Prepare for Unexpected Surprises on Your Customer Journey

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 and affiliated sites.

Unusual situations can make or break customer experience.

I recently discovered three torn couch cushions at The Overlook, a vacation rental property my wife and I own. The cushions all belong to a patio furniture set we had purchased a year ago.

Replacing or repairing the cushions has been a difficult challenge so far.

  • There's no information on the furniture company's website about torn cushions.
  • A customer service rep told me I can't buy individual cushions.
  • The warranty department denied my claim to have the cushions fixed.

So now I have three torn couch cushions and no idea how to fix them. I've also developed some resentment toward a company I've bought a lot of furniture from.

Think about how your employees are equipped to handle unusual situations. Here are a few ways you can test that.

Two surprised and unhappy customers reacting to something they see on a computer.

Test for Rigid Channel Options

Try calling your company.

Chances are, you'll first be connected to a phone menu. Make a list of the options and then pull a random sample of 20 customer calls. Ask yourself how neatly each call fits those options.

The furniture company had just three options when I called:

  1. Place an order
  2. Check on an order
  3. Warranty information

It wasn't clear which option fit my situation. Should I place an order for new cushions? Did the company even sell individual cushions? Or is it possible the cushions could be repaired or replaced under warranty?

Some companies have a built-in menu for chat and web contact forms. You can test these with the same exercise you did for the phone channel. Pull a sample of 20 contacts and see how closely each one fits the menu options.

Many companies avoid menus entirely. Emails sent through a web contact form are routed to the the right person using behind-the-scenes technology. Phone, chat, and social media agents are trained on a wide range of issues and can pull in an expert colleague if needed.


Test for Rigid Procedures

It's often helpful to have clear procedures. 

This makes it easier to train employees, since how to do things is well documented. It can also make things more efficient when everyone is operating the same way.

But there's a danger when procedures are too rigid.

The warranty procedure at the furniture company was a great example. The procedure was I called in and spoke with an intake person. She took down the basics of my claim and emailed a link where I could upload photos of the damage. I asked her for additional ideas and options, but she was unable to provide any information outside of the procedure.

The warranty team was supposed to reply within 3-5 business days, but they never did. When I escalated the issue to the social media team, all I got was a flat no. They denied my claim and plainly stated they weren't going to help.

I'm not upset that the warranty claim was denied. I'm upset that I still have three torn couch cushions and the company isn't helping me fix that issue.

Take a look at your top customer complaints. Chances are, there's a rigid procedure or an inflexible policy behind it. 

  • Are your employees empowered to react to unusual situations?
  • Do employees instinctively focus on a solution or defending the policy?


Take Action

You can learn a lot of examining your top customer complaints.

One client I worked with was the parking department for a university. Their biggest customer complaint was the process used to issue annual parking passes. It required people to come to the parking office on campus and wait in a long line.

The parking department redesigned this process around making it easy for customers. They set up temporary stations around campus so people could pick up their parking pass near the building where they worked. The annual parking pass quickly went from the biggest complaint to the biggest compliment.

In The Service Culture Handbook, one of the companies I profiled was Leaders consistently ask customer service agents for input on how to improve processes. Agents are asked to answer two questions when they submit their ideas:

  1. Why is this better for the customer?
  2. Why is this better for the customer care agent?

Ideas that are better for both the customer and the agent get the strongest consideration. The process also helps agents feel empowered to improve wonky processes for both themselves and the people they serve.

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!

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. 

Two Situations When You Should Not Negotiate With Customers

Serving customers sometimes feels like a negotiation.

A lot of times it starts with the phrase, "Let's see what we can do." A hotel guest might ask for a room upgrade and we see what we can do. A banking customer might complain about an overdraft fee and we see what we can do. Or, a restaurant patron might request a table with a view and, well, you get it.

There are a few times when we should never negotiate with customers. It can backfire, cause ill-will, or even jeopardize safety.

Here are two examples.

Situation #1: You Are Wrong

Some employees try to negotiate when either they or their company are clearly in the wrong. 

I recently stayed at a hotel for four nights while attending a conference. On my day of departure, I noticed a $25 resort fee tacked on to my bill for each night I had stayed. That made my bill $100 higher than expected!

This fee was a total surprise. It wasn't mentioned when I booked my room. It wasn't disclosed in the email confirmation I received. It wasn't even discussed when I checked in.

I quickly found myself in a negotiation when I approached the front desk to get the fee removed. 

The associate started at $0 by explaining the fee was standard practice. He adjusted his offer to $25 (one night waived) when I reminded him the fee wasn't disclosed. The associate wasn't empowered to go any further, so he needed to get his supervisor involved.

