Four Ways Companies Make Customer Service Too Difficult

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Sisyphus was a king in Greek mythology who cheated death. Twice.

This angered Zeus, who punished Sisyphus by assigning him a never-ending task. Sisyphus had to struggle to push a boulder to the top of a hill, only to have the boulder roll back to the bottom of the hill once he reached the top.

Then Sisyphus had to go back down the hill and start the task all over again. It was a hopeless task with no chance of success, yet it was Sisyphus's job to keep doing it for eternity.

A similar scene plays out in customer service every day.

The customer service representative is Sisyphus, and the customer's problem is the boulder. The rep struggles to get the boulder to the top of the hill—a successful and happy resolution. The boulder rolling back down the hill is a service failure.

And who is Zeus?

It's the executive who assigned the impossible task. They've unwittingly prevented the rep from consistently getting the boulder over the hill. This frustrates the rep and angers the executive, who wrongfully assumes the rep just needs more motivation to push the rock a little harder.

Here are four ways this happens. 

An employee struggling to push a boulder up a hill.

1. Poor Products and Services

In 2016, Samsung released the new Galaxy Note 7 smartphone. Unfortunately, the phone had a defect that caused it to spontaneously catch fire.

It was a public relations disaster for Samsung and a very real safety concern for affected consumers. Imagine being a customer service rep for Samsung or one of the wireless carriers that sold the faulty device?

This is a highly-publicized example, but companies release faulty products and services every single day. Here are a few examples:

  • A hotel's airport shuttle was chronically late.

  • A new software release contained multiple bugs.

  • Cheaper ingredients cut costs, but hurt food quality at a popular restaurant.

Customer service reps take the brunt of customer anger in these situations. It's frustrating for the rep because they didn't create the poor product or service, and they're often powerless to fix it.

The solution is collect, analyze, and act on the early warning signs of a defective product or service. You can easily involve your reps to do this without a survey.

2. Overpromising by Marketing and Sales

In 2017, McDonald's scrambled to create a new marketing campaign in response to a viral phenomenon. People were suddenly clamoring for the company to bring back a limited-production Szechuan sauce that had been a promotion for the 1998 Disney movie, Mulan.

The company announced an extremely limited release, but it was poorly planned. Some stores received just 20 packets of the sauce. Other stores received no sauce at all, despite the ad campaign promising the sauce would be there.

The result was hoards of angry customers at McDonald's locations all over the country who took out their anger on frontline employees who had nothing to do with the ill-conceived promotion.

Marketing and sales departments often make promises they can't keep in an effort to land the next sale:

  • A salesperson promises an impossible delivery time to close a deal.

  • A new promotion isn't programmed in a retailer’s point of sale system.

  • Marketing creates a new ad campaign without telling customer service.

Customer service reps pay the price when marketing and sales departments get desperate to land new business. Customers expect to get what they were promised by marketing or sales, and direct their anger at frontline reps when they don't get it.

There are two solutions here. 

The first is to require marketing and sales professionals to spend time serving customers. It's a wonderful empathy exercise that often helps them do their jobs better.

The second solution is to require collaboration between marketing, sales, operations, and customer service. A new promotion won't do any good if the company isn't prepared to deliver.

3. Terrible Policies

Cancelling your Comcast service wasn't easy in 2014. 

You could adjust nearly every aspect of your service online, but cancelling required a phone call. And when you did call, you were routed to a person whose job it was to talk you out of it. They were trained to overcome your objections and incentivized to get you to keep your service.

This policy infuriated customers. It was undoubtedly difficult for employees as well, who wanted to make customers happy but were mandated to keep selling even when a customer repeatedly said no.

This isn't the only example of a terrible policy hamstringing frontline reps:

  • A satellite radio company required reps to upsell on support calls.

  • A contact center required reps to paste long-winded templates into all responses.

  • A retailer only offered store credit on returns, even when a product was defective.

It can feel hopeless when you're expected to keep customers happy, but aren't given permission to do the right thing. Customer-focused companies avoid this problem by ensuring new policies are aligned with a customer service vision.

4. Understaffing

As I write this post, there are a lot people complaining about being on hold with United Airlines. I know this because there's a website called #OnHoldWith that tracks these complaints.

