Could Your Service Quality Really Just Be Random Chance?

A customer calls in to customer service, desperate to get his problem solved. He's been a loyal customer for a few years, but lately there have been a few issues. Now he’s on the fence about whether this is the right company to do business with.

Today’s call is a make-or-break situation. 

There are two customer service reps available to take his call, Deron and Amy. If the call gets routed to Deron rather than Amy, the customer has an 11 percent greater chance of being satisfied.

Who will take the call?

The answer is decided by random chance. In this case, it probably goes to the rep who has been waiting the longest to receive a call. And if you're a customer service leader, you might be rolling the dice like this on every single customer contact.

Here's why service quality is so random and what you can do about it.

A pair of red dice, signifying random chance.

Why Service Quality is Random

A customer service team might have an 85 percent satisfaction rating, but that doesn't mean every rep is making 85 percent of their customers happy. There's often a lot of variation.

  • Some reps are consistently better than others.

  • Service agents are human, and have bad days like the rest of us.

  • Every problem is different, and some are very challenging.

I've even uncovered some research that suggest service quality naturally declines in the afternoon.

Here's a hypothetical example. The team's customer satisfaction rating is 85 percent, but the variation among the individual employees is extreme. Any customer who gets Kate will almost certainly be happy. More than one third of customers are dissatisfied when they work with Leo.

Graphic depicting customer satisfaction ratings for several employees.

There are many reasons why service quality among employees could be inconsistent. Let's take a look at three common causes.


Tenure is one of the most common causes of inconsistent service. 

Nearly every customer service team has a mix of veteran, moderately experienced, and newly hired reps. In the example at the beginning of this post, perhaps Deron had been with the company for several years while Amy had just completed new hire training.

According to data from the Zendesk 2019 Customer Experience Trends Report, the typical customer service rep with four years of experience delivers significantly better service than a newbie.

Source:  Zendesk

Source: Zendesk

A customer service leader recently shared this challenge with me. Other departments frequently hired people from her team, which was good for the company, but it also meant she had to constantly hire and train new people.

The solution to this challenge is to speed up new hire training while simultaneously making it more effective. This may seem like an impossible task, but I've done it. 

More than once, I've been able to reduce new hire training time by 50 percent, using a few simple techniques. One is called scenario-based training, which makes learning more closely mirror the actual job. You can drop me a line and I'd be happy to walk you through it.

Chronic Performance Issues

I've been fortunate to work with a lot of outstanding customer service professionals. The worst one, by far, was Brandon.

Brandon didn't want the job. He didn't care how he performed, and he definitely wasn't open to any feedback. He showed up when he felt like it and left when he wanted to.

He was hired because the CFO, my boss, told me to hire him. Brandon had just graduated high school, had no experience, even less ambition, but he was dating the CFO’s daughter. I think there was some pact between the CFO and Brandon's parents. In any case, I never would have hired him by choice.

Nearly every call was bad. He could barely handle the transactional stuff and any situation that had the slightest degree of difficulty would end in disaster.

Worst of all, I couldn't do anything about it. Brandon was allowed to slide on things no other employee could get away with until the CFO finally gave me the green to address his performance. He immediately quit.

Brandon also upset the rest of the team. They saw him getting preferential treatment. And they often had to handle the aftermath of Brandon’s poor service by taking the call from customers that he let down or was rude to.

Many of us have a Brandon on our team. Maybe not quite as bad, but someone whose service is chronically poor and who exhibits no signs of improvement. And if you don't do something about it, your Brandon will continue upsetting customers.

Situational Performance Issues

Some service problems are very situational.

For example, business-to-business support teams with weekday hours often get slammed on Monday mornings when all the problems that accumulated over the weekend come pouring in. This high volume might cause long wait times, which makes customers extra grouchy.

Any rep working the Monday morning shift might have lower scores than a rep who only works Wednesday through Friday afternoons, which are typically some of the slower periods for many companies. 

Another example is the type of issue. Even experienced employees have their achilles heel. Going back to the example at the beginning of this post, Deron might be very adept at handling the customer's issue, while Amy is generally good but finds that particular issue to be a challenge.

Take Action

Every employee on your team is an individual. So if you want to eliminate the randomness of service quality, you need to take an individual approach.

Let's go back to our hypothetical team:

Screen Shot 2019-05-21 at 7.03.50 AM.png

The starting point is to look at the outliers. These are employees who are performing significantly better or worse than the average.

Kate and Steve are apparently crushing it. If they're on my team, I'd want to know why, so I can share that insight with the rest of the team. The easiest way to do that is to spend some time observing them serve customers.