The supervisor adjusted the offer to $50. More back and forth. I finally had to pull out my trump card and threatened to report the fee to my credit card company as an unauthorized charge. The supervisor finally relented and waived the entire $100.

All of this negotiation was senseless. It wasted their time and mine. The associate and the supervisor both realized they were wrong, but stubbornly tried to negotiate. This only annoyed everyone involved.

Don't hide behind a nonsensical policy if you or your company are clearly in the wrong. Just smile, apologize, and fix it.


Situation #2: The Customer is Abusive

Some customers cross the line.

They yell, threaten, and curse. They try to intimidate employees into getting what they want. They make up stories and throw out wild accusations.

The owner of a small retail store had to confront this problem. A customer would regularly come in and complain about virtually anything. She spent a lot of money, but she also frequently returned what she bought. Any profit the store made was quickly erased by all of the extra time employees spent trying to placate her.

This customer put employees on edge. She was stressful to serve. Things finally came to a head one day when she started yelling at an employee over yet another perceived slight.

The store owner had to make a tough call. He pulled the customer aside and informed her that she was no longer welcome to shop there. 

The customer alternated between pleading her case and issuing threats, but the owner remained firm. He simply wouldn't tolerate a customer who abused his employees.

The employees were grateful for the store owner's actions. They respected him for not negotiating with the customer once she had crossed the line. Enough was enough.

The owner did the right thing. Negotiating with customers who cross the line can cause two problems. 

First, it usually makes the customers' behavior even worse. They see they are getting away with acting out, so they continue to push the envelope. In some cases, their behavior causes a genuine safety risk for employees.

The second problem is you can lose your employees' respect if you don't stand up for them. Nobody should have to put up with unwarranted abuse.


A Simple Fix

Many customer service professionals aren't empowered to work with a customer to solve a problem. They aren't given the resources or authority to negotiate even when they should.

Empowering employees can be tricky, but you can use this handy guide to confidently give your team more responsibility. 

Why You Should Stop Trying to Motivate Customer Service Employees

Nate Brown's conference session was packed.

People had crowded into the room to learn about gamification, the latest trend in employee motivation. The participants were customer service leaders attending ICMI's 2015 Contact Center Expo. In customer service, motivation is always a hot topic.

Brown was awesome. He led us in games and contests. People got involved. They were energized and loud. 

I felt bad for whatever session was going on in the room next door. I imagined them listening to someone drone on over a lame PowerPoint. Surely, those people heard the ruckus from our session and realized they had chosen poorly. 

Despite all the fun, I knew we'd be back here again next year. 

Perhaps gamification would be replaced by a new motivational fad. The scene would still be the same. People will crowd into the room in hopes of learning, once and for all, how to motivate their customer service employees.

They'd be wasting their time.


Why Motivation Isn't a Problem

Why do we try so hard to motivate customer service employees?

The easy answer is we want them to provide better service. OK, but why wouldn't they do that anyway?

That's really the million dollar question. 

We spend so much time on the how, as in "How do I motivate my employees." There's not nearly enough time spent thinking about the why, as in "What aren't my employees motivated?"

I've talked to thousands of employees over the years. They've consistently told me two things about motivation:

  1. They love making customers happy.
  2. They find it demotivating when they can't.

Compare these two statements with job satisfaction data from Benchmark Portal:

Job satisfaction begins to dip after three months. New hire training in most contact centers lasts 6 to 12 weeks. So, motivation declines right when training ends and the real work begins.

This suggests we don't have a motivation problem at all. Our problem is demotivation.

People start jobs with optimism. They're hopeful that the job will be fun and fulfilling. This is exactly what happens at companies with high-performance service cultures.

Employees in other companies quickly become disillusioned.


What's Demotivating Employees

ICMI discovered a shocking statistic in their report, Agent Apathy: The Root Cause of Poor Customer Service.

74% of contact center leaders acknowledge the fact that they prevent agents from providing the best experience possible.

This research suggests that most contact centers make it really difficult for employees to do what they want to do most - make customers happy.

Motivation would be much higher if we made it easier for customer service employees to serve their customers.

Research from the Temkin Group supports this. Look at the difference between employees who feel they're contributing and those who think they aren't:

People will go the extra mile when they feel like it means something. The fits nicely with research uncovered in Daniel Pink's book on motivation, Drive

I wrote a blog post about how this fits into customer service. Here's a short summary:

  • People are motivated by purpose (serving customers)
  • People desire mastery (the ability to do it)
  • People want autonomy (empowerment)


Making Customer Service Easy

Customer service isn't easy.

My book, Service Failure, explored the myriad of obstacles customer service employees face every day.