Screenshot of #OnHoldWith website.

One of the biggest reasons for long hold times is understaffing. Companies like United routinely have fewer employees available than they realistically need to keep customers happy. 

  • Contact centers don't have enough agents available to handle customer volume.

  • Retail stores don't have enough sales associates to assist customers.

  • Grocery stores have long checkout lines, and unused registers.

Customers get agitated when they have to wait, and they take out that agitation on already stressed reps who are working hard just to keep up.

The solution is to take a closer look at staffing models. Adding additional employees at key times can often more than offset the additional cost. 

For example:

  • In contact centers, first contact resolution often goes up when customers wait less.

  • In retail stores, having additional associates can often dramatically increase sales.

  • In grocery stores, getting people in an out quickly can improve repeat business.

Take Action

I've trained thousands of customer service employees. Most of them want to be good at what they do, and they sincerely enjoy helping customers.

The challenge is they encounter obstacles every day that hinder their ability to make customers happy. It's frustrating to repeatedly encounter poor products, ill-conceived marketing campaigns, unfriendly policies, and a lack of staffing. After awhile, employees begin to feel hopeless.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. I profiled ten common challenges in my book, Getting Service Right. They want to be great, but they’re stuck playing the role of Sisyphus.

We need to make service easier for our employees!

  1. Listen to their feedback and fix poor products and services.

  2. Involve customer service before launching the next marketing or sales campaign.

  3. Get rid of unfriendly policies that force employees to provide poor service.

  4. Provide adequate staffing so employees can be their best.

Why Gemba is the Best Way to Solve Service Failures

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The CEO called me with an urgent training project.

Our parking management firm was in danger of losing an important contract at a hotel where we managed the valet and self-parking operation. The client was unhappy about poor service quality and gave us thirty days to improve.

The CEO told me to go to the hotel and train the staff and the manager. He wanted me to show them how to deliver service the right way, and then make sure they did it. This was going to be my priority for the next 30 days.

I decided to meet the parking manager and take a gemba walk. It was fortunate that I did, because it quickly became clear that training was not the problem.

A valet parking attendant is opening the car door for a guest.

What is a gemba walk?

A gemba walk involves going to where the work is done and observing it first-hand. It requires you to approach the situation with an open mind and ask questions to gain a better understanding of how people do the work and why they do it the way they do.

The term gemba (or genba) is a Japanese word that means "the actual place." It's a principle closely associated with lean manufacturing, but I've always found it to be a great way to diagnose service failures.

My gemba walk with the hotel parking manager was revealing.

Our client, the hotel's general manager, was unhappy because our valets frequently failed service audits conducted by mystery shoppers. These were auditors who posed as guests and evaluated the hotel on a comprehensive list of service measures. 

Graph showing actual mystery shopper audit score of 78% compared to a goal of 85%.

The mission was to find out why our valets were failing the audits.

I spent about an hour with the manager reviewing the valet operation. Unlike a mystery shopper, a gemba walk involves directly observing the work and talking to the people doing it.

  • We watched the valets serve guests.

  • I asked questions to learn about what they were doing and why.

  • We walked through the entire operation, include back-of-the-house areas.

This was just one shift, and the hotel was a 24/7 operation. I came back several times on nights and weekends to observe other valets in action and did another gemba walk with the supervisor who reported to the manager. 

We quickly discovered the root cause of the service issues.

What is the purpose of a gemba walk?

A gemba walk allows you to see insights that might otherwise be hidden. Leaders can be misled by data and easily jump to the wrong conclusions without seeing the full picture.

Remember the call from my CEO?

He had assumed the problem was training. Using this guide for diagnosing training issues, I knew that employees need training when they lack one of three things necessary to do their job:

  • Knowledge

  • Skill

  • Ability

The gemba walk with the parking manager quickly revealed the valets had the knowledge, skill, and ability to do their jobs. None of this was guesswork. 

  • I observed the valets providing excellent service to guests when the front drive was busy.

  • I observed them getting bored when the hotel's front drive was slow.

  • The valets told me exactly why they got bored and goofed off during slow times.

So it wasn't a training issue.

