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!

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.

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.