Report: Job Seekers Think Culture is More Important That Money

A few of my friends are looking for jobs.

Some are unhappy in their current role, while others are out of work for one reason or another. They've all told me the same thing about their search: there are jobs out there they could do, but they're holding out for something that's a great fit.

Many job seekers today have that luxury. As of July 2019, the US unemployment rate sits at just 3.7 percent. That means businesses have to really compete for talent.

What makes your company attractive to talented employees?

  • It's probably not desperation.

  • It's usually not money.

  • It might not be your product or service (unless it’s incredibly popular).

A new report from Glassdoor reveals that culture is the most important thing that job candidates are looking for. Here are some highlights along with some suggestions for landing top talent.

A group of colleagues sitting at a conference table with the word “culture” written on it.

About Glassdoor's Mission & Culture Survey 2019

The Glassdoor report was conducted by The Harris Poll. 

A total of 5,113 adults were surveyed, including 2,025 in the US, to learn how a company's culture contributes to employee recruitment and retention. The remaining participants were from the UK, France, and Germany. The highlights below focus on the results for US job applicants and employees.

You can read the full report here.

What do job applicants look for?

Culture is extremely important to job applicants. Employees are looking for an organization where they believe in the mission and feel pride in their employer. It's also vital for people to feel like they fit in with the organization.

Here are some of the top findings from the report:

  • 58 percent said culture is more important than salary.

  • 77 percent would consider a company's culture before applying.

  • 89 percent think it's important for a company to have a clear mission and purpose.

This is one of the reasons companies should have a customer service vision. This is a shared definition of outstanding service that gets everyone on the same page. Companies with a strong vision are able to unite employees behind this compelling purpose.

Culture is what keeps people, too.

Many of my friends are looking for jobs because the culture isn't right at their current company. In the report, 74 percent said they would start looking for another job if their company's culture deteriorated.

I did a separate study on contact center agent burnout and discovered that 74 percent of contact center agents were at risk of burnout. A lack of a customer-focused culture was the number one risk factor.

How can you become an employer of choice?

Offering a competitive salary, good benefits, and a healthy work environment are table stakes. You’ll have a difficult time attracting any decent employees if you don’t do those things. The real differentiator for top talent is a customer-focused culture.

Start by creating a clear purpose—89 percent say it's important.

The next step is hiring for culture fit. 

A word of caution here. There are a few common mistakes that frequently cause customer service leaders to accidentally hire toxic employees:

  • The culture is not clearly defined.

  • Relying too much on resumes and interview questions.

  • Trying to hire "rock star" employees.

You can avoid these traps using this guide to hiring for culture fit.

Once you've revamped your hiring process, it's time to advertise your culture to prospective job applicants. Many organizations create a culture page to do this. The page often contains:

  • A description of the culture (mission, vision, values, etc.)

  • Information about what it's like to work there.

  • Video testimonials from employees.

Here's how Southwest Airlines provides an overview of the culture:

Screenshot of the culture page on the Southwest Airlines career site.

REI emphasizes the employee experience in this example:

Screen shot of the culture page on the REI careers site.

The Container Store uses this video to share employee testimonials.

Finally, make sure you back up that great culture with an effective onboarding experience. You can use this guide to help you.


What exactly is employee engagement?

Employee engagement has been a hot business topic for many years. There is a pile of research that tells us:

  • Engaged employees are more productive.

  • There are too many disengaged employees.

  • Employee disengagement costs companies billions of dollars per year.

There's just one glaring problem: nobody agrees on what employee engagement actually means. 

This is a critical challenge. It's hard to improve something you can't define. Companies launch annual surveys without clarity about what’s being measured. Executive buy-in is often lukewarm, because the idea of engagement sounds good, but nobody’s really sure how it directly impacts the bottom line.

This post provides you with a clear definition along with some examples.

Notebook with the words “employee engagement” written on the front.

The Definition of Employee Engagement

Here's what it means to be engaged at work:

An engaged employee is deliberately contributing to organizational success.

Unpack that a bit and you'll see there are three things that need to happen if you want to engage your employees.

