Why Employees Say the Wrong Thing to Customers

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We've all heard an employee say something cringeworthy when explaining an unfriendly policy or procedure to a customer.

  • "It's our policy, there's nothing I can do about it."

  • "That's not my department, you have to talk to someone else."

  • "You have to do it this way. It's our procedure."

These unfriendly statements frustrate customers, and it feels like common sense to avoid making such prickly statements. So why do employees say these things?

The answer may surprise you. Employees often say the wrong thing because that's exactly what they've been trained to do.

Angry contact center agent.

How Policies Get Shared

The new customer service manager admonished her team for saying the wrong thing to employees in a department-wide email. Here are some excerpts:


I need each of you to reply to this email after you read it acknowledging that you understand what I expect, that you will adhere, and what the consequences will be if these expectations are not followed. 

Notice the demanding tone. The email goes on to list forbidden statements, such as "I don't know," and "I can't help you." Then it describes the type of tone that should be used.

Your tone needs to be professional and upbeat. I do not want to hear dull, sad, or bored tones when talking to a customer.

The email concludes with a threat of consequences if employees say the wrong thing.

[Supervisor] and I will be listening to calls to ensure that you are following the protocol. If we find that you are not following the protocol stated here expect to receive a verbal warning the first time. Expect to receive a written warning the second time. A third time may result in termination of your current position.

Ouch. Given this leader's communication style, it's no wonder employees struggled to be professional and upbeat when serving customers. We tend to follow the examples set by our leaders.

While this may be an extreme example, think about how you generally communicate policies to your team. Is your communication positive or is it couched in negativity?

Managers often share new policies by emphasizing the negatives:

  • The policy must be followed, no exceptions!

  • The policy is enacted to solve a problem caused by a bad customer or employee.

  • There will be sanctions for not following the policy.

These same managers are often unprepared when employees question the reasoning behind a new policy or procedure. Some just shrug and say, "I didn't make the decision, I just have to enforce it." Others will share a very corporate reasons such as "We were losing money because customers were starting to abuse the old policy."

These leaders are unconsciously engaging in the very same behaviors they'd like their employees to avoid.

I once sat in a customer service manager's office while she ranted about her dislike for the phrase, "No problem." She felt it was unprofessional and didn't like her employees using it.

An employee walked into her office to ask a question. The manager answered and when the employee thanked her, the manager reflexively replied, "No problem!"

Yeah, that was awkward.

Training Your Employees to Say the Right Thing

Let's say you find a tactful way to ask your employees to avoid certain negative words and phrases when serving a customer. You even find a way to avoid using them yourself.

So what do you want your employees to say instead?

It's not enough to tell employees what they shouldn't do. An effective leader needs to help employees understand what they should do.

Here's an exercise called "Say this, not that" from the book, The Effortless Experience, by Matthew Dixon, Nick Toman, and Rick DeLisi. I've used it with customer service teams and it's always both empowering and a lot of fun.

  1. Gather the team and list tricky situations where you might say the wrong thing.

  2. Just for fun, list some of the things you should definitely not say.

  3. Now brainstorm some acceptable alternatives.

  4. Ask everyone to experiment with them for a week.

  5. Gather again the next week to share how the new ideas worked (or didn't).

Whenever I've run this exercise, we've had a lot of fun coming up with the list of things not to say. After a few laughs, the group always comes up with some terrific ideas for what to say in those situations.

They leave the exercise feeling empowered and eager to say the right thing.

How To Empower Customer Service Employees

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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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. 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 five 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. This was great news for Janet’s customers, but not so great for Scott’s. It meant Scott wasn’t truly empowered to fix the issue quickly because he didn’t know how.

Here’s a better definition of empowerment and how it can help you improve service quality and employee engagement.

An empowered employee flexing his muscles.

What is employee empowerment?

When researching customer-focused companies for The Service Culture Handbook, I discovered that authority is just one aspect of empowerment. A fully empowered employee is able to do their job well. Here's the full definition in a customer service context:

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

Customer-centric companies combine three elements to empower, or enable 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.

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 knew about Janet's solution.

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.

Why is employee empowerment important?

Empowering employees benefits customers, employees, and managers. Customers are happy because they get faster, higher quality service. Employees are happy because they feel they can truly make a difference with the people they serve. Managers are also happy because they spend less time doing tasks that empowered employees can do themselves.

