Could Distraction Be Costing Your Company Dearly?

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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.

A Customer is Yelling. What Would You Do?

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Here's what I know about the man who was yelling inside of the post office.

He was a real estate agent. His client mailed him a set of keys, and the envelope ripped in transit, causing the keys to be lost. The real estate agent was demanding that the postal service pay to have the house rekeyed.

I know this because he yelled it at the supervisor who was assisting him. 

The guy was unquestionably a jerk. He yelled. He was physically imposing, especially compared to the tiny supervisor he was yelling at. And he wasn't even yelling at the right person. His client, who inexplicably mailed house keys via regular mail in a plain paper envelope, is the one he should be frustrated with.

The supervisor did almost everything wrong. And despite years of experience, training, and writing about how to handle these situations, I can't promise I'd do any better.

Can you honestly say you would?

Angry customer yelling.

What the Supervisor Did Wrong

The customer walked up to the post office counter and asked for a supervisor. He calmly stood to the side until she arrived, and then angrily demanded she fix the situation.

Unfortunately, the supervisor made several mistakes in quick succession.

Failure to recognize the fight or flight instinct. When we encounter an angry person, we instinctively want to argue with them (fight) or get away from them (flight). The supervisor clearly displayed a number of these symptoms. She immediately reacted to his anger. Her body language became adversarial, facing the customer directly with a serious look on her face. Her tone of voice was cold and direct.

Failure to listen. Upset customers often need to vent to release their anger. In his book, Be Your Customer's Hero, Adam Toporek refers to this as letting customers "punch themselves out," like a boxer who grows tired in the later rounds of a bout. The supervisor spent little time listening and quickly shot down the customer's request. Hearing a hard "no" only put more gas on the customer's anger fire.

Failure to empathize. Customers can sometimes be unreasonable. This one certainly was. A little bit of empathy, even in the face of unreasonableness, can often de-escalate a situation. But the supervisor's stone-faced approach to his angry outburst only served to trigger more anger. 

Let's be clear, the customer’s client was 100 percent wrong to mail house keys in a plain paper envelope via regular mail. And the customer was a huge jerk to yell at the supervisor about it.

Can you imagine in the movie Pulp Fiction if Captain Koons (played by Christopher Walken) had simply mailed the watch to young Butch (played by Bruce Willis)? And after all Captain Koons and Butch’s father went through to get the watch to Butch, the watch was simply lost in the mail?

You just don't do things like that.

Why I Question if I Would Do Better

Answering the question, "What would you do?" is a theoretical exercise.

You can say you would do one thing, but the true test is when you're really in the situation. I poke holes in this all the time during my presentations. For example, I often do an exercise where I warn people not to be distracted during an activity, and then I proceed to nudge them immediately into distraction.

In this case, the customer was right up against the line. On one side of the line, there's an angry customer. On the other side of the line, there's an angry person whose actions are so disrespectful, threatening, or inappropriate that they stop being a customer.

I could see the supervisor shift between sticking with the interaction or telling him he wouldn’t be served due to his abusive behavior.

In that moment, I imagined myself in the supervisor's place. And I can tell you that exercising enough self-control to handle the situation the right way would have been very, very difficult. Even as a fellow customer, I felt my own fight or flight instinct kick in.

Theoretically, I know how to serve an angry customer like this. I’ve done it many times before. I've even created an entire training video on how to handle a situation like this. But I’d be lying if I told you every encounter I’ve had with an angry, obnoxious customer went well.

In practice? I only hope I would do better than the supervisor. Fortunately, I don't encounter many angry customers in my line of work these days.

Time for Self-Reflection

We’ll be setting ourselves up for failure if we think this situation is easy.

It isn’t. And if you think it’s easy, you might not try hard enough. You might fail to recognize your own fight or flight instinct kick in. You might say or do the wrong thing. And worst of all, you might not give your employees the support they need when they struggle to deal with these types of situations.

Remember the customer was talking to a supervisor. And two of the supervisor’s employees were watching and listening. Plus a room full of customers. We all saw a demonstration of how not to do things. That’s added pressure.

So be honest with yourself. What would you do?

Webinar Recap: Your Customer Service Questions Answered

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I recently hosted an "Ask Me Anything" webinar.