  1. Organizational success needs to be clearly defined.

  2. The employee needs to understand that definition.

  3. The employee needs to know how they can contribute.

Engaging employees requires organizations to have a single, clear definition of success, such as a customer service vision. Without this definition, it’s impossible for employees to be engaged no matter how enthusiastic or committed they might be.

There are a few factors that often correlate with engaged employees, but are not part of the definition:

  • Job satisfaction: How much do employees like their jobs?

  • Employee experience: What is it like to be an employee?

  • Emotional connection: Do employees feel proud of the organization?

It’s possible for an employee to feel very satisfied with their job, have a good employee experience, and feel proud of their company without being engaged. Here’s how:

  • There’s no clear definition of organizational success for the employee to work towards.

  • The employee isn’t aware of how the organization defines success.

  • The employee is aware of an over-arching goal, but isn’t sure how they contribute.

My very first job was like this. I worked for a retail clothing store in high school. I really liked my job, generally had a positive experience, and was proud to tell my friends where I worked. However, I had no idea how my store was doing, what the company strategy was, or how the company defined great customer service. So despite my enthusiasm for the job, it was impossible for me to ever be engaged.

It’s also possible for an employee to be unhappy in their job, yet be fully engaged. While this is usually unsustainable, there are times when all of us are tired and a little unhappy, but we work hard to overcome a big challenge because we’re still committed to making a positive contribution.


What are examples of employee engagement?

Companies with a highly engaged workforce make an effort to ensure every employee understands the big picture and how they contribute. People come to work each day with a purpose and feel they are empowered to make a difference.

One of my favorite examples of a company with engaged employees is the sporting goods retailer, REI. The company defines success through its mission statement: We inspire, educate and outfit for a lifetime of outdoor adventure and stewardship.

Here's how that looked on a recent visit my wife and I made to our local REI store. 

We wanted to buy a large tent so we could take our dog camping. The associates who helped us were clearly in-tune with REI's mission:

  • They were passionate about the outdoors (inspire)

  • They gave us great tips on camping with our dog (educate)

  • and they helped us select the right gear (outfit)

The best part was the associates weren't reading from a product manual or just following a script they learned in training. They were avid campers who relied on their own experience to enthusiastically try to help us enjoy our upcoming camping trip.

Another favorite example comes from In-N-Out Burger. The chain has attained a cult-like following for its tasty food, simplified menu, and incredible consistency.

In-N-Out defines success for its employees through three simple words: quality, service, and cleanliness. You'll see all three in action any time you visit one of the restaurants.

  • Quality is evident in fresh ingredients and careful preparation.

  • Service is consistently delivered with a smile and upbeat attitude.

  • Cleanliness is constantly a priority, even when its busy.

(Fun fact: McDonald's once used those same three words to define success. Here's the rest of that story.)

Finally, here’s one more example from the USS Midway Museum in San Diego. In a city that's built for tourism, the Midway is the top-rated tourist attraction in town!

The Midway is a retired U.S. Navy aircraft carrier. The museum uses its mission to define success for employees and volunteers: Preserve the historic USS Midway and the legacy of those who serve; Inspire and Educate future generations; and Entertain our museum guests.

People work and volunteer at the Midway because they care deeply about the ship, its history, and the armed forces in general. They are passionate about sharing the Midway's history and helping people understand what it was like to serve onboard. 

Whether it's a local with a membership, a visitor from out of town, or a group of school kids on a field trip, Midway employees consistently go out of their way to ensure visitors have a fun and educational experience. (You can read more about the Midway’s service culture here.)

Employee engagement resources

The starting point for any employee engagement initiative is to agree on what “employee engagement” means. I hope you'll use mine, but it's okay if you have another definition. What matters is that everyone in your organization agrees on what employee engagement means.

Once you clear that hurdle, here are some additional resources to help you:

You can also learn more from The Service Culture Handbook, which is a step-by-step guide to getting your employees obsessed with customer service.


How Customer Service is Being Ruined by Toxic Coworkers

My favorite local coffee shop took a turn for the worse a few years ago.

