Why Customers Should Not Help Write Your Vision

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A question I'm often asked is what role customers should play in helping a company write its customer service vision.

A customer service vision is a shared definition of outstanding service that gets everyone on the same page. Creating one is the most important step you can take toward building a customer-focused culture.

My answer surprises people. I don't think customers should be involved at all when you write your customer service vision.

Group of professionals gathered to write a customer service vision statement.

What is the danger of asking customers what they want?

There's an old episode of The Simpsons where Homer discovers he has a half-brother named Herb Powell. 

Herb is the CEO of a car company called Powell Motors, and he's frustrated by his design team's uninspiring new car concepts. So he enlists Homer to help design his company's next car, believing that Homer personifies the wants and needs of the average American consumer.

The result is a disaster. The car, dubbed The Homer, is so overloaded with unnecessary features that it can't be sold at a profit. 

There's a real-life lesson here. Customers have diverse tastes and interests. And a customer merely wanting something doesn't automatically mean a company can make money providing it.

I’m a huge fan of the online pet store, Chewy. It offers convenient online ordering, a huge selection of products, incredible prices, and has a fun and helpful service culture. Chewy’s sales have grown rapidly over the past several years, but the retailer has yet to turn a profit.

At The Overlook, a vacation rental cabin my wife and I own, we've gotten all sorts of requests. A few have asked for air conditioning, which would be cost-prohibitive to install given the short warm period of the year is also a slow time. Others suggested we list The Overlook on Airbnb, but the listing fees would add expense without bringing in much additional revenue. (Airbnb would also make The Overlook more expensive for our guests.)

Sometimes different groups of customers have conflicting needs. For example, all the rooms at The Overlook have either a king or a queen bed. This is perfect for our target market, but others would prefer bunk beds, sleeper sofas, and air mattresses to accommodate as many people as possible in one house.

When I researched customer-focused organizations while writing The Service Culture Handbook, I consistently found these companies resisted the urge to be all things to all people. That’s why you won’t find a chicken salad on the menu at In-N-Out Burger, but you will find a line of loyal customers waiting to get their hands on a delicious cheeseburger at 10pm on a Wednesday evening.

Who should help write your vision?

The vision should be rooted in reality. It should describe how you’d like to serve customers in the future based on how you serve customers today when everything is going well. For this reason, all employees should be given a chance to provide input on your customer service vision.

This step-by-step guide describes how to do that.

When it comes to drafting the vision statement, there should only be 7-10 people in the room, plus an outside facilitator if you decide to use one. More than that, and the group becomes unwieldy. Fewer than that, and not enough perspectives are included.

The group should be comprised of a representative sample of employees:

  • At least one frontline employee. They keep it real.

  • At least one senior leader. They provide authority.

  • At least one mid-level manager or supervisor. They're the link between execs and the front lines.

Many organizations try to have the executive team create the customer service vision at a retreat. My research reveals that's a big mistake.

Should you ever ask customers about your vision?


The time to ask customers for their input is after you write the vision and start using it to guide your operations. This is when customer feedback can be invaluable. Keep in mind you're not asking customers what they want, you're asking them how well you are executing your vision.

At The Overlook, our vision is welcome to your mountain retreat. We constantly use guest feedback from surveys, comments, and even our own observations, to refine our approach. For example, we added extra guest towels after learning that many guests like to shower after returning from a sweaty hike, but don’t want to use the same towel later that evening when they use the hot tub.

How can I write a vision statement?

Here are some resources that can help you write an effective customer service vision:

What is an Effective Employee Onboarding Process?

A friend of mine recently started a new job. It's not going well.

She was gung-ho at first. The new gig represented a step up from her previous position, the work seemed challenging, and she felt the new company had a lot to offer.

Then reality set in. The company's onboarding process was disjointed, and left my friend without the support and training she needed to fit in. She spent her first week just trying to get her office phone working.

Within a few weeks, my friend started wondering if she had made the right decision. Shortly after that, she started looking for a new job.

Experiences like this are all too common. That's why re-vamping employee onboarding is a top challenge I hear from training and human resources professionals. 

So what exactly is onboarding, and how do you do it right?

A bored employee plays with post-it notes at her desk.

What is employee onboarding?

Employee onboarding is a process that starts the moment a job offer is accepted and ends once an employee is fully trained to independently do their job at a minimally competent level.

There are various elements that are typically included:

  • New hire paperwork

  • Provisioning tools, resources, and equipment

  • Mandatory compliance training

  • Job-specific training

  • An introduction to the company and culture

The ultimate goal of a good onboarding program is to engage employees by creating a sense of belonging and securing their commitment to make a positive contribution.

Why is onboarding important?