The idea was to answer participants' questions about helping customer service employees deliver outstanding service. My new book, Getting Service Right, shares solutions to many customer service challenges, but there are still more to overcome.

This post is a recap of the questions and my responses.

But first, a small confession. The webinar wasn't recorded due to a technical issue. It was configured to record, but the recording didn't take.

IT professionals would consider this a PEBCAC fault. That is, "Problem Exists Between Chair and Computer." In other words, I didn't launch the webinar properly so the recording could be saved.

Title slide for Ask Me Anything webinar.

Q: How do you teach [employees] to focus on the customer at hand and not focus on the volume of calls ringing in?

Employees tend to focus on what their boss focuses their attention on. 

Some contact center agents are still held to a standard for how long their average call can last. Even if they’re not, you’ll likely find a wall board that displays the number of calls in queue and how long they've been on hold. Displaying the queue naturally causes employees to focus on call volume, often at the expense of paying attention to the customer they're currently serving.

The solution? Stop putting the queue in front of employees. Let that be something the manager worries about, and encourage agents to focus on serving one customer at a time.

Q: How do you get people to think deeper about the impact of service when they feel like they're already doing it well?

Thanks to an odd quirk called the Dunning Krueger Effect, people tend to overrate their knowledge and ability. I even shared this example about an employee who loudly tried to blame her coworkers for a failed mystery shop, when she was the one who actually failed.

You can counter this with a dose of reality. 

Start by establishing what great performance looks like. Employees often think they're doing better than they really are because there's no benchmark for great work. 

The next step is to clearly identify the gap between what the employee is doing versus what the employee should be doing. Even better if you can help your employee self-identify this gap.

Finally, invite employees to describe how they can make an even bigger impact in the future.

Q: Are surveys and other feedback methods becoming obsolete since social media gets a quicker response?

Not at all!

There are three things to consider here. First, surveys can be powerful tools if they're used correctly. The challenge is many organizations are using them poorly, which means they deliver very little value. (Tip: I've assembled a survey resource page to help you.)

Second, social media is a terrific way to quickly identify customer sentiment. The challenge is only a small percentage of your customers are sharing feedback on social media. So you'll be missing out on a lot of feedback if you rely on social media alone.

Which brings us to the third consideration. The best customer listening programs include multiple ways of receiving and analyzing customer feedback. The very best source might be the individual interactions you have with customers.

The trick there is finding a way to collect that data in a meaningful way. An easy way to do this is to simply poll frontline employees and ask them to identify the top issues they're hearing. It's not scientific, but their feedback is usually pretty accurate.

Q: How to get internal teams on board with customer service for a shared client(s) when their goal is not service (e.g. production)?

The challenge lies in the question: "their goal is not service."

There will always be tension between customer service and other departments if those departments don't have any goals connected to customers. So the best solution is to create shared customer service goals that everyone can work towards.

That may not always be doable, especially if you aren't in charge of setting goals for those other departments. The alternative is to show those other department leaders how they can achieve their goals by working with you to achieve yours. 

Q: How to handle customer service in a non-profit organization? (less pay for the same work as for profit)

If you're hiring correctly, these employees were willing to accept less money to work for your nonprofit because they cared about the mission. That means the solution is keeping the mission front and center in everything they do.

There's a real risk for nonprofit employees to become transactional in their work, especially if they don't believe what they're doing is making an impact. You can change this by helping them answer three questions:

  1. What is the mission?

  2. What does it mean (in your own words)?

  3. How do you personally contribute?

Q: How do you convince management teams they need lead from the top down?

This is a vexing challenge, and I'll be the first to admit I don't have a foolproof solution.

One approach that does sometimes work is to bring both data and emotion to the conversation. Find hard data to highlight how a different set of decisions or actions can improve results. At the same time, orchestrate ways for leaders to come face-to-face with reality so they can become emotionally invested in the impact of their decisions.

In one of my favorite examples, a client wanted to lease additional office space to accommodate her company's growing employee base. This was a biotech company that spent a great deal of money hiring scientists and medical professionals from around the world. She convinced the CEO to sign off on the new office space by making a solid business case (data) and also having the CEO address a group of new hires who had to cram into a tiny conference room (emotion).