A new barista was hired who was rude and abrupt with customers. She made frequent mistakes that caused extra work for her coworkers and created unnecessary service failures. The barista was persistently negative and refused to take responsibility for the problems she caused.

One day, the barista arrived to work and parked her car so far over the line that I couldn't open my car door. I went back into the coffee shop to ask her to move it. She begrudgingly did, but never apologized.

“I was running late,” was all she said.

A new study reveals this is a common issue. A widespread number of toxic employees are working in customer service jobs—far more than in other professions. And it's creating a big problem for both customers and coworkers.

A coffee shop employee parked so far over the line that she blocked my car door.

What the study on toxic employees revealed

The survey was conducted by my company, Toister Performance Solutions, in July, 2019. 

More than 1,500 adults in the United States were asked if they work with at least one toxic coworker in their current job. The results are startling:

Graph illustrating that 22% of employees work with a toxic coworker. The number jumps to 83% for customer service employees.

Customer service employees are nearly four times as likely to have a toxic coworker.

Toxic employees negatively affect the organization. They consistently engage in inappropriate behavior that makes them difficult to work with. This includes:

  • Poor customer service

  • Harassment

  • Theft and fraud

A separate study conducted in 2015 by Michael Housman and Dylan Minor found that 1 in 20 customer service employees were fired for toxic behavior within their first year of employment.

Toxic employees can also harm team dynamics. According to Melanie Proshchenko, Founder and Principal Consultant at Honeycomb Team Solutions, "One toxic team member can infect the entire team by turning otherwise positive, unsuspecting teammates negative."

The barista was a good example. 

Her attitude put her coworkers on edge. They stopped being their usual, friendly selves whenever she was working. When she left her job after just a few months, the remaining employees quickly returned to their previous, customer-friendly habits. 

Why customer service employees are more likely to be toxic

There are a number of explanations for the high number of toxic customer service employees, including poor hiring, poor leadership, and a dangerous combination of risk factors.

Poor Hiring

Imagine you had a hiring process that accidentally made you more likely to hire a toxic employee. Unfortunately, that's exactly what's happening at many companies.

For example, many customer service job postings advertise a quest for "rockstar" employees. The Housman and Minor study found that self-regarding people who consider themselves to be rockstars are 22 percent more likely to be fired for toxic behavior.

Side note: I’ve put together a list of resources to help you improve your hiring process.

Poor Leadership

Catherine Mattice Zundel, CEO and Founder of Civility Partners, shares that many leaders are ill-equipped to handle a toxic employee.

"In my experience, there are so many toxic employees because managers don’t know how to address the behavior. Coaching bad behavior into good isn’t a skill people automatically possess–it requires training, practice, and empowerment from the organization. If the organization doesn’t provide the tools and encouragement for managers to coach toxic behavior, then managers will attempt to work around it instead."

One leader is so afraid of confronting a toxic manager who reports to her that she's resolved to wait until the manager retires—more than two years from now! Meanwhile, that manager's team has the highest turnover and the worst customer service in the organization.

Mattice Zundel also points out that some people may engage in toxic behavior, like workplace bullying, without even realizing it. These employees won't change if their boss doesn't address it.

Dangerous Risk Factors

A 2016 study by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) examined the risk factors that contribute to workplace harassment.

Customer service work itself was one of the risk factors identified. Customer service employees in some industries, particularly hospitality, are routinely subjected to harassment by customers. Some employees begin to accept inappropriate behavior as normal and can see it as tacit approval to act inappropriately themselves.

The EEOC study identified several other risk factors that are common in customer service work environments:

  • Young workforces

  • Monotonous work

  • Decentralized workplaces

The next time you read a headline about a fast food or retail employee doing something terrible, like this, this, or this, there’s a good chance the employee was young, bored, and working far away from corporate oversight.

How to prevent employees from becoming toxic

Organizations can address this issue by focusing on teamwork over individual achievement, setting positive examples, and preventing toxic behavior from spreading.

Focus on Teamwork

Grace Judson is a leadership geek, trainer, coach, and consultant. She wrote a useful guide called The Five Most Challenging Employee Types—and how to manage them. (Download your free copy here.)

Judson suggests emphasizing teamwork. 