A good customer service leader obsesses about helping employees overcome these obstacles. Here are some resources to help you:

Five Reasons Why Managers Don't Empower Employees

The retail associate was stuck between a rock and a hard place.

I had come in and asked to return a paper shredder for either a refund or store credit. The shredder was new, had never been used, and was still in the box.

The obstacle was the store’s rigid “no shredder returns” policy.

It was clearly designed to prevent the store from accepting returns on shredders that had been used and couldn’t be resold. That wasn’t the case here. The associate recognized this. 

Unfortunately, he wasn’t empowered to do anything except say, “No.”

In my book, Getting Service Right, I refer to employees in this situation as double agents. Employees who aren't empowered must often choose between making the boss upset or making the customer upset.

It’s a no-win situation.

So, why aren’t more employees empowered to do the right thing for their customers? This post explores five reasons why.

A customer service employee with hands in handcuffs to signify that he is unable to do anything to help customers.

What are the benefits of employee empowerment?

Employee empowerment is the process of enabling employees to deliver outstanding service to their customers. Empowering employees is a triple-win for customers, employees, and bosses:

  • Customers are happy because problems get solved faster with less friction.

  • Employees are happy because they can solve more problems.

  • Bosses are happy because they aren’t constantly interrupted.

Keep in mind that it’s more than just granting enough authority. Empowerment requires giving employees the right tools, resources, training, and best practices to consistently do a good job.

More on that definition here.

What are the obstacles to employee empowerment?

There are a number of reasons why employees are not fully enabled to take care of their customers. Here are five common obstacles, although this is by no means an exhaustive list.

1. Fear

Managers are afraid that an empowered employee will make costly errors.

Let’s say that employees in the office supply store are empowered to determine whether to allow a shredder to be returned. What if the employee makes a bad decision?

Suddenly, the company is out the cost of the shredder since it can’t be resold. The costs can add up fast if employees make too many bad judgment calls. 

Managers feel safer creating a rigid policy so these bad calls don’t happen.


2. Consistency

Empowerment gets tricky when you have more than one employee.

Different employees might make different decisions in the same situation. A great example is the airlines’ limits for carry-on bags.

Let’s say a gate agent allows Passenger A to board with three small bags, even though the limit is two. Another gate agent requires Passenger B to check one of her three bags. You can imagine how upset Passenger B might feel when she sees Passenger A boarding the plane with three bags.

That creates a fairness problem. Inconsistency can also lead to unreasonable expectations. 

Passenger A might expect to board every flight with three bags based on his initial experience. He might become quite upset if a different gate agent enforces the two-bag limit on another flight.

A manager might feel its easier to be consistent if employees are all expected to follow the same rules to the letter.


3. Perception

Some managers believe that customers are constantly trying to take advantage of the company.

The math rarely proves this to be true, but managers perceive that it's a fact:

  • Customers will invent problems to get something for free.

  • Customers will make up a sad story to get you to bend the rules.

  • Customers will yell and scream until they get their way.

Creating rigid rules seems like a way to protect employees from these conniving customers. Employees can’t be bullied into giving away the store if they aren’t allowed to.


4. Time

Some managers don’t feel they have enough time to empower their employees.

This isn’t without good reason. Empowerment takes a lot of work.

  1. You must create clear guidelines.

  2. Employees must be fully trained.

  3. You must continuously monitor their decision-making and give them feedback.

It can seem like its more efficient to just create a rigid policy and avoid all the effort that empowerment requires.


5. Role

Employees might not realize they’re empowered. 

Employees often see their role as something other than serving customers. The language they use when they describe their jobs can be very telling:

  • A cashier might say, “I ring up purchases.”

  • A hotel front desk agent might say, “I check people into their rooms.”

  • A contact center agent might say, “I respond to customer emails.”

Notice the emphasis on the transaction.

Employees who have a transactional view of their customer service jobs are less likely to empower themselves.

  • The cashier might not respond when the customer tells them there was something they couldn’t find.

  • The front desk agent might be at a loss when a guest arrives complaining that the airline lost his luggage.

  • A contact center agent plowing through emails might miss a chance to go the extra mile to solve a customer’s problem on the first contact.


Take Action!

Here are some resources to help you overcome these obstacles and empower your employees.

One final thought.

You must be willing to let go if you want to empower your employees. An effective manager can’t control everything. You can’t be everywhere all at once or monitor every interaction.

You must be willing to trust your employees.

Why employees don't pass along customer complaints

Are your employees silent about customer complaints?

Are your employees silent about customer complaints?

Continuously improving customer service seems simple in theory. All you have to do is listen to what customers complain about and then solve their problems. The really sophisticated companies employ early warning systems to spot complaints before too many customers are affected.