Here's a simple example from a movie theater:

A mom with a young child placed an order at the snack bar. The mom handed a hot dog to her child, who promptly dropped the hot dog on the floor. It was a frustrating moment for the mom, but the movie theater employee quickly remedied the situation by giving the mom a new hot dog. He did it instantly without asking his manager for permission.

Think about the impact this small gesture made:

  • The mom was relieved to avoid a potentially frustrating and embarrassing situation.

  • The employee was able to quickly fix the problem.

  • The manager didn’t need to stop whatever she was doing to intervene.

There was also another benefit. Other customers who witnessed the incident saw how helpful the employee was. This primed customers to think of their own experience more positively.

What are the risks to empowering employees?

Empowering employees must be done carefully, because there are definitely some risks involved. The most common examples cited by customer service leaders include:

  • Service will be inconsistent if each employee does things their own way.

  • Employees might cost the company money by giving away too much.

  • Customers might take advantage of overly generous empowerment policies.

The real cost of these risks is typically overblown.

Several years ago, a cable company called Bright House Networks instituted a new empowerment policy. (The company has since been acquired by Charter Communications.)

Employees were allowed to issue account credits up to $1,000 without getting a manager’s approval. There were specific guidelines put in place to help employees make good decisions, but the decision was their’s to make. Bright House Network did put in one safeguard: any credit issued for more than $250 was audited to ensure employees were making smart choices.

In the first six months after the policy was implemented, management found zero inappropriate credits. In other words, employees were using good judgment!

How do you empower employees?

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.

You can find more detailed instructions for empowering your employees in this post.

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.


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?

The Magic Phrase That Will Get You Better Service

As customers, we sometimes run into a wall.

That wall is a customer service employee who either can't or won't solve our problem. It's clear they want us to just accept defeat and go away. They try to end the conversation by quoting policy, citing impossibilities, or simply saying "No."

I've discovered a magic phrase that cuts through this obstacle.

At a restaurant, it helped convince a server to remove an improperly prepared entree from the bill. I used it to get a cable company representative to credit my account after a service interruption. The phrase helped me talk a customer service agent into manually delaying an online order so a shipment wouldn't arrive while I was traveling.

Even when this phrase doesn't work, it still helps. More on that in a moment.


Here's the phrase:

Is that something you're empowered to do?

The phrase does two things. First, it requires you to be specific about what you want the employee to do for you.

If you're being tactical about it, you'll make sure your request is reasonable. Asking a restaurant to comp a poorly prepared meal that you can't eat is reasonable. Asking them to comp your dinner companion's meal too may not be.

The second thing this phrase does is it eliminates any confusion about empowerment. As I noted in a blog post earlier this year, one reason employees aren't empowered is they don't stop and think about what they really can and cannot do.

Asking this closed-ended question lets you know where you stand.

If an employee replies, "Yes, I am empowered," then the only reason they would refuse a reasonable request is because they don't want to do it. I've found that most try to help when they suddenly realize they can help.

If the employee replies, "No, I'm not empowered," then you're wasting your time arguing with the employee. In fact, it's a little unfair to continue badgering them about something they have no control over.

This is where the phrase works even when it doesn't. Here's a recent example:

I had purchased a couple of wine refrigerators. After completing the sale over the phone, I received an email from the sales rep asking me to sign a lengthy terms and conditions sheet. Many of the terms and conditions were contrary to the terms she had described to me when she booked the sale.

It felt like a classic bait and switch. For example, the sale rep told me the cost of shipping was included in the price of the refrigerators. The terms and conditions sheet clearly stated that shipping was not included.

I emailed and asked her to change the written terms and conditions. She replied and told me they couldn't be changed. So, I called the company and spoke to her manager. He told me the same thing -- the written terms of sale couldn't be changed.

That's when I asked him my magic question. "I'd like to purchase these refrigerators, but only if the written terms match what your sales rep quoted me over the phone. Is that something you're empowered to do?"

The sales manager told me no, he was not empowered to do that.

Further discussion was now pointless. The magic phrase had saved me the continued aggravation of getting stonewalled by a sales manager who couldn't help me. Instead of arguing, I politely ended the call and then called another company that sold the same products. 

This time, I encountered a sales rep who was able to sell me the same refrigerators under favorable terms for a lower price. 

How to Empower Employees (It's Harder Than You Think)

Empowering customer service employees is difficult.

If it were easy, more employees would be empowered. This clearly isn’t happening. A recent study by ICMI discovered that a whopping 86 percent of contact centers don’t empower their employees to provide outstanding customer service. 

