How To Empower Customer Service Employees

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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.

Silhouetted team assembling two giant jigsaw puzzle pieces.

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:

  • Resources

  • Procedures

  • Authority

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.

Resources

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.


Procedures

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.

Authority

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.

Conclusion

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:

  1. Start by identifying your top customer complaints.

  2. Identify any complaint an employee is unable to resolve.

  3. 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.


The New Definition of Employee Empowerment

Advertising disclosure: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

An empowered employee flexing his muscles.

The classic definition of employee empowerment never seemed right.

Most customer service leaders I talk to think of it as giving employees a certain degree of autonomy. A quick Google search brings up this very typical definition from Study.com:

Employee empowerment is giving employees a certain degree of autonomy and responsibility for decision-making regarding their specific organizational tasks.

Here's a quick story that illustrates the challenge with this definition:

A technical support rep, let's call him Scott, was empowered to take as long as necessary to help a customer solve an issue. One particular challenge routinely took Scott about 30 minutes to fix, which was much longer than the 5 minute average for a typical call.

Scott was empowered in the classical sense—he had the authority to spend an unusually long time on the phone to help his customer.

Where the definition falls short is one of Scott's colleagues, let's call her Janet, figured out how to solve the same issue in just five minutes. Yet there wasn't a good way for Janet to document this best practice or share her innovation with Scott. So giving Scott authority to spend extra time on the call still didn't add up to great service.

Here's another example from a small online retailer:

Contact center agents had the authority to upgrade a customer’s shipping to compensate for a delayed order. Unfortunately, orders were often delayed by a poor inventory management system that showed items were in stock when they really were not. Upgrading shipping is meaningless if the product isn’t physically available to ship.

When researching customer-focused companies for The Service Culture Handbook, I discovered that authority is just one part of empowerment. Here's the full definition:

Employee Empowerment is a process of enabling employees to deliver outstanding service to their customers.

I learned that customer-centric companies combine three elements to empower their employees:

  1. Resources

  2. Procedures

  3. Authority

Resources refer to the materials, tools, and equipment necessary to serve customers. For Scott, the technical support rep, this meant creating a knowledge base where he could quickly access solutions to common challenges. At the online retailer, this meant ensuring products were actually in stock.

Procedures refer to the best-known way to get things done. It's incredibly inefficient for Scott to take 30 minutes to solve a problem that Janet knows how to solve in 5; Scott would be more empowered if he was able to follow Janet's solution. For the online retailer, this meant installing a better inventory tracking process.

Authority is still that classic definition of autonomy. There are times when the standard procedure just doesn't make sense, and employees need a bit of leeway to do what's right. So Scott could still spend 30 minutes on the phone with a customer, if that was necessary for a new or tricky issue.

You can put this definition to the test by looking at a list of top customer complaints for your company. Identify any that your customer service team is unable to resolve quickly and effectively, and you’ll likely see an opportunity to improve empowerment.


The New Rules of Employee Empowerment

Note: This post was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse.

Customer service leaders frequently ask me about employee empowerment. It sounds so good in theory, but it's often difficult in practice.

When I talk to them, there's usually something missing. Here's an example:

In a technical support contact center, each call was a roll of the dice.

The issue could be resolved in five minutes if one agent answered. That same issue would take more than 30 minutes to resolve if another agent handled the call.

The 5-minute agent was frustrated because she wanted to share the fix with her coworkers, but there wasn't a great way to do it. Ever since a major software update was released, the support team was flooded with calls. There didn't seem to be any time for team meetings or updating knowledge base articles.

The situation was also frustrating for the 30-minute agent because he wanted to solve customers issues faster.

Both agent were empowered in the traditional sense. They had the authority to go the extra mile to serve their customers.

Yet this authority fell short because they weren't truly empowered. Here's why.

empowerment.jpg

The Old Definition of Empowerment

Ask most people to describe employee empowerment and they'll tell you it's entrusting your employees with the authority to do what's needed to serve their customers.

That's only part of it.

The 5-minute agent had the authority to deviate from standard procedures when she discovered a better way to solve an issue. 

The 30-minute agent had the authority to take as much time as he needed to resolve the customer's issue so the customer wouldn't have to contact support a second time.

But there was something missing.

There wasn't a way for the 5-minute agent to easily share her knowledge with the 30-minute agent so he could solve the same issue just as quickly.

 

The New Definition of Empowerment

Employee empowerment really means giving people the authority, procedures, and resources needed to serve their customers.

  • Authority to go the extra mile to serve customers.
  • Procedures that represent best practices for serving customers effectively.
  • Resources such as knowledge and tools necessary to get the job done.

The support team was able to provide dramatically better support when they added much-needed procedures and resources to the authority they already had.

New procedures included:

  • A documented best practice solution that allowed all agents to solve the same problem in 5 minutes.
  • A standing meeting between the support team manager and development manager to review voice of customer feedback and get insights on new software releases. This allowed new issues to be identified, documented, and fixed. (Which, in turn, reduced call volume.)
  • Daily 5 minute huddles with support team agents that focused solely on top issues, so that the 5-minute agent could share her solution with her peers.

New resources included:

  • A regular bulletin of easy fixes was shared with the support team to promote new solutions to difficult problems.
  • An updated knowledge base that allowed the 30-minute agent to access the solution developed by the 5-minute agent.

Yes, all of this took time to put into place. 

That time was quickly paid back because the 30-minute agent now became a 5-minute agent, too. Spread that out over an entire team and hours of time were saved per week.

That left plenty of time to identify, document, and share new solutions.

 

Put This Into Action

Customer service leaders frequently tell me the number one reason why employees don't go the extra mile is they don't realize how much they're allowed to do!

