Customer Service is Not Life or Death (Until it Is)

I had just crawled into bed, exhausted after a long day. 

My four-month-old puppy tried to get comfortable in her crate next to me. She was still getting used to her new home and was full of pent-up energy. The torrential rain we'd experienced that day didn't help and she had worn me out.

Plop.

A drop of water landed on my shoulder. I looked up and saw a patch of ceiling above me was soaked through. Dragging myself out of bed, I got a ladder from the garage and climbed into the attic. 

There's not a lot space up there. Certainly not enough to walk around. I had to crawl over duct pipes and under beams to get to the right spot. When I got there, I found water dripping from the roof and pooling in the attic right above my bed.

Water leaking into the attic.

It was a frustrating moment. The roof was just four years old and still under warranty. Two year ago, I had noticed a leak in the same place after an unusually powerful rainstorm. The roofer came out and told me he had fixed it. Apparently not.

I sopped up the water and laid towels in the attic to absorb the continuous dripping. Then I crawled back into bed even more exhausted, after making a note to contact the roofer in the morning.

The next day, I sent an email to the roofer with pictures of the leak. The rain had stopped, so it was no longer an emergency. I figured he would have his hands full with similar requests and might take a day or so to get back to me.

He never did.

Service failures like this are almost never just one thing. It wasn’t just the leak that frustrated me:

  1. A new roof was leaking.

  2. The roofer told me he had fixed the roof, but it wasn’t.

  3. I was exhausted and trying to sleep when I noticed the leak again.

  4. I worried about damage to the ceiling (it turns out, there was).

And now the roofer wasn't returning my message.

I tried calling. A recording said the number was disconnected. I went to the website, but the website no longer existed. I did a web search of the company name and saw it had gone out of business.

Damn. There goes my warranty. This leak was about to become an even bigger problem because I would have to find another roofer and pay for the repair out of pocket. Part of the ceiling would need to be replaced as well, after water soaked through it.

Out of curiosity, I searched the roofer's license on the state licensing board website. Perhaps the license was still active and the roofer had moved or sold the business. Or maybe I could just track the guy down and give him a piece of my mind.

The search result was not what I expected: "This license was canceled on the death of the contractor."

I'm not sure what happened. He wasn't an old man. I imagined his family missed him, deprived of his presence earlier than expected. He had employees, too, and I imagine they all lost their jobs.

Suddenly, my leaky roof wasn't as important.

We all face frustrations as customers. Some of us lose patience and rant and rave as though it's a matter of life or death. It almost always isn't. This experience was a reminder.

I've worked with a couple of clients where service really was a life or death matter. The service they provided literally contributed to saving lives. So I've seen the difference between that and a leaky roof, an undercooked steak, or a flight delay. 

The experience made me reflect on a few things:

  • Customer service is not life or death, unless it really is, so act accordingly.

  • It’s important to treat others with empathy—you never know what they are experiencing.

  • Every job is a part of your legacy, so always do good work.

I'm still not happy. And I'm a bit conflicted between my empathy for the roofer's family, friends, and employees, and the knowledge that his legacy in my mind is a service failure. But I'll try to maintain perspective as the next storm rolls in.


How To Empower Customer Service Employees

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Have you ever made a purchase you regret?

I bought a jacket, wore it for two months, and just didn't like it. Fortunately, I bought the jacket at REI, so I was able to take it back for a full refund.

That kind of empowerment makes a lot of managers nervous. 

They worry about losing money. Or they wind up spending too much time watching over employees, which doesn't feel much like empowerment. One customer service leader told me her team works in a highly regulated environment, and she just couldn't let employees do whatever they wanted.

Employee empowerment was a big theme in the companies I researched for The Service Culture Handbook. One thing that stood out was how customer-focused companies approach empowerment much differently than typical organizations.

Here's how they do it, and how you can, too.

Silhouetted team assembling two giant jigsaw puzzle pieces.

How Customer-Focused Organizations Define Empowerment

Customers hate to wait.

In 2014, the cable company Bright House Networks answered just 50 percent of customer calls in 30 seconds. Imagine a customer frustrated because their cable or internet wasn't working, and now they have to sit and stew on hold.

It's traditional to think of empowerment as giving employees extra authority. But you could give these agents gobs of authority to make things right and they would still struggle to appease customers who were irritated by the wait plus whatever prompted them to call in the first place.

While researching customer-focused companies, I found a new definition of empowerment:

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

Authority is just one of three key ingredients an employee needs to be fully empowered:

  • Resources

  • Procedures

  • Authority

In 2014, Bright House customer service reps lacked the resources to answer calls quickly. They were also hamstrung by a time-consuming approval process required to issue account credits, and didn't have the authority to issue many of those credits on their own.

Resources

Like many cable companies, Bright House grew from acquiring smaller companies with different systems. By 2014, the company had two billing systems running six different versions to support its customers.

This meant calls could only be routed to agents trained to handle the particular system. Sometimes, agents supporting one system might have a lengthy call queue while agents supporting another system were idle.

Bright House leaders recognized the issue and invested in a major initiative to consolidate the billing systems into one. This gave the company far more flexibility to route calls to available agents. Just one year later, 90 percent of calls were answered in 30 seconds.


Procedures

REI has a procedure for accepting returns like my jacket.

As an REI member, my purchase history is automatically stored. So it was easy for the associate to find proof of purchase even without a receipt. Refunding my money took a few keystrokes in the computer and a signature from me.