Leo appears to be struggling. You might be tempted to jump to conclusions, but I'd start by spending time with him, too. Maybe he's new, or he gets all the difficult calls, or perhaps he's just not very good. 

Service quality shouldn't be random. Spend time investigating outliers and you'll learn how to gain confidence that your customers will be happy, no matter if it’s Deron, Amy, or even Leo who takes the call.

You can learn more about investigating performance issues from my course on LinkedIn Learning.

Are You Suffering From a Customer Service Time Crisis?

The service manager arrived at the auto repair shop for what promised to be another busy day.

He opened up the lobby, booted up his computer, turned on the TV in the waiting room, and started a pot of coffee. The manager went into the shop to touch base with the mechanics as they arrived for work, and went over the day's jobs.

I had an 8am service appointment, but it was 8:10 before he greeted me and checked me in.

If this seems like poor customer service, it's because it is. And it's also an epidemic. So my real question is, do you struggle to be on time with your customers?

Here's why being on time is critical, and what you can do to make sure you are.

Happy man holding a clock.

The Problem With Being a Tiny Bit Late

Like you, the service manager, and just about everyone else on this planet, I've had a busy week. And my ability to get things done has been impacted by service providers being chronically tardy.

My physical therapist kept me waiting for five minutes. A contractor arrived at my house ten minutes late for a sales call. And the service advisor kept me waiting for ten minutes after my scheduled appointment.

So what's the big deal?

One issue is the message it sends. Being just a few minutes tardy sends a signal that you value your own time more than your customer's. Or it could be a signal that you're not very well organized.

It can also have a cascading effect on your customer's day.

A few weeks ago, my physical therapist kept me waiting for fifteen minutes. Our appointment was scheduled for an hour, and I had to get to another appointment soon afterwards. I had to skip out on the last portion of my therapy session as a result of it running over our scheduled time.

The contractor who arrived at my home ten minutes late caused us to rush through his pitch for a remodeling project my wife and I are considering. We had other appointments lined up after his and couldn't run late, so the meeting probably wasn’t his best pitch.

And the service advisor? You guessed it—I had other things to do that day.

Why Are People Late

A few months ago, I uncovered some fascinating research about why some people are chronically late.

One of the most interesting aspects of the research was a study that suggested people with personalities most suited to customer service—easygoing and not prone to frustration—are the most likely people to be late.

There are other reasons as well. One is being over-scheduled.

If you schedule a meeting from 2pm-3pm and another meeting in a different conference room from 3pm-3:30pm, how exactly do you plan to be on time for your 3pm meeting? Unless your 2pm ends early (what are the odds?), you'll be late.

Another reason is we're unrealistic about time.

The service advisor promised to call me in 45 minutes with an update on my car. Unfortunately, that 45 minutes was a best-case scenario. It didn't factor in other customers, mechanics taking longer than expected, or any number of other things that might get in the way. I ended up calling after an hour because I hadn’t heard from him.

We also perpetuate tardiness as customers by letting people off the hook too easily. 

What did you do the last time a service provider kept you waiting a few minutes? In all likelihood, here's how the conversation went:

Service provider: "Sorry to keep you waiting!"

You: "That's okay."

If that's what happened, you accidentally gave the service provider a free pass on tardiness. And you've made it more likely that they'll be tardy again.

Now I'm not suggesting you freak out every time someone is five minutes late. What I am suggesting is you don't let them off the hook.

For example, when I started going to physical therapy for a shoulder injury, I asked my physical therapist how much time I should budget for each appointment. I explained I wanted to be fully present during our sessions, but also had other appointments to schedule around each visit. He told me one hour, so I planned on one hour and fifteen minutes just in case.

So when our scheduled one-hour session ran late as a result of his tardiness, I stayed for an extra 15 minutes, and then left without finishing my workout. I kept my word about honoring other commitments.

The result? I only had to wait five minutes the next time.

Take Action

None of us are perfect.

I was ten minutes late to a phone meeting with a prospective client the very same day I drafted this post. And I didn't even have a good excuse—I simply didn't notice my calendar reminder going off and I got sucked into another project. It was embarrassing.

What we can do is make punctuality more important.

I apologized profusely to my client, but I've also made a mental note that I need to demonstrate my punctuality to this client if I hope to win her business. One of the things my clients know me for is I get project work done faster than promised. If I say I'll get you something by Friday, you'll probably have it Thursday. 

How do I do that?

  • I plan all my work holistically, keeping in mind everything that's on my calendar.

  • I strive to arrive early (my recent flake-out notwithstanding).

  • I work hard to wait on my clients, rather than keeping them waiting on me.

And the service advisor? 