"Toxicity can develop in an environment where individual achievement is valued over team accomplishment. It’s important to acknowledge outstanding contribution at the individual level–and it’s equally important to avoid creating competition between individuals by setting team goals and offering whole-team rewards."

My own research on customer-focused teams backs this up. I've discovered that team-oriented metrics are one of three criteria for effective goals.

Set a Positive Example

Melanie Proshchenko emphasizes the need for leaders to set a positive example.

"Get clear about what you expect and let the team dig deep into what that looks like in practice. Tired of backstabbing? Lots of complaining in the halls? Folks whining about petty problems? Define the opposite, positive, specific versions of the behaviors that are bringing the team down and showcase them to the team."

Leaders are often guilty of setting a poor example, and then wrongly expecting their team to do the opposite. For example, frontline employees frequently say the wrong thing to customers because their leader accidentally trained them that way.

One way to set a positive example is to establish a customer service vision. This is a shared definition of outstanding service that gets everyone on the same page, including the leader.

Prevent Toxic Behavior from Spreading

Companies are often too slow to fire people who routinely engage in toxic behavior.

Toxic employees can easily infect others. Research from Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist responsible for the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, reveals that when people around you are engaging in inappropriate behavior, it makes it more likely that you will do the same.

According to the Housman and Minor study, adding just one more toxic employee to a team of 25 made everyone on the team 46 percent more likely to get fired for toxic behavior.

Leaders must take action as soon as they spot inappropriate behavior. Allowing it to go unchallenged almost always results in worse behavior and negative consequences.

What's been your experience with toxic customer service employees? Please leave a comment or drop me a line.


Why Customers Should Not Help Write Your Vision

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.

A question I'm often asked is what role customers should play in helping a company write its customer service vision.

A customer service vision is a shared definition of outstanding service that gets everyone on the same page. Creating one is the most important step you can take toward building a customer-focused culture.

My answer surprises people. I don't think customers should be involved at all when you write your customer service vision.

Group of professionals gathered to write a customer service vision statement.

What is the danger of asking customers what they want?

There's an old episode of The Simpsons where Homer discovers he has a half-brother named Herb Powell. 

Herb is the CEO of a car company called Powell Motors, and he's frustrated by his design team's uninspiring new car concepts. So he enlists Homer to help design his company's next car, believing that Homer personifies the wants and needs of the average American consumer.

The result is a disaster. The car, dubbed The Homer, is so overloaded with unnecessary features that it can't be sold at a profit. 

There's a real-life lesson here. Customers have diverse tastes and interests. And a customer merely wanting something doesn't automatically mean a company can make money providing it.

I’m a huge fan of the online pet store, Chewy. It offers convenient online ordering, a huge selection of products, incredible prices, and has a fun and helpful service culture. Chewy’s sales have grown rapidly over the past several years, but the retailer has yet to turn a profit.

At The Overlook, a vacation rental cabin my wife and I own, we've gotten all sorts of requests. A few have asked for air conditioning, which would be cost-prohibitive to install given the short warm period of the year is also a slow time. Others suggested we list The Overlook on Airbnb, but the listing fees would add expense without bringing in much additional revenue. (Airbnb would also make The Overlook more expensive for our guests.)

Sometimes different groups of customers have conflicting needs. For example, all the rooms at The Overlook have either a king or a queen bed. This is perfect for our target market, but others would prefer bunk beds, sleeper sofas, and air mattresses to accommodate as many people as possible in one house.

When I researched customer-focused organizations while writing The Service Culture Handbook, I consistently found these companies resisted the urge to be all things to all people. That’s why you won’t find a chicken salad on the menu at In-N-Out Burger, but you will find a line of loyal customers waiting to get their hands on a delicious cheeseburger at 10pm on a Wednesday evening.

Who should help write your vision?

The vision should be rooted in reality. It should describe how you’d like to serve customers in the future based on how you serve customers today when everything is going well. For this reason, all employees should be given a chance to provide input on your customer service vision.

This step-by-step guide describes how to do that.