Here's a practical way to get started:

Jeremy Watkin, Head of Quality at the outsourced contact center FCR, told Shep Hyken on Amazing Business Radio that he regularly asks employees for the top customers requests they have to say "No" to.

He then works with the team to find ways for them to say "Yes." There are many ways this can be done:

  • Sharing alternative solutions
  • Clarifying existing authoring
  • Providing new authority, procedures, or resources

Another easy way to put this into action is to establish clear red lines. These are absolute limits for empowerment.

For example, The Ritz-Carlton is famous for empowering every associate to spend up to $2,000 to help a guest. That doesn't mean they automatically spend $2,000! It simply means $2,000 is the red line that can't be crossed.

The key to making this work is for managers to regularly discuss empowerment actions with employees. Employees should never get in trouble for staying under the red line. What managers can do, however, is have a collaborative discussion about the best ways to handle similar situations in the future. 

You can learn more from this empowerment guide.

Do you have a customer service question I can answer? Contact me and I'll do my best to help!


Why The Phone Is Still King For Customer Support

The phone is not dead.

Let me tell you why. Actually, allow me to gush. I recently had a customer service experience over the phone that proved why the phone is still king.

Melanie, a Verizon Wireless technical support rep, took a minor frustration and turned it into a great experience. 

She did it primarily over the phone. Yes, she used text and email too. It was a very omnichannel experience. But, the phone was the primary channel.

No other channel would have worked so well.

Read on to learn what Melanie did, why other channels would have failed, and how Verizon Wireless empowered Melanie to make it happen.

Friendly and capable phone reps are hard to beat.

Friendly and capable phone reps are hard to beat.

The Story

My day had just gotten crushed. 

A check engine light forced an unexpected trip to the mechanic. Then, my smartphone died while I was trying to set up an appointment to get the car fixed.

The phone lost it's network connection, giving me a "No Sim Card" warning. Like an estimated 57 percent of customers, I first went online to find some self-help. There were a few knowledge base articles, but none of them fixed my phone.

Time to call.

I dialed Verizon Wireless's customer service line. Pressed the number for technical support. Entered my phone number. Entered the last four digits of my social security number for verification purposes.

And then... I was instantly connected to Melanie. 

Customers like me who are angry about other things (remember my wonky car?) are typically hard to serve. But, Melanie was a saint.

She was warm and friendly. Reassuring without being patronizing. She also clearly knew her stuff as she walked me through several diagnostic steps.

We had to wait a brief moment during the diagnostic process while my phone reset itself. Melanie took the opportunity to helpfully review my plan. She looked at my actual usage and pointed out a new plan that would save me $30 per month. 

Wait, helpful tech support and I just saved $360 per year?!

It got even better. Melanie asked if it would be okay if she called back in 30 to 45 minutes to just check in and make sure everything was OK. 

Dogmatic first contact resolution adherents are cringing right now, because Melanie's follow-up call would technically be a second contact. But, to a customer, it was awesome.

She called a short while later just as promised. She happened to catch me while I was in the waiting area at the mechanic. "How is your car?" she asked, leading with empathy.

Melanie then asked a couple of questions to make sure that my phone was still working fine.

 

Why Other Channels Would Fail

No other channel could do what Melanie did. 

I tried chat before calling support because I thought chat might be faster. I was still waiting for a chat agent when Melanie answered the phone. 

Even if I had gotten through, a chat agent wouldn't be able to empathize in quite the same was as a live phone agent. And, there would be the inevitable delay as we went back and forth to run diagnostics. Once you're connected, phone is faster.

Other written channels like email, text, and social would also have failed. The starting point for those written channels would likely be to send me to the knowledge base article that I had already visited.

There would then have been a significant delay going back and forth. I doubt we would have fixed my phone so fast. I also doubt there would have been time to save me $360.

In-person would have accomplished the same result. The only problem with that is I would have to drive down to the Verizon store. That would take extra time and my car was headed to the mechanic anyway.

No, the phone was the fastest and most satisfying channel by far.

 

How Verizon Supported Melanie

There are many people who don't like the phone as a service channel.

Perhaps one reason is that many contact centers don't support this channel the right way. A 2015 ICMI study found that 86 percent of contact centers don't empower their agents.

So, saying the phone doesn't work is like watching a lightbulb burn out and declaring that all lightbulbs are dead.

Verizon does a lot of things right over the phone. They seem to hire a lot of people like Melanie. I've consistently spoken to helpful, friendly people who quickly solved my problem whenever I've had to call.

Verizon must also do some things to make sure those customer service stars don't get demotivated. After all, demotivation is a much bigger problem in contact centers than motivation.

So, here are a few things I noticed.

First, Melanie had the tools she needed to help me. She didn't have to ask me for my account information because it was already on her screen when she answered my call.

She had diagnostic tools to help her remotely figure out what was going on with my phone.

She had a database of different phone designs so she could access the specs on my particular model and tell me exactly where to find things.

And, she had the ability to schedule a follow-up call to make sure everything was working properly.

Second, Melanie was given time. She clearly wasn't trying to end the call as quickly as possible to ensure she met a draconian average handle time standard. She focused on moving things forward swiftly because we were both anxious to solve the problem, but she didn't cut any corners at my expense.

Finally, Melanie clearly had a lot of training. She was well-versed on her product, knew the right questions to ask, and knew how to ask them.

Don't get me wrong. I like other channels. And, there are a lot of companies that do phone so poorly that you feel compelled to use a different channel.

But, so long as companies like Verizon Wireless can do phone right, that will be my preferred channel for situations like this. 

How about you?