He promised my car would be ready in four hours. I told him I would hold him to it. And he came through. He called me at four hours exactly and told me my car was ready, which was a big relief because I had other stuff to do that day.

How to Learn and Remember Customer Names

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.

Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language. 

Dale Carnegie wrote that in his famous book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. The book was originally published in 1936, and calling someone by name is still a powerful way to build rapport. 

It's a core concept in many customer service training programs. Calling customers by name is written into service standards and welcoming procedures. It's a tip I share in my Customer Service Tip of the Week emails.

Sometimes, learning a customer's name is easy. They offer it freely, it's displayed in your computer system, or learning their name is a necessary part of the interaction.

At other times, learning someone's name can be a bit more tricky. I decided to ask some of my colleagues for their suggestions on learning and using customer names. 

Here are some tips that can help you overcome those challenging situations.

Business person holding up a name tag.

Tip #1: Listen with Intention

How many times have you heard someone's name and then instantly forgotten it? Jeremy, a customer experience director, suggests being more intentional. "My biggest thing with names is that I have to actually listen to their name when I ask for it."

Tip #2: Repeat It

Immediately repeating a customer's name can help commit it to memory. Nicolas, an editor, shared this tip. "I immediately try repeating their name right after they introduce themselves ('Nice to meet you, ____!') and when I end the first conversation ('Thanks for connecting with me ____, have a great day!')."

Tip #3: Ask How to Pronounce It

Some names are tricky. Jessica, a customer experience team lead, shared a tip to handle this situation. "I will ask them to pronounce it for me if I’m not entirely sure how to correctly pronounce it, that is if I can see what their name is before speaking with them. I find most people appreciate the effort taken to learn the correct pronunciation."

Tip #4: Ask How to Spell It

I've been doing a lot of book signings lately to promote my latest book Getting Service Right. I've learned the hard way that some names can be spelled many different ways. Take Kari for example. Which may also be spelled as Karie, Carrie, Kerry, Kerri, Karri, or Keri. So I always ask people how to spell their name before I write it in a book, even if the person's name is Joe. (Which might also be Jo, Jho, or some other spelling I haven't seen yet.)

Tip #5: Write it Down

Another way to ensure you retain someone's name is to write it down. Drew, a customer service vice president, shared this tip. "Our business is mainly done over the phone or online and in many cases the customer doesn't introduce their name to start. So, we start by listening about why they're calling and as soon as they're done, we ask their name before we continue on with the conversation and write it down in notepad on the computer."

Tip #6: Get Their Name from Their ID or Credit Card

If you serve customers face-to-face, you might easily get their name from the customer's identification, credit card, or something else. Ruairi, a library assistant, uses this tip. "When they register for a library card, they hand me their ID. I might say 'okay Sarah, what color library card would you like?'"

Tip #7: Spot Their Name on Luggage Tags

This one works well for hotel and airline employees. You can get a customer’s name from their luggage tag. And if you work at a convention facility, you’ll often spot guests wearing name tags from the various trade shows they're attending.

Tip #8: Create an Association

Some people find it helpful to associate a name with a characteristic that describes the person. Andras, a customer service manager, shared this tip. "I associate the first letter of their name with an apparent personality or physical trait. For example, John with 'jovial' or Oliver with 'observant' etc."

Tip #9: Create a Memory

Similar to creating an association, you can mentally repeat someone's name while thinking of how you've met them. Tom, an IT manager, shared this tip with me. "I try to memorize their face and associate it with their name and why I know them. For example I remember you from the HDI conference as the guy who signed his book for me. This helps me associate  why I know you and what you do."

A Few Words of Caution

Try to avoid assumptions when using someone's name. For example, many people assume that I'm really a Jeffrey, so they call me Jeffrey in an attempt to sound smart.

The problem is my full name is Jeff. It's not short for Jeffrey, Jeffery, or even Geoffrey. So calling me Jeffrey backfires and creates less of connection than if the person had just called me Jeff.

I've made this mistake myself, calling Ronald "Ron," Christopher "Chris," or Jennifer "Jen." Today, I always take the other person’s lead and use the name they give me. Calling someone by a nickname without first making sure that's what they like to be called can unintentionally insult the person.

Years ago, another common concern was whether to call someone by their first or last name. Today, this is almost never an issue. First names are typically acceptable and often preferred. (This can vary a bit by industry or company, so it's not a hard and fast rule.) When in doubt, introduce yourself to your customer and notice what name they give. If they emphasize their first name, you know first names are okay.