An empowered employee has the resources and authority to make decisions about serving their customer. The benefits seem obvious:

  • Fast decision-making
  • Happier customers
  • Happier employees

Best of all, less work for the supervisor, right?!

Perhaps not. Empowerment takes a lot of work. Avoiding all that work is one of at least five reasons why customer service leaders don’t empower their employees.

Empowerment isn’t for meek managers. But, if you’re up to the challenge, here’s how to do it.

Step 1: Establish a Vision

The first step towards empowering your employees is to firmly establish a customer service vision

This is a shared definition of outstanding customer service that focuses on the customer. Employees must be able to answer two questions about this vision:

  1. What does it mean?
  2. How do I contribute?

An employee who understands the vision will actively look for opportunities to be empowered. Employees who don’t understand the vision may view their jobs as completing a series of tasks or enforcing rules.

In my book, Service Failure, I shared the story of Brett Dodson, who managed the parking enforcement team at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU). The customer service vision for Dodson’s department focused on improving access to OHSU’s campus. 

Embracing the customer service vision initially proved to be a challenge:

They relished the opportunity to issue a [parking] violation and viewed their role as catching people parking where they shouldn’t. A few of the enforcement officers would even watch for someone to park illegally and then wait until the driver left the vehicle so they could write a ticket rather than ask that person to park somewhere else.

Dodson wanted his enforcement officers to spend more time engaging in dialogue with drivers, explaining rules, and providing alternatives rather than catching people doing something wrong. 

Enforcement officers were empowered to do all that, but it took several months of coaching and feedback for the entire team to embrace this as their role. Dodson needed to change the team’s culture before they could fully empower themselves.

Eventually, the team achieved great results. The number of citations went way down, customer satisfaction went way up, and fewer people parked where they shouldn’t.

It was a great turnaround for the team. It also took a lot of time, effort, and commitment to get there.


Step 2: Identify Red Lines

The Ritz-Carlton hotel chain is famous for their exceptional service. One of their secrets is each associate is empowered to spend up to $2,000 to delight a guest.

You’re probably thinking, “There’s no way I’m going to let my employees just give away $2,000!” 

That’s understandable. Every situation is different. But, what the Ritz-Carlton is really doing with the $2,000 is establishing a red line.

A red line makes empowerment clear for employees. It tells them where the boundaries lie. 

Your red line could be any number of things:

  • It might be a dollar amount (you decide what makes sense).
  • It could be a policy that employees can waive.
  • It might be extra goodwill that an employee can provide, like a shipping upgrade or a free dessert in a restaurant.

There’s a second part to the red line. Employees must understand it’s the limit, not the only option.

Associates at the Ritz-Carlton don’t automatically spend all $2,000 in every situation. They’re expected to use their judgment to decide what’s best.

Anything less than the limit is a gray area. 


Step 3: Share Feedback

You should never punish an employee for making a gray area decision they felt was right.

Employees will shy away from empowerment if they feel every decision they make will be second-guessed and criticized. It's also confusing to be told "you are allowed to do this" and then be told "you shouldn't have done that."

You should, however, discuss empowerment decisions so you, the employee, and the rest of the team can learn from them.

Here’s an example:

A small contact center empowered its agents to get product samples from the warehouse so they could answer detailed questions from customers.

Employees were simply asked to follow an inventory control procedure that tracked these items since they weren’t in their normal location. Following the procedure was the red line.

A gray area was when an employee should get samples from the warehouse.

Should the employee immediately go to the warehouse whenever a question arose so the customer could receive a call back within just a few minutes? Or, should they make the customer wait until later in the day, when the employee had more time?

What if it was a busy time of day? In a small contact center, just one employee getting off the phone to do some research could extend wait times for other customers.

Should it matter if the customer wants to place a large order versus a small one? 

Should a customer with a large order history (i.e. VIP customer) get faster service than a new customer?

The challenge is you can’t just come up with a rigid policy that covers every situation. There’s always a new twist that you hadn’t anticipated.

A better solution is for the employee and manager to discuss these types of gray area situations. It’s an opportunity for the manager to listen to the employee’s perspective and to provide some feedback on the employee’s actions.

Valuable lessons learned inevitably come from these conversations. Lessons that can be shared with the rest of the team so that everyone eventually shares a similar philosophy.



Empowering employees isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of effort and commitment from the customer service leader.

In most cases, the payoffs make it worthwhile:

  • Your employees will be more engaged (nobody likes to feel controlled)
  • Your customers will be happier
  • You’ll eventually spend less time putting out fires