The problem was they didn't do the job consistently. The valets got bored when work was slow, lost focus, and started goofing off. They were also missing some critical information:

  • Mystery shopper reports weren’t shared with the team.

  • The valets didn’t realize the contract, and their jobs, were at risk.

I didn't have to suggest the solutions. The valets came up with some on their own, and the manager created a simple, but brilliant, plan to tie it all together.

When should you do a gemba walk?

A gemba walk is useful whenever you need to identify the root cause of a problem. There are a number of benefits to going directly to where the work is being done.

  • Test assumptions

  • Verify procedures are being followed (often, they aren't)

  • Talk to the people actually doing the work

Observing the work being done is one of the best quick fixes for solving performance challenges of any kind.

Throughout my career as a trainer, customer service manger, and a consultant, I've often seen gemba walks lead to very different conclusions than the initial diagnosis:

  • A "problem employee" was actually being victimized by a toxic coworker.

  • An incentive program designed to improve service made service worse.

  • A "short-staffed" team improved productivity by 25 percent without adding staff.

Gemba walks can also help you identify customer service icebergs.

An iceberg looks like a small issue on the surface, but a much larger and dangerous problem is hidden below the surface. For example, when the pages fell out of one of my books, I investigated the problem and discovered thousands of defective books had been shipped to retailers.

The author holding up a defective copy of his book, Service Failure.

How to do a customer service gemba walk

There are a few techniques that can make your gemba walk successful. Do a little bit of upfront planning, ask questions to approach the work with an open mind, and show respect to the employees doing the work.

Planning for a Gemba Walk

You don't need to do a lot of planning to prepare for a gemba walk, but a few simple steps will make the process much more useful.

  1. Clearly identify the objective. What are you trying to discover?

  2. Let people know you're coming.

These steps will help you get the cooperation and buy-in from the employees you observe. You'll learn a lot more, and get more forthright cooperation, if you avoid coming across as someone who is merely there to catch people doing it wrong.

I did a few things to prepare for my visit to the hotel.

First, I asked the CEO to let the president of the hotel division know what I would be doing, and that he had requested it. The president was a very hands-off leader, but I also knew he could easily get defensive. After all, the CEO was coming to me because the hotel division president had failed.

Second, I called the hotel parking manager. Fortunately, we already had a good relationship, so I was very candid about my project. I knew the contract was in jeopardy and it was my goal to help him save it.

Finally, I reviewed the mystery shopping audits. I wanted to make sure the mystery shoppers were looking at the same service standards we were training our valets to perform. (They were.)

Ask Questions

Keep and open mind and ask questions to reveal insights that you might otherwise miss. Resist jumping to conclusions. Even if you see an employee doing something wrong, asking why they're doing it can be revealing.

I asked a lot of questions when I observed the hotel valets. I even asked them why they were goofing off when I saw them get bored and start to stand in a circle and talk to each other. It wasn't an accusatory question— I really wanted to know.

The valets were very forthcoming about the reasons for this. The valets found it hard to stay focused and alert when nothing was happening. Most were young and inexperienced, and they enjoyed an easy camaraderie with each other, so goofing off was almost second nature.

They also had some suggestions for improvement.

  • Provide small tasks they could do in between guests.

  • Rotate positions during slow times to reduce boredom.

  • Share the results of the mystery shopper audits.

That last point was key.

The manager hadn't been sharing the audit reports with the valets. They knew the hotel's general manager was unhappy, but they had no idea the contract was at risk. And they didn't realize that losing the contract would mean losing their jobs.

Show Respect

Employees will generally be candid about how they do their job if you ask honest questions with an intention to help. Keep in mind that you're there to help them, not catch them doing something wrong.

With the hotel valets, I was careful not to come off as some corporate guy who was there to catch them doing wrong. I tried to convey to each one that I appreciated the work they were doing and wanted to help.

It was also important to show respect to the manager and the supervisor. Once we discovered the valets needed more information about the mystery shopper audits, I asked the manager what he thought could be done.

His idea was brilliant.

Additional Resources

Here are a few resources to help you plan your first gemba walk.

This short video provides some nice visual examples.


The CEO requested training, but I didn’t do any.

What I did was work with the valets, the valet manager, and the valet supervisor to understand the root cause of the problems. I then facilitated their ideas for improving service and keeping the contract.