There are a few benefits provided by an effective onboarding program:

  • Increased engagement

  • Increased productivity

  • Lower turnover

My friend is an example of what happens when onboarding goes poorly. She's already disengaged, meaning she's not sure how she can help the company succeed. Her productivity is lower than it should be because she doesn't have the right resources. And she's a turnover risk since she's already looking for a new job.

This two minute video follows two employee onboarding programs to highlight the stark differences between effective and ineffective approaches.

How can you build an effective onboarding program?

A strong program consists of five stages.

  1. Pre-Hire

  2. First Day

  3. Orientation

  4. Training

  5. Performance

Pre-Hire: This stages starts when a job offer is accepted and goes until the employees first day. It's an opportunity to prepare new hires for their new job, and to make sure you're prepared for their arrival. For example, it's a best practice to share new hire paperwork ahead of time. It's also important to make sure all the necessary tools, resources, and equipment (i.e. computers, phones, uniforms, etc.) are ready for the employee's first day.

First Day: A new hire's first day forms a critical first impression. You want new employees to feel like they made a great decision to join your organization. I advise my clients to include a social element on day one, such as a lunch or a meet and greet, so new hires can start making friends with their colleagues. Another best practice is to give employees a small project on their first day so they can immediately make a contribution.

Orientation: This is where new employees learn about the company, including its history, mission, and culture. Be careful--there's a real danger of sharing too much information during orientation. Employees are bombarded with so much information during their first few days that they're likely to forget most of it, so try to give new hires information on a just-in-time basis.

Training: Every employee needs adequate training to learn to do their job. Frontline employees in many organizations are under-trained, and leaders often get even less development. In my book, Getting Service Right, I describe how a lack of training contributed to my very first customer service encounter ending in failure.

Performance: New hires often need extra coaching and feedback from their boss during the first days, weeks, and months on the job. This can mean the difference between quickly performing at a high level, or struggling to meet even minimum performance standards.

You can get step-by-step instructions for building your own program from my Running Company Onboarding course on LinkedIn Learning.

How to Increase Survey Response Rates by 370%

Andrew Gilliam, ITS Service Desk Consultant

Andrew Gilliam, ITS Service Desk Consultant

Small changes can often lead to big results.

Andrew Gilliam is an ITS Service Desk Consultant at Western Kentucky University. He improved the response rate to customer service surveys by 370 percent simply by changing the wording of the survey invitation email.

I interviewed Gilliam to learn about how he was able to do it. He provides a lot of helpful, actionable advice into this short, 20 minute interview. 

Topics we cover include:

  • Why you should survey both internal and external customers

  • What constitutes a "good" response rate

  • How to improve your survey invitation email

  • What types of customers typically complete surveys

  • Why you need feedback from angry, happy, and even neutral customers 

You can watch the full interview here. Follow Gilliam on Twitter at @ndytg or contact him via his website.

I Took Every Survey For a Week. The Results Weren't Good.

Customers are inundated with surveys.

We get them on receipts, via email, and in the mail. Shop somewhere and you're asked to take a survey. Don't shop somewhere, and a survey still appears. Visit a website and ping!, you get asked to take a survey.

I decided to take a week and do a small experiment. During that week, I would take every single survey I was asked to complete. The idea was to test three things:

  1. How many surveys would I be offered?

  2. Were any of the surveys well-designed?

  3. What was the experience like?

I was asked to complete 10 surveys during the week. That pencils out to over 500 surveys per year! No wonder customers experience survey fatigue.

Only one of the 10 surveys was well-designed. Every other survey had at least one glaring flaw, and most had multiple failures. More on that in a moment.

And what was my experience like? Most of the surveys backfired. The experience was so poor it made me like the company even less.

Person filling out a customer service survey to report a negative experience.

Surveys Are Too Difficult

When you ask a customer to take a survey, you're really asking the customer to do you a favor. A lot of the surveys I took made that favor really difficult.

Just accessing the surveys was a big challenge. 

My first survey request was on a receipt from the post office. The receipt had a QR code that I was able to quickly scan with my phone, but then the survey site itself was not optimized for mobile phones.

A survey from Dropbox wanted me to first read and acknowledge a confidentiality agreement before completing its survey.

Confidentiality agreement required to take the Dropbox survey.

The super odd thing was the confidentiality agreement had it's own survey! This extra bit of aggravation got even more annoying when the survey required me to fill out the comments box to explain my rating of the confidentiality agreement.

Survey requiring a comment.

Back to the first Dropbox survey, I had been working on it for 11 minutes in when I hit an infinite loop. None of the answers to a question applied to me, and it lacked a “Not Applicable” option for this required question. I felt I had put in enough time at that point and just gave up.

The survey invitation from Vons, my local grocery store, was a real piece of work. It was a receipt invitation, but there was no QR code, so I had to manually enter the web address. Then I had to enter a string of numbers along with my email address!

Vons survey invitation page, which requires an email address.