Unfortunately, the most critical link in this process is often its weakest: frontline employees.

Noted customer service expert John Goodman estimates that 90 percent of complaints are directed to frontline employees. That makes them a great source of information about what makes customers unhappy. The problem is that these complaints often aren’t passed along to someone who could take action.

Here’s a passage from my book, Service Failure, that addresses reasons employees might not pass along complaints:

If employees aren’t at fault, you might expect them to take action to resolve the problem or pass the complaint along to someone who can address the issue. But what if handling the complaint isn’t in an employee’s best interests? 

There are several explanations for why an employee might not want to address a customer complaint or pass it along to management: 

  • The employee fears being reprimanded for causing the complaint.
  • The employee thinks the complaint will not be properly addressed by management, so sharing the information is a waste of time.
  • The employee views handling the problem as an annoyance or inconvenience.
  • The employee believes he was treated poorly by the customer, so intentionally mishandling the complaint is a means to exact revenge.


If you want complaints, you’ve gotta ask

I used to think I possessed some sort of magical charm that would get employees to open up to me. Many of my consulting assignments require me to gather information through employee interviews. Time after time, my client’s executives would be surprised at what I was able to learn through my conversations with their frontline team.

The reality is I don’t have any magical powers. Employees open up to me because I do two things their managers typically don’t.

  1. I ask them for their input.
  2. I offer to work with them to make things better.

Employees, like customers, want to be heard. Most genuinely want to make things better. They just need to be given that chance.

Unfortunately, too many customer service leaders solve problems by brainstorming with each other in closed-door meetings. The unsaid message to the frontlines is “the grown-ups are talking” and the team should hold tight until the next proclamation is made. 

Do you want to get your employees to pass along those complaints? Make a habit of asking them what their customers are saying. Better yet, ask them what they think we should do about it. Involve them in creating and implementing solutions.

Frontline employees are one of the best sources of voice of customer feedback. Can you afford to ignore them?

How a corporate policy crushed service

We often concentrate on the individuals serving us when we think about service quality. But what happens when dumb corporate policies hinder employees’ ability to serve?

This is one of those stories. 

My wife, Sally, recently bought a Tumi briefcase. They’re more expensive than typical bags, but they have a reputation for outstanding quality.

Unfortunately, this bag didn’t live up to that reputation as a zipper pull tore off after just a few weeks.

Sally brought her bag back to the Tumi store so it could be repaired under warranty. She was told it could take up to four weeks because they had to ship the bag back to their repair center in New York.

Losing her briefcase for a month wasn’t an option, so Sally spoke to the store manager in hopes of finding a more acceptable alternative.

Could they give her a loaner bag? No.
Could they give her a new bag? No.
Could Sally get the bag repaired locally and send Tumi the bill? No.

These policies were clearly created by a spreadsheet jockey. They appeared to be the model of efficiency from an aggregate, corporate point of view while completely missing how nonsensical they were in this type of situation.

The store manager was very friendly and I think she really wanted to help. But she was also determined to adhere to the corporate repair policy.

Sticking to these policies cost Tumi a few things:

  • Sally won’t buy a Tumi product again.
  • I was in the market for a new suitcase but ruled out Tumi too.
  • Negative word of mouth.

She eventually left the store without getting her bag fixed. The broken zipper pull was an annoying reminder of Tumi’s poor service every time she traveled.

Sally took her bag to Index Urban in San Diego last Saturday to get repaired. She knew she’d have to pay for the service, but it was worth it to get her bag back in just a couple of days.  I went with her because I still needed a new suitcase.

John, the owner, greeted us when we came in. He wrote up a repair bill for Sally’s bag and then helped me pick out a new suitcase. I went with a Briggs & Riley. They’re expensive like Tumi’s, but unlike Tumi they come with a real lifetime guarantee. And, I know I can take it back to Index Urban if anything does happen because they do repairs onsite.

We were happy customers at this point, but John sweetened the deal by throwing in monogrammed luggage tags for both of us.

The repair technician was off until Monday and John promised to give Sally a call once the technician had a chance to look at the bag. He surprised her with a call early Monday afternoon letting her know the bag had already been repaired. Even better was John waived the repair fee because he felt bad about our experience with Tumi!

Unlike the Tumi store manager, John wasn’t constrained by inflexible corporate policies because he was also the owner. Here’s how that paid off:

  • I bought a suitcase.
  • All of our future luggage purchases will come from Index Urban.
  • Positive word of mouth.

We can’t all be the owner, but I wonder how much better service would be if more employees were empowered to act like John? I do know that Tumi would still have two customers.