The valets had made several suggestions for improvement. The valet manager tied it all together with a simple tactic.

He cleared a bulletin board in the parking office and mounted a piece of string horizontally across the board. Then he put a sign on the string that read "85%" to represent the target score for mystery shopper reports.

The manager began posting each mystery shopper report on the board as it came in. 

  • If it passed, it went above the string.

  • If it scored below 85 percent, he posted it below the string.

The valets immediately got the message. 

Nobody wanted to let the team down and fail an audit. They encouraged each other to stay sharp and implemented their ideas. The manager gave praise and recognition with each passing audit, and offered coaching each time an audit was failed.

The hotel's general manager was very happy with the results by the end of the month.

Graph showing the improvement of mystery shopper audit scores after one month.

My CEO was happy, too. He didn’t really care whether or not we did training. His goal was to save the contract, which is exactly what the gemba walk helped us do.

Cover image of Getting Service Right book.

In my book, Getting Service Right, I detail a number of service failures where the solution wasn't immediately obvious. The book also captures candid responses from employees:

  • Why an employee lied to customers.

  • Why an employee deliberately provided poor service.

  • What an employee really wanted to do when confronted by an angry customer.

Finding the solution to these problems often requires a gemba walk.

The Best Phrases for Taking Ownership of Service Failures

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Customer service often involves solving problems we didn't create.

Our colleagues make mistakes. A defective product, a late shipment, or a billing error can all send fuming customers in our direction. Sometimes, customers themselves cause the issue.

We're expected to take ownership of these situations, represent the company, and help customers feel better. Yet it's tempting to deflect ownership when the pressure is on:

  • "They don’t know what they’re doing in that department."

  • "They've been having problems in production."

  • "You should have read the policy."

The instinct is to deflect blame and distance yourself from the issue. While the words may be true, they aren't very helpful. Customers still look at you and your company as one and the same.

Here are some positive phrases that can change the tone when you have to resolve a problem that's not your fault.

Stamp with the words “own it.”

What to say when a coworker makes a mistake

Our colleagues sometimes make mistakes, and we have to pick up the pieces.

I once tried to use a paper certificate to rent a car. The employee at the rental counter told me to present it as payment when I returned the vehicle. 

Unfortunately, this was a mistake. The employee should have taken the certificate. I learned this when I returned the car and explained I was told to use the certificate then. "Who told you that?!" asked the visibly frustrated employee.

His defensive statement was designed to distance himself from the problem, but it actually made him seem less capable. Here’s a better way to handle a coworker’s error:

  1. Acknowledge the error, using “we” to accept ownership.

  2. Refocus on a solution. 

Here's what he could have said:

"I'm sorry we gave you the wrong information! It will take just a moment to get this resolved so we can get you on your way to the airport."

The time to address a coworker’s mistake is after the customer has been served. This is still an important step, since the employee might continue to make the same mistake if nobody shares any feedback.

What to say when there's a delay

Delays often happen that cause our customers to become anxious or frustrated.

You've probably found yourself getting hungry while waiting for your food in a restaurant. It doesn’t help when the server defensively says, "They're backed up in the kitchen. There's nothing I can do."

Here's a better way to approach a delay:

  1. Apologize for the delay, using “we” to accept ownership.

  2. Provide a brief explanation (this helps the customer feel better).

  3. Refocus on a solution.

A server might say it this way:

"Thanks for your patience—I'm sorry about the wait. We got a lot of orders in at the same time, so it's taking longer than usual. I just checked with the kitchen, and your food will be out in a few more minutes. May I refill your drinks in the meantime?"

Notice the brief explanation comes after the apology. 

The explanation will sound like an excuse if it comes before a sincere apology. However, providing a brief explanation after the apology can make the customer more understanding of the situation. 

What to say when it's the customer's fault

Customers are sometimes the ones who make the mistake. 

A couple went to the theatre, but discovered they had purchased tickets for the next night's show! They had paid for dinner, parking, and a babysitter, but now their fun was in danger due to a careless error.

It would have been tempting to blame the customers in this situation, but that was a lose-lose move. The customers would lose out on a night of fun, and the theatre might lose out on the couple's future business because the couple would be frustrated and embarrassed.