I couldn't complete two surveys due to errors. An email invitation from Chewy linked to a web page that I couldn't get to load. The Human Resources Certification Institute sent me a survey on May 24 that closed on May 23. Completing that survey is pretty low on the list of things I would do if I had access to a time machine.

Poor Survey Design

Beyond being difficult, just one of the ten surveys was designed well enough to provide useful, actionable, and unbiased information.

Many surveys were too long, which often triggers low completion rates. The Dropbox survey advertised it would take 15 minutes. (Who has that kind of time?!) These companies' surveys could easily be redesigned to get better data and higher completion rates from just three questions.

Many were full of leading questions designed to boost scores. This AutoZone survey arranged the rating scale with the positive response first, which is a subtle way to boost ratings. Like many of the surveys I took, there wasn't an option to leave comments and explain why I gave the ratings I did.

AutoZone customer service survey.

The survey from Vons was an odd choose your own adventure survey, where I got to decide which topic(s) I wanted to be surveyed on. 

Screenshot of multi-part customer service survey from Vons.

This created unnecessary friction and generated a little confusion since my biggest gripe on that particular visit was the large number of aisles blocked off by people stocking shelves. Is that a store issue, an employee issue, or a product issue? It’s a great example of where asking a customer to simply give a rating and then explain the rating would quickly get to the core of my dissatisfaction.

The One Good Example

The best survey was a Net Promoter Score (NPS) survey from Suunto. 

I received this survey invitation about six months after I registered a new watch on the Suunto website. NPS surveys measure a customer's intent to recommend, so giving me six months to use the watch before asking if I'd recommend it allows enough time for me to know what I like and don't like about the product.

Another positive was it asked just two questions: a rating and a comment. 

Suunto NPS survey.

Short surveys tend to have much higher completion rates than longer ones. Counterintuitively, you can almost always get more useful data from a short survey than a long and tedious survey. (More on that here.)

My question about the Suunto survey was whether the survey was linked to my contact information. This is necessary so someone from Suunto can follow-up with unhappy customers to learn more about the issues they're experiencing. (More on that here.)

Resources to Create Better Surveys

Here are some resources to help you avoid these mistakes and create better surveys.

You can also get step-by-step instructions for creating a great survey program by taking my customer service survey course on LinkedIn Learning.

Why Customer Service is Always Running Late

This wasn't a bucket list item, but it was close.

My favorite winery in Napa was hosting an exclusive winemaker dinner, with another party the following day. My wife, Sally, and I love this winery and it sounded like an amazing weekend.

I signed up for the interest list to get notified when tickets went on sale.

Five weeks went by with no news. I emailed my contact at the winery for an update. She replied a day later, "Tickets go on sale Tuesday." It was Friday.

Tuesday came and went with no notice. I emailed again the following Friday but received no response. On Monday, I called and left a voice mail but still no response.

A day later, my winery contact emailed me. The tickets are finally on sale. It was a week later than she'd promised and too late for us. We'd already made plans with some family members who were visiting from out of town.

Why are customer service professionals constantly running late? Here's a look at the reasons why, plus some potential solutions.

Group of businesswomen running late.

Our Overly Optimistic View of Time

A few months ago, I wrote this post about why employees are often late. A problem occurs when employees are overly optimistic about how long it takes to get things done. 

One of the studies I cited was a 1994 series of experiments conducted by Roger Buehler, Dale Griffin, and Michael Ross. They wanted to see how accurately people could forecast the time it takes to complete a task.

A group of 37 psychology students were asked to estimate when they would complete their honors thesis. The average estimate was way off.

Days to complete thesis.png

Only 11 of the 37 students finished their thesis by the time they predicted. That means 70 percent of the group was overly optimistic.

The researchers anticipated this optimism problem, so they asked participants to make a second prediction after their first one had been recorded. Participants were asked to imagine everything went as poorly as it possibly could. How long did they think it would take them to complete their thesis given that scenario.

The worst case scenario predictions were still off.

Days to complete thesis - worst case.png

Buehler, Griffin, and Ross ran a second experiment where they asked another group of psychology students to think about a school project that was due within the next two weeks. The subjects were asked to predict when they would get it done. As before, the subjects were overly optimistic, with only 43.6 percent finishing by the predicted time.

There was an additional twist. Subjects were asked to think aloud as they estimated the project completion time, and the experimenters recorded and categorized what people thought about. The results were startling:

  • 71% of the subjects' thinking focused on how they would complete the project.

  • Only 3% of thoughts were spent on anticipating problems.

  • Just 1% of thinking considered problems encountered on previous projects.

That last one amazed me. Participants continuously failed to learn from their experience when making plans to complete a task. It also explains why some employees and companies are consistently late.

How to Meet More Deadlines

There are a few things you can do to meet more deadlines and keep your customers happy.