Seeing renowned professionals uncomfortably crammed into a tiny room wasn't the CEO's idea of a great welcome to the company, but she had to experience it herself for the situation to have the appropriate emotional impact.

How to Get the Most Out of Training Videos

Training videos are increasing in popularity.

Platforms like LinkedIn Learning have become vital sources of content for learning job-related skills. There's good reason for this:

That last one is a bit of a surprise to most customer service leaders I talk to. And there's a giant caveat—you have to change the way you use video. 

Here are the techniques you can apply to get the most out of training videos.

Employee watching a training video on a computer.

Step One: Set Clear Learning Objectives

Let's say you want your employees to do a better job serving customers who call in to share a complaint. 

I have a LinkedIn Learning course called Working with Upset Customers, but just asking employees to take the course creates a problem. "Take this course," sends a signal that the only clear goal is to complete the training.

That's not your goal. 

You send employees to training because you want them to learn something they can apply on the job that will help them improve performance. So before you assign a video, it's essential to set clear learning objectives.

Back to the upset customers example. You might create an objective for this training by thinking about what specifically you want employees to do differently in situations where they serve an upset customer. 

For instance, you might decide to you want to focus on de-escalation skills to avoid complaints. You could set this as the learning objective: 

Customer service reps will demonstrate the ability to de-escalate an angry caller so the customer is feeling neutral or happy at the end of the interaction.

You’d be able to determine whether the training was complete by monitoring a phone call for each participant where the customer started out angry and determining whether the rep was able to successfully de-escalate the situation.

You can get more help with learning objectives from this guide.

Step Two: Assign Short Segments

The old way of consuming a training video is to push play, sit back, watch the entire thing from start to finish, and hope for the best.

Customer service leaders cite this as the number one challenge with training videos. Employees push back because spending an hour watching an instructional video is no kind of fun. And it doesn't produce results.

The better way to do it is to watch a short segment at a time. My courses on LinkedIn Learning are split into short modules that are each three to five minutes long. Here's how it works:

  1. Watch one 3-5 minute video.

  2. Ask participants to complete the application exercise from the video.

  3. Give feedback and discuss progress.

We can apply this right now to de-escalation training. The first skill is recognizing our own natural instinct to argue with an upset customer or try to get away from them. 

Start by watching this short video.

Next, spend a day serving customers and recognize when you experience the same fight or flight instinct the barista in the training video experienced. Here are some common symptoms:

  • Flushed face

  • Increased heart rate

  • Shortness of breath

  • Muscle tension

  • Sweating

  • Tunnel vision

Finally, reflect on what you learned from recognizing the fight or flight instinct. Were you able to accept the challenge of helping an angry customer feel better?

This technique of watching just one short segment at a time is called microlearning. You can learn more from this guide.

Step Three: Blend Video with Other Mediums

Most training, including video and face-to-face, works best when you blend it with other training mediums. These include team meetings, one-on-one coaching conversations, self-paced activities, and on-the-job application.

We can use the de-escalation training as an example. Here's one way you might approach it that combines multiple training mediums:

  1. Team Meeting: Discuss specific situations where customers get angry.

  2. Video: Assign this video on recognizing the fight or flight instinct.

  3. On-the-Job: Ask employees to note when they experience the instinct.

  4. One-on-One: Give each employee individual feedback.

  5. Team Meeting: Discuss successes and challenges at the next team meeting.

There's a good chance you're already holding team and one-on-one meetings with your employees, so this approach involves very little additional work. And it also happens to be a highly effective way to build new skills.


To get the most out of training, we need to shift from a content consumption mindset to a performance improvement mindset.

You can do that right now. This post contains a practical example where you can improve your ability to recognize the flight or fight instinct and make a better decision when you're confronted by an angry customer.

Why Employees Say the Wrong Thing to Customers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angry contact center agent.

How Policies Get Shared

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Managers often share new policies by emphasizing the negatives:

  • The policy must be followed, no exceptions!

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

  • There will be sanctions for not following the policy.

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

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

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

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

Yeah, that was awkward.

Training Your Employees to Say the Right Thing

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

So what do you want your employees to say instead?

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

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

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

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

  3. Now brainstorm some acceptable alternatives.

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

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

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

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