Here’s a better way to handle a customer’s error:

  1. Avoid blaming the customer.

  2. Minimize their embarrassment if possible.

  3. Refocus on a solution.

Here's what the theatre employee said:

"Don’t worry, this happens more than you might think! I do have two seats available a few rows back. You're welcome to take those and enjoy this evening's performance, or come back tomorrow and use your tickets then. Which would you prefer?"

Giving options reduced friction because it involved the customers in finding a solution. The grateful couple accepted the offer to attend that evening, and were happy and relieved that the theatre employee had help them recover from their own error.

Take Action

These phrases are just a few common examples. There will always be tricky situations where taking ownership and saying the right thing is a challenge.

There's a wonderful exercise in the book, The Effortless Experience, by Matt Dixon, Nick Toman, and Rick DeLisi called "say this, not that." I highly recommend you get the book, but here's an overview of the exercise:

  1. List situations where you might be tempted to avoid ownership.

  2. Brainstorm a list of things you should definitely not say.

  3. Discuss more positive alternatives that accept ownership.

I've facilitated this exercise with customer service teams before and it's a lot of fun. People enjoy the chance to say the wrong things out loud in a safe setting, and they appreciate coming up with effective alternatives.

Saying the right thing isn’t easy. I said the wrong thing to the first customer I ever served, but I made sure I learned from the experience.

How to Quickly Improve Customer Service by Slowing Down

The CEO was anxious to start training.

He knew customer service wasn't what it needed to be and was hoping for a quick fix. So he hired me to conduct some training. 

His impatience showed in our very first meeting—he bristled when I insisted on first spending time with his customer service team before putting together the training. In the CEO's mind, there was no time for this.

It was a good thing I did. The training was completely unnecessary. After spending less than an hour with the customer service team, I understood the real issue. 

The team leader and the CEO would have spotted it, too, if they had only slowed down just a moment. The challenge is slowing down is a counterintuitive way to go fast.

Man gesturing to slow down.

Why going fast slows us down

Going too fast can make customer service worse, not better.

Harried customer service leaders don't stop and define the problem they are trying to solve. In other words, what does success look like? How will you measure it?

The CEO I described at the start of this post initially told me that he wanted me to deliver customer service training because his customer service reps were unfriendly. 

There were two red flags here. 

The first is "friendliness" is not something you train. You don't learn to smile in a training class. When employees aren't friendly, it's either because they aren't friendly people to begin with and shouldn't have been hired, or there's something that's crushing the friendliness out of them.

The second red flag is the CEO couldn't describe what success looked like. It was only when I pressed him that he admitted his real concern was sales. His customer service reps answered product questions and converted inquiries into orders. They averaged a 33 percent sales conversion rate, and the CEO saw a big opportunity if they could get that rate up to 35 percent.

It's difficult to improve if you can't define what you want to improve. 

I was lucky that I was able to get the CEO to slow down a bit and define the problem. This isn't always the case. Here are some actual statements I've heard from leaders who were too anxious to move quickly:

  • "I want us to deliver world-class customer service."

  • "My managers need to be more managerial."

  • "I want to be like the Apple Store."

The problem with all of those statements is they are unclear. And in their big hurry to throw a solution at the situation, these leaders will almost certainly choose the wrong path like asking for generic training.

Sending people to unnecessary training wastes a lot of time.

How going slow can speed us up

I like to use a simple quick fix checklist tool whenever I'm asked to diagnose an employee performance challenge. The tool examines four key questions:

  1. What is the gap between existing and desired performance?

  2. Can the desired performance realistically be achieved?

  3. Are employees aware of what behaviors they need to change?

  4. Do any obvious performance barriers exist?

The checklist helped me discover what was holding back sales conversion rates after spending less than an hour with frontline employees.

  • Question 1: The performance gap was two percentage points

  • Question 2: The desired performance was sometimes achieved, just not consistently

  • Question 3: Employees were aware they were sometimes unfriendly and unhelpful

  • Question 4: The employees quickly pointed out an obvious performance barrier

The team had a flat schedule, meaning staffing levels remained the same throughout each day. But that's not how their call volume came in. A lot more calls came in on a Monday morning than they received on a Wednesday afternoon.