When it comes to drafting the vision statement, there should only be 7-10 people in the room, plus an outside facilitator if you decide to use one. More than that, and the group becomes unwieldy. Fewer than that, and not enough perspectives are included.

The group should be comprised of a representative sample of employees:

  • At least one frontline employee. They keep it real.

  • At least one senior leader. They provide authority.

  • At least one mid-level manager or supervisor. They're the link between execs and the front lines.

Many organizations try to have the executive team create the customer service vision at a retreat. My research reveals that's a big mistake.

Should you ever ask customers about your vision?

Absolutely!

The time to ask customers for their input is after you write the vision and start using it to guide your operations. This is when customer feedback can be invaluable. Keep in mind you're not asking customers what they want, you're asking them how well you are executing your vision.

At The Overlook, our vision is welcome to your mountain retreat. We constantly use guest feedback from surveys, comments, and even our own observations, to refine our approach. For example, we added extra guest towels after learning that many guests like to shower after returning from a sweaty hike, but don’t want to use the same towel later that evening when they use the hot tub.

How can I write a vision statement?

Here are some resources that can help you write an effective customer service vision:


Culture Report Reveals Executives Disconnected From Reality

There's a scene in the movie, Office Space, that gets me every time. 

Bill Lumbergh, the clueless executive, announces a new culture initiative in an all-hands meeting. "So you should ask yourself, with every decision you make, is this good for the company?" A banner hangs overhead that reads "Is this good for the company?"

It was the beginning, middle, and end of the initiative. 

A new report from the consulting firm PwC shows this type of executive disconnect from corporate culture initiatives is real. A 2018 survey of 2,000 people in 50 countries found large gaps between what executives and employees felt about corporate culture.

You can read some stunning conclusions below or read the entire report here.

The words “company culture” written on a clipboard.

Consistency

Companies often create a mission, vision, or value statements to help define the culture. Yet the true culture is how people think and act. 

The report revealed a disconnect in how consistently the cultural statements were followed:

Screen Shot 2019-04-02 at 8.12.28 AM.png

At just 63 percent, even leaders sense there's a huge gap between the culture message and what people are actually doing. The perception is far worse among employees.

There are two causes that I frequently see.

The first is executives try to define the culture all by themselves. They sequester themselves in a conference room or hold a retreat, and dream up what they think the culture should be. 

I've called leaving your employees out of the process the worst mistake in building a service culture. That's because you need everyone represented to come up with an authentic description of how people should think and act.

The second leading cause of the consistency gap is too many culture initiatives are like the banner in Office Space. They're symbolic, with no real commitment behind them. 

So how should you define your culture? I recommend this proven process.

Priority

Employees don't always believe culture is a priority for senior leaders. This graphic is telling:

“culture is an important senior leadership agenda item.”

The root cause is often tied to how culture initiatives play out. The executive team dreams it up behind closed doors, an announcement is made, and employees see little else. 

There may be a culture committee or task force doing some work, but frontline employees don't see that and usually aren't involved. They just see their daily work continue as usual.

The customer-focused companies I researched for The Service Culture Handbook took a very different approach. Leaders in these organizations involved employees every step of the way. For example, a customer service leader at Cars.com shared customer feedback with her team on a daily basis, and solicited employees' ideas on how to fix issues.

Pride

Customer-obsessed employees take a lot of pride in the companies they work for. They love their products and services, believe in the mission, and are often customers themselves.

The PwC report revealed a big gap in company pride between executives and employees:

“I’m proud to be part of my organization.”

I interviewed psychologist Gemma Leigh Roberts for my latest book, Getting Service Right, to get a better understanding of the executive disconnect. She shared some interesting insight:

"Challenging your perception of business performance (which you are responsible for leading) can lead you to challenging your own performance, which can be painful for your ego and damaging for your confidence. In this scenario, sometimes executives choose not to acknowledge facts or consider them irrelevant, which is a self-protection strategy."

In other words, executives are human just like the rest of us. Our egos try to protect us from our personal failings, such as creating a miserable work culture.

Take Action

The PwC report revealed that 80 percent of respondents felt their organizational culture must change in the next five years.

If that's you, what are you going to do about it?