How a Small Business Owner Kicked Self-Doubt

One of my favorite things is hearing from customer service leaders and small business owners who candidly share the challenges they face. One recent email that caught my attention was from Aaron Pallesen, owner of Hive Martial Arts in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Aaron Pallesen, owner of Hive Martial Arts

Aaron Pallesen, owner of Hive Martial Arts

He explained that he was trying to use service to differentiate his business from other martial arts studios. Yet he wasn't sure all the extra service was appreciated.

"There are a few [customers] that will go out of their way to say something nice or write a great review online. However, for the majority it just feels like they expect me to do all this extra work because they want it—some outright abuse these offerings.

"This is both infuriating and makes me feel like I should just go back to the hard sales approach and the extra income. I mean, why offer so many things to add value to the program if 80% of our members just act like they're entitled to something no other martial arts school offers?

"What am I missing?"

Too much self-doubt can be paralyzing and toxic. Here's how Pallesen kicked those limiting feelings and refocused on what his business was doing right.

Seek Advice

Pallesen emailed me out of the blue. He was reading The Service Culture Handbook, and noticed I published my email address in the book, so he reached out.

It's incredibly brave to email someone you don't know and share as much as Pallesen did. We often try to protect our egos by pretending things are going better than they are, but Pallesen was brutally honest about what he was thinking.

I immediately admired Pallesen for his honesty, and his story grabbed me:

"My vision when I opened up shop was to provide a far better experience at a more approachable price point for our urban families; often times at the risk of losing a little money in the short term to gain loyalty and brand ambassadors for the long term.

"The moment we opened, I wanted to build everything around a service culture. This means we don't charge $35-$50 per student, per belt test. We don't charge for specialty classes for our tournament competitors that want to compete but can't afford the $30/month extra. I also removed the maximum limit of (2) classes each student can attend during the week, and allow unlimited classes for those that want to pursue it but, again, are held back due to financial limitations most schools apply for the addition classes.

"I don't do contracts and rely on our service for long term sustainability."

Pallesen felt under-appreciated, and he wasn't sure his approach was working. Nobody likes to experience self-doubt like this, but it's something I commonly see in customer-focused leaders. They always worry about finding a way to do better.

Focus on the Facts

Emotions can cloud our perception of reality, so it can be helpful to focus on the facts. 

I asked Pallesen a few questions about his business. His answers revealed his customer-focused approach was actually working!

  • Customer retention is 25% better than his competitors'.

  • Referrals are up 30% in the past eight months.

  • Gross profit margins are a healthy 55%.

Looking at the numbers helped Pallesen adopt a new perspective. His business was doing well overall, despite the frustrations he had experienced.

Pallesen emailed me back to share his new perspective. "I was up until 3am doing a lot of internalizing and looking more into these questions. It really seems I'm focusing on a couple bad apples, and not the majority."

Work Towards What You Want

There's a difference between fixing problems and making things better. I asked Pallesen a couple of questions to stimulate thinking about his desired future state and what he could do to get there.

The first question was, "What would you like to happen that's not happening now?"

"I want people to experience that 'hero' moment more often. Whether it's because their kid no longer needs occupational therapy because of martial arts (true story), or because their child finally has the confidence that there's no need to defend themselves, they just carry themselves in a way that removes that target. 

"We do hear about it sometimes, and some of our reviews gave me goosebumps as I re-read them this afternoon. However, only about 20% of our members have mentioned those hero moments, and I'd like to significantly increase that."

Okay, now we're getting somewhere! The narrative changed from feeling under-appreciated to feeling great about the successes he's achieved and looking forward to delivering a hero moment to even more people.

My next question was, "I’m sure some people notice the extra services you offer—when does that happen and who notices?"

Pallesen did an excellent job of using this question to look at the situation from his customer's perspective. And it gave him an idea to build on.

"Honestly, while thinking this through, I'm suddenly realizing how many people were surprised after they overheard me talking about some of the specialty classes we offer on Saturdays. If I put myself in their shoes, I can see how it would be easy to forget that these extras are offered if the only time they hear about it is during their initial lesson and orientation.

"Since it's human nature to avoid being wrong or uncomfortable, it's easy to understand why people wouldn't ask about the extra classes without me first initiating the conversation."

This insight helped Pallesen realized the importance of offering additional services at the time of need. If customers don't know about something, they can't appreciate it!

Moving Forward

I could really relate to Pallesen. I can't tell you how many times I've experienced self-doubt in my own business. Fortunately, I have a supportive wife and great friends and colleagues who help me work through it.

It was great to see Pallesen work through it, too.

"When I could get out of that funk and look at your questions objectively I was able to overcome a lot of questions I had about what we are doing. We're on track for a record year, and I should continue focusing on what we're doing right instead of focusing on the couple people that want to try to abuse the system."

Please consider giving Hive Martial Arts a visit if you live in the Minneapolis area!