The associate also asked me a few questions. This wasn't an interrogation. Rather, the questions were designed to determine why I was unhappy with my purchase. After sharing some feedback, the associate recommended a different jacket she thought I'd be much happier with. 

I promptly bought it. Plus a few other items since I was in the store.

Leaders may worry about customers abusing returns (and some do), but look at what REI has done with its simple return procedure. It brought me back into the store, where I immediately spent the money I was just refunded plus a little more. I've been back many times since, and I'm giving them positive word-of-mouth by telling you about them now.

Without that return policy and simple procedure, I may not have returned the jacket, but I'd feel the pang of regret every time I wore it. I might not return to the store as a result.

Procedures can seem counterintuitive to empowerment, yet they're essential. Think of them as capturing best practices that can be consistently used across the organization. 

For example, I once worked with a client where it would take one rep 30 minutes to solve a particular problem while another rep figured out how to solve it in just five minutes. These reps had the authority to spend as much time on the phone with a customer as needed, but as a customer, wouldn't you rather get your issues resolved quickly?

The 30 minute rep wasn't fully empowered until someone shared a best practice procedure with him so he could also resolve that problem in five minutes.

Authority

When Bright House Networks implemented its new billing system, it also empowered its support agents to issue account credits up to $1,000 without prior approval.

This was a significant amount of authority, but notice it also had a limit—$1,000. And there were still guidelines to be followed when deciding when to issue a credit and how much. 

The agents also needed the right resources. The new billing system made it possible to issue credits up to $1,000 without getting a manager override. This was something that wasn’t possible in the old systems.

There were also procedures in place to monitor the credits. For instance, any credit over $250 was automatically flagged on a report for a manager to audit. The good news was six months into the new procedure, not a single credit over $250 was deemed to be inappropriate.

Conclusion

By the end of 2015, Bright House Networks led its larger competitors in customer service on the American Customer Satisfaction Index. Empowering its employees had a lot to do with that success. (The company was purchased by Charter Communications in 2016.)

Let's go back to that definition of empowerment for a moment: empowered employees are enabled to provide outstanding customer service.

The starting point to empower your own employees is to look for areas where they are not able to make customers happy, even if they are doing their jobs correctly:

  1. Start by identifying your top customer complaints.

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

  3. Investigate what resources, procedures, or authority is required.

The end goal is to make sure that employees are able to make customers happy. Defective products, broken systems, unfriendly policies, and a lack of knowledge can all get in the way no matter how much authority you provide. Clear those obstacles out of the way and your employees can soar.


How to Help Your Team Cope with Empathy Fatigue

Customer service often involves empathizing with customers.

It can be highly rewarding to connect with someone and help them feel better. Sometimes, you can almost see the weight leaving their shoulders or hear it in their voice over the phone.

But we all have our limits. Empathizing all day, every day can be exhausting. 

A Customer Service Tip of the Week subscriber recently contacted me because she was concerned her team was experiencing empathy fatigue. They were getting worn out and she was looking for resources to help.

Here are a few suggestions if your team is in the same position.

Emotionally exhausted person wearing a paper bag over their head.

What is Empathy Fatigue?

Let's start with a basic definition. It's often referred to as compassion fatigue, which is defined this way by the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

the physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by those who care for sick or traumatized people over an extended period of time

Think about situations where you or someone on your team has to empathize with angry customers all day, every day. You listen to their story and absorb their anger. You apologize, try to help them feel better, and then look for a solution. And repeat. And repeat.

A resource article from Psychology Today lists several symptoms that really stand out:

  • Feeling burdened by the suffering of others

  • Blaming others for their suffering

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Physical and mental fatigue

  • Feelings of hopelessness or powerlessness

  • Poor self-care

  • Beginning to receive a lot of complaints about your work or attitude

Yikes! None of these sound like an ideal recipe for a happy and helpful customer service representative.

Coping with Empathy Fatigue

There is some hope for those who spend their day empathizing.

One of the biggest impacts of empathy fatigue is we dehumanize the person we are serving and stop caring about their problems. A 2015 study from researchers C. Daryl Cameron, Lasana T. Harris, and B. Keith Payne discovered that we are less likely to dehumanize someone if we feel that empathizing with them will be rewarding. 

In other words, it becomes easier to empathize with a customer if we believe helping them will make us feel good.

Customer service leaders can make empathy feel good in a variety of ways:

One leader I recently spoke with encourages employees to share success stories during a daily team huddle. It helps people work through challenging times and stay focused on remembering all the people they help each day.

Other leaders engage their team in iceberg hunting. This involves investigating unusual issues and looking for practical solutions. Employees feel empowered and a sense of pride when they can solve an iceberg.

Some clients I've worked with have become experts at customer storytelling. For example, a medical device manufacturer has large posters covering the walls of its office with pictures of patients whose lives have been saved by the company's products. These stories are often shared in meetings and company updates, to remind employees they are helping to save the lives of real people.

Take Action

It seems like there's always something wearing us out. Empathy fatigue is just one of several types of fatigue that can hurt customer service.

Customer service leaders can take action in a number of ways:

  • Find ways to make empathy feel rewarding (see above).

  • Encourage employees to take breaks and recharge.

  • Create a customer service vision to give the team purpose.

To discover more hidden, counterintuitive, and unusual obstacles that stand in the way of great customer service, check out my new book, Getting Service Right.