The result was long hold times during peak periods. And when the reps knew a lot of people were waiting on hold, they became fearful of angering those customers. So they sped up the calls, which made them come across as abrupt and prevented them from closing more sales.

My client changed the schedule to better meet customer demand. They did have to hire one person, but it was well worth it. After 30 days, the team's sales conversion jumped from 33 percent to 45 percent! 

This is not an unusual situation. Here are more examples of quick fixes I helped customer service leaders discover by spending just 1-4 hours using this tool:

  • A contact center reduced outsourced calls by 50 percent in just one week.

  • Survey responses increased by 600 percent in one month.

  • Mystery shopping scores improved at a hotel from 78 to 94 percent in one month.

Quick Fix Resources

There's a quote that's widely attributed to Abraham Lincoln. Research shows he probably didn't say it, but it's still an inspiring quote:

If I had five minutes to chop down a tree, I'd spend the first three sharpening the axe.

Solving customer service problems should be approached the same way. Spend a little time up front analyzing and understanding the issue, and you'll likely find some very quick fixes.

Here are a few resources to help you:

Could Distraction Be Costing Your Company Dearly?

Advertising disclosure: This blog participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.

The bank's customer service rep was distracted.

He was responding to emails in between phone calls. The problem was he'd get halfway into an email and then the next call would come in. It took a second for him to shift his focus to the caller. 

At the end of the call, he'd hurry back to the email. He'd skim the email as best as he could and then hurriedly type his response in hopes of finishing it before the next call came in.

One particular email was from a customer inquiring about his loan balance. The rep looked it up and saw the balance was $15,000. In his haste, he left off a zero. 

His email informed the customer that the loan balance was just $1,500. 

Boss presenting to a group of distracted employees.

Distracted By Design

Customer service reps everywhere are chronically distracted.

They’re balancing multiple priorities. They often work in noisy office environments. The typical contact center rep must juggle five to seven different software programs on two or more computer monitors just to serve a customer. And they’re barraged by messages on email, chat, and even their personal devices in between.

To top it off, many contact center reps work like the bank employee in the story above. They are asked to respond to email or another written channel in between handling phone calls in an effort to eke out every last drop of productivity.

It's thought to be efficient, but it isn't. Customer service reps working in this setup are often less productive and are prone to costly mistakes. For example, the bank ultimately had to honor the erroneous loan balance and write off the $13,500 error.

Here's a demonstration that can help you experience what's happening to distracted employees. The image below contains a number of circles and squares. Try to count the number of each shape as quickly as possible.

image of circles and squares.

Let's try this again with a twist. 

Count the total number of circles and squares by alternating between counting each shape. In other words, count one circle and then count one square. Then count the next circle, count the next square, and so on.

Ready? Count.

Image of circles and squares.

How did it go?

Most people take longer to count the shapes and are more prone to making errors. Which is exactly what happens when you ask employees to switch back and forth between tasks all day.

The High Cost of Distraction

Distraction can cost a company far more than the few dollars saved by cramming in some extra work in between calls.

Another customer service leader told me about the cost of distraction at his company the same time I heard about the $13,500 bank error. This one was even worse.

A telecom customer had emailed to ask if he had won a promotional contest. He had not won, so the customer service rep started typing an email to politely tell the customer he didn't win.

But the customer service rep was answering emails in between calls. And the rep was distracted. So the rep's actual email read, "You did win."

There was a kerfuffle. The company tried to claim it was an honest mistake. The customer sued, and the company eventually agreed to a six figure settlement.

You might be tempted to maximize productivity by having your agents juggle multiple assignments all day. Before you do, think about the potential costs:

  • Expensive errors caused by distraction.

  • Decreased productivity caused by constantly shifting attention.

  • Decreased service quality caused by a lack of customer focus.

Take Action With This Experiment

In my book, Getting Service Right, I constantly search for counterintuitive solutions to vexing employee performance challenges. In Chapter Seven, the book explores reasons why employees often fail to pay attention.

Here's one example:

I once worked with a medical device manufacturer that had its customer service reps answer emails in between phone calls. The stakes were pretty high—the company's products were used in life-saving medical procedures.

