite them.

Franchisees operate 81 percent of McDonald’s locations. That means most of McDonald’s customers aren’t actually served by a McDonald’s employee. 

Right now, the franchisees aren’t too happy. A recent article on Slate described McDonald’s relationship with its franchise owners as “the bleakest it’s been.”

Rent has increased an average of 26 percent over the past five years. Meanwhile, year over year same store sales are down 4.2 percent.

Now, McDonald’s wants its franchise owners to invest an estimated $120,000 to $160,000 in it’s new Create Your Taste initiative. The Create Your Taste program is designed to allow people to customize the burger they order using an interactive kiosk.

Many franchise owners resent the additional investment. It will take a significant chunk out of short-term profits while making operations even more complicated.

McDonald’s can’t turn around it’s fortunes unless it improves it’s relationship with franchisees.


Complicated Industries

McDonald’s is hardly alone. Many industries have complicated customer relationships.

Hotels are a good example. In a typical hotel, one company owns the building, another company owns the brand, and a third company manages the hotel. 

Let’s say the property is getting a bit old and needs some upgrades. The brand might dictate the type of upgrades that need to be made. The building owner has to find a way to pay for the upgrades. And, the management company has to keep guests happy until they all can sort things out. 

That’s are a lot of interests to manage.

Insurance is another example. Many companies have independent brokers who sell and service their policies. They must keep these brokers happy to ensure policy holders receive great service. At the same time, insurance companies must keep tabs on their brokers to ensure they’re representing the company fairly and accurately.

It’s enough to give you a headache.



Companies can achieve clarity when they have a customer-focused mission or vision.

Take a look at Goodwill’s mission:

Goodwill works to enhance the dignity and quality of life of individuals and families by strengthening communities, eliminating barriers to opportunity, and helping people in need reach their full potential through learning and the power of work.

So, donations are important, but only to the extent that they help fulfill the mission. If a donation isn’t ultimately helping people reach their full potential through learning and the power of work, Goodwill doesn’t want it.

Let’s look at State Farm’s mission for a for-profit example:

The State Farm mission is to help people manage the risks of everyday life, recover from the unexpected, and realize their dreams.

I can tell you from experience that State Farm and their independent agents are aligned around the same mission. In 2001, I traveled to Houston to help my in-laws recover from a flood. My father-in-law's truck had been completely submerged in water and was totaled. His State Farm agent showed up the next day with a check in hand so my father-in-law could buy a replacement.

It required coordination between State Farm and it’s agents to make the same thing happen for hundreds if not thousands of customers who were similarly affected.

Meanwhile, people in the neighborhood who had other insurance companies waited days for their insurance company to lend a hand.

Why Priming is Essential to Outstanding Customer Service

Are you primed to provide outstanding service?

Are you primed to provide outstanding service?

There’s a concept in psychology called priming. According to a helpful overview from Psychology Today, priming refers to “activating particular representations or associations in memory just before carrying out an action or task.”

The theory is that the primer influences the way the action or task is carried out.

One famous priming experiment had participants create sentences from a list of scrambled words. A group of participants was given a set of words such as “old,” “bingo,” and “lonely” that primed them to think of the elderly. Another group was given a set of neutral words. The experiment found the participants who were primed to think of the elderly took more time to walk to the elevator after leaving the study than the participants who weren’t primed. 

Priming is also the core subject of Napoleon Hill’s famous self-help book, Think and Grow Rich. Originally written in 1937, Hill argued the secret to financial success was to imagine it. In other words, prime yourself to be successful and it will happen.

Can customer service employees be primed to provide either good or poor customer service? I think so.


Names as Primers

Word association is a powerful priming tool. This can hold true for the names employees call their customers.

Shep Hyken, author of Amaze Every Customer Every Time, recently wrote a blog post that suggested we find more positive words to refer to our customers. For instance, a gym calls its customers “members” while a hotel calls its customers “guests.” Hyken’s research shows this subtle change in language can positively influence a company’s culture. He shared the example of an Ace Hardware store that started referring to customers as “neighbors.” Employees there began viewing their customers, or neighbors, in a whole new light.

Micah Solomon, author of High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service, took it a step farther in a recent article he wrote for Forbes. Solomon argued that we shouldn’t think of customers by any name at all other than their own. Each customer is an individual and should be treated individually.

Changing what you call your customers isn’t a foolproof plan to improve service, but it does have some merits. 

Think about your own experiences where you knew a customer by name. Greeting that customer like an old friend may have primed you to provide even better service than you’d provide to someone you’ve never met before.


Positive and Negative Preconceptions

A 1968 study by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson found that students’ academic performance improved at a higher rate than their peers when their teachers were primed to think of them as high-achievers. This idea that positive expectations can become a self-fulfilling prophecy is known as the Pygmalion Effect

There’s also an opposite to the Pygmalion Effect. The Golem Effect stipulates that negative expectations can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

The Pygmalion and Golem effects can be observed in a customer service setting. If we think someone will be a good customer or a big tipper they often turn out to be just that. If we think someone will be a difficult customer or skimp on a tip that often happens too.


Positive Visualizations

I’ve consulted with a few medical device manufacturers. One thing that struck me is the walls of their offices were decked out with pictures of patients who’ve used their devices. The emphasis was on the person, not the device itself.

My clients told me they wanted employees to think of people when they went to work each day. Their products were more than just things. For one client, their products helped people with injuries become more mobile. For another client, their products were literally used to save lives. 

The pictures of people were there to prime employees to go above and beyond.

You too can use visuals to prime yourself or your employees to deliver outstanding service. Start by creating a visual that depicts successful customer service and then spend a moment looking at that image at the start of each day. 

You can see a couple of examples in in a blog post I wrote called Learn From the Pros by Visualizing Outstanding Service


Why is Priming Primary?

In my observation, employees who intend to provide great service generally find a way to get it done. They find creative solutions to challenging problems. Angry customers don’t phase them. These employees appear to be perpetually cheerful and optimistic.

The specific intention to make their customer happy becomes a primer for great service.

Without the intention to be great, employees tend to retreat towards harmony and comfort. If a customer is easy to please then great service is a result. If the situation is difficult then a good result becomes less likely.

Scientific-types will hate this explanation because it can’t be replicated in a tightly controlled experiment. To that I say, “What’s the harm in trying?” 

Set the intention to be make your customer ecstatic and then see what happens. You can do it!

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."