My suggestion is to start by defining the culture you want to have with a simple statement called a customer service vision. This is a shared definition of outstanding customer service that gets everyone on the same page.

You can use this step-by-step guide to help you create it. I've assembled some additional culture change resources here.


Why Enthusiasm is Worthless and Commitment is Everything

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.

Okay, excuse the clickbait title.

I imagine some readers are indignant. Enthusiastically indignant, if you will. "What do you mean enthusiasm is worthless?!"

By itself, without commitment, enthusiasm often is.

Here's a story. A training professional, let's call her Susan, attended a conference where Keith Ferazzi was the keynote speaker. His message was that our success in life comes from the people we know, so we should work to build our networks.

Susan was so motivated by Ferazzi's message that she bought his book, Never Eat Alone. She eagerly started reading it while eating in the airport restaurant on her way home from the conference. Alone.

A woman sits in a restaurant, eating alone while reading a book called “Never Eat Alone.”

The Distinction Between Enthusiasm and Commitment

Susan was clearly enthusiastic about the message, but she wasn't committed.

What you can't see in the picture is there were several other people in the restaurant who had clearly just come from the same conference. They each had the same conference tote bag at their feet that Susan had.

You can probably imagine what commitment looks like in this situation. Susan would boldly find at least one other dining companion and strike up a conversation about the conference, Ferazzi's message, or the book itself. 

Enthusiasm is the feeling you project. Commitment is what you actually do. We applaud enthusiasm with more enthusiasm, but commitment is harder.

Why Culture Needs Commitment

I wrote The Service Culture Handbook to help customer service leaders get their employees obsessed with service. An entire chapter is devoted to commitment.

One of the unique features in the book is I included my phone number and email address. I invite readers to call, text, or email with their questions and I've had many terrific conversations.

Commitment is by far the biggest challenge I hear.

One service leader, we'll call him Eric, called me to ask for help. There had been some complaints about his company’s service quality and now Eric's boss, the company's CEO, demanded swift action. Eric wanted to know how soon I could fly out and train his team.

We talked a bit, and I asked him if his company had a customer service vision. This is a shared definition of outstanding service that gets everyone on the same page. I explained that Eric should have one in place before doing any training.

Eric had been responding to complaints by telling employees what not to do, but in my opinion they needed a vision to follow so they all understood what they should be doing instead. That way, any training would be based on the vision rather than a generic set of tips and tricks that wouldn’t fully address the root causes of poor service.

I even offered to help Eric create the vision for his company and then develop training around it.

Eric told me he'd think about everything, re-read my book a bit, and share our conversation with his CEO. A week later, he called again. “Can you come out and train my employees?”

I asked Eric about the vision, but he was impatient. He wanted to put the vision on the back burner and have me do some initial training. What Eric was really doing was trying to pass responsibility on to me for “fixing his people.” I gently reminded him about the importance of giving employees clear direction, and basing the training on that vision.

He seemed to understand and told me he would think about it some more.

Two months passed and I hadn't heard anything, so I sent Eric a follow-up email. He replied and wrote that nothing had been done anything yet, but he would soon start working on a customer service vision for the company.

Think about Eric as a leader. Two months ago, poor service quality was an emergency, but that was enthusiasm talking. When it came time to do the real heavy lifting, a lack of commitment stalled any progress.

What a Commitment to Service Culture Looks Like

Contrast Eric's story with this one from Tim Chan.

He emailed to tell me he worked for a grocery delivery company in Malaysia, called HappyFresh. Tim told me he was following the steps in The Service Culture Handbook and had just worked with his team to create a customer service vision.

Now Tim wanted some advice on helping employees stay focused so they could continuously improve service. In other words, Tim was eager to remain committed. (You can read more about Tim's story here.)

The process Tim followed can be broken down into three major steps.

  1. Create a customer service vision. Here's my step-by-step guide.

  2. Engage all employees with the vision, using this simple plan.

  3. Align everything around the vision, including training.

The steps are actually very simple concepts. The real challenge is remaining committed to the culture journey over the long haul. Creating a service culture isn't a short-term project. It's a way of doing business.


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.