We ran a simple experiment. Instead of having reps handle phones and email, we divided the reps into two teams. One team handled phones, the other handled email.

The number of reps on each team could easily be changed throughout the day. If phone volume was high, more reps could join the phone queue. When phone volume decreased, a few reps could be re-assigned to email.

This extra focus quickly had a big impact. Both phone and email quality increased because reps were able to give the customer in front of them their full attention.

But counterintuitively, productivity increased in both channels!

You can test this yourself by running the same experiment for a week. Involve your agents—let them know what you're testing. You can even run a test group and keep another group working the old way so you can compare the results.

Lessons Learned from Writing My First Customer Service Book

Note: The following is the preface from my new book, Getting Service Right: Overcoming the Hidden Obstacles to Outstanding Customer Service. It's the second edition of a book called Service Failure: The Real Reasons Employees Struggle with Customer Service and What You Can Do About It.

The author, Jeff Toister, holding up his first book,  Service Failure .

The original book was published in 2012 and went out of print in 2016. It was my first as an author, and it provided valuable and unexpected customer service lessons that I've since applied to other books I've written, including The Service Culture Handbook and Customer Service Tip of the Week

One lesson was the title itself. 

I wrote the book to help customer service leaders solve a vexing challenge: helping their employees to consistently deliver outstanding service. I imagined a title like Service Failure would instantly resonate with those leaders, and to a large extent, it did. The book sold reasonably well over the four years it was in print and received many positive reviews.

Yet I overlooked something pretty big—my primary customer. Service Failure taught me that the most important customer for a business book is an influencer who shares the book with others. It might be someone who recommends the book to a colleague or uses it to start a book club at work. Or it could be a leader who buys multiple copies and hands them out to their team so everyone can read it and work on the concepts together. 

I soon heard the same feedback again and again: "It's a great read, but there's no way I'm giving someone a book called Service Failure!"

The title that I thought was so catchy actually hurt sales! The experience reminded me that, in customer service, we can't fall too in love with our own ideas. We have to realize that our customers may view things differently, and we need to understand them as best as we can if we want to serve them successfully.

Which brings me to another lesson. 

The original book was literally a service failure. It had a binding problem that caused the pages to fall out as soon as the reader got to page 12! 

I discovered the issue when I received my author's copies from the publisher about six weeks before the official publication date. I quickly alerted my editor, but by then, defective books had already been shipped to retailers. The publisher reprinted the books it still had on hand but decided not to recall the books that had already been distributed. I distinctly remember my publisher saying, "Do you know how much that would cost?!" when he defended the decision not to be more proactive.

The publisher did agree to replace damaged books at no cost if readers contacted the publisher's customer service team directly, but that required the reader to be aware of the offer. So I shared the news as best as I could via my blog, through social media, and with friends and family. My mother-in-law was one of the first people to contact the publisher in an attempt to get a defective book replaced, and she promptly got the run-around from a misinformed customer service representative.

A reader might try to return the book to Amazon or Barnes & Noble, but there was a good chance the replacement book would also be defective. I once ordered ten copies of Service Failure from Amazon, and five out of ten were damaged. Amazon promptly sent a replacement order, and three of the five replacements were also defective! These types of repeated problems were a sad irony that made the service failure even worse. 

The situation left me feeling powerless and angry. I know many people decided it just wasn't worth their time to fix the problem. Meanwhile, it was my name, not the publisher's, on the front of the book. I'm sure that created a negative impression for some readers, even though I had no control over the book's printing or distribution.

The experience helped me empathize with what frontline customer service employees go through every day. These employees usually aren't the ones who make defective products, fail to deliver services, or intentionally decide to skimp on quality in an effort to save money. Often under-empowered and under-appreciated, these professionals face their customers' anger and try to make amends.

Getting Service Right represents a second chance to get it right. The new title is more positive, the book-binding issue has been resolved, and I've added new research and insights I discovered after completing the first edition. 

It's often said we never get a second chance to make a first impression. While that's true, we can try to recover from a service failure. And we can learn from each experience, so we can make a great first impression with the next customer we serve. So whether you read the original book and had the pages fall out, or you are discovering this book for the first time, I hope this edition is helpful to you.

The new book, Getting Service Right, is available on Amazon and 800-CEO-READ.