First, whenever planning a task, start with the deadline and work backwards to create your plan. Buehler, Griffin, and Ross found that having a clear deadline can be very helpful—in one experiment, 80.6 percent of school projects were finished on time when the students had a deadline. 

Try to negotiate the latest mutually agreed-upon deadline to give yourself some extra time. So if you think you can get something done by Thursday, ask if Friday is okay. (More on that technique here.)

Next, think about potential obstacles. Here are some common ones I consider:

  • Travel: My available time is limited when I'm on a plane or with another client.

  • Workload: I consider other projects I'm working on at the same time.

  • Personal: My personal life factors into my availability as well, such as an upcoming vacation.

As you think about each potential obstacle, think about how similar situations have gone in the past. For example, if I'm traveling, I know from experience that I'll likely be too tired to do much on the return flight from a long trip. So I don't count on having that time to work.

Finally, lay out a project plan and track the important milestones as you go. My goal is always to get work done early, because you never know what will come up.

In case you're wondering, I told a few people I was working on this post. My promised delivery date was next week. And now I'm early.

How Incentives Can Crush Motivation to Do the Right Thing

Paul was feeling pretty good about his new incentive program.

He had devised a game for the cashiers he managed where the cashiers on each shift were placed on teams. Throughout the month, he would randomly select cashiers to observe using the same criteria that the company's mystery shoppers used. The cashier's mystery shopping score would be added to their team's total, and the team with the highest score at the end of month would receive a bonus.

The cashiers loved it the first month. It did okay in month two, though performance slipped a little. By month three, Paul started wondering if he needed to do something new or scrap the game altogether.

That's when he noticed the problem he had unintentionally created. The cashiers who won now expected the bonus to do their jobs. The cashiers who didn't win performed even worse than they did before the contest was created.

Paul tried unsuccessfully to come up with a new incentive program, but service didn't get any better. Then he tried scrapping it altogether and service got even worse. 

His experienced revealed a dark secret of incentives: they crush motivation.

Smug employee demanding more money.

Money Kills Motivation

In 1971, Edward Deci ran a groundbreaking experiment on the use of incentives.

He recruited students for what they believed was a study about problem solving. Each student attended three, one-hour sessions where they tried to solve four different puzzles using a Soma cube, a puzzle toy consisting of seven pieces that can be assembled into different configurations. An experimenter was in the room ostensibly to time how long it took subjects to solve each puzzle.

The real experiment was a test of intrinsic motivation. During each one-hour session, the experimenter left the room for eight minutes and instructed the subjects to do whatever they liked. This was in the pre-smartphone era, so the options were:

  • Play with the puzzles

  • Read one of the magazines placed in the room

  • Do nothing

Deci placed the subjects into an experimental and control group. The first session for both groups was identical, but there was a twist in the second session. The people in the experimental group were given $1 for each puzzle they solved. This meant they could earn the equivalent of $25 (adjusted for inflation) by solving all four puzzles during the hour. 

In the third session, neither group was paid, just like session one. 

The real test was to see how much of their free time each group would spend playing with puzzles in round three. Here were the results:

Graph showing the time spent working on puzzles.

The experimental group spent less time on the puzzles after they had previously been paid while the control group spent more time. This shows the motivation to play with puzzles decreased after an incentive was introduced, but increased when there was never any incentive.

Thinking back to the manager, Paul, and his cashiers, Deci's experiment helps explain why the incentive program did little to improve service. 

Incentives Create Bad Behavior

There's more at stake than just poor service. Incentives often cause bad behavior.

According to Nate, a former support team leader, contests can easily demotivate employees. "We used to try to do little competitions between agents. It just never worked. One or two would go all in and immediately turn off everyone else, who just would not participate."

Beth, a customer support manager, told me "We would occasionally do a ticket blitz that came with prizes, but it had a hard end date and was, frankly, mostly about volume at that point." 

Many companies offer incentives to employees who get good survey scores. The scores might go up, but often through manipulation and gaming the system rather than better service. If you've ever experienced someone pleading with you to give them a "10" on the survey, you've seen this in action.

A lot of companies tie incentives to revenue generation, which can also go badly. This example comes from Erica. "We had a month-long dialing contest to encourage new business development. The idea was that the salesperson who made the most calls in any given week would be eligible for a prize. Some of the salespeople started making random calls to ridiculous places to get their tally up. I don't think we landed a single new piece of business that month."

The list of egregious behaviors goes on:

  • Entering fake surveys to boost scores

  • Creating false accounts to earn sales incentives

  • Pressuring customers to avoid account cancellations

  • Closing service tickets before the issue is solved to increase productivity

  • Hanging up on customers to keep talk time low

These are just a few examples. You can find even more stories of incentives creating the wrong behaviors in my book, Getting Service Right.

Take Action

Managers often ask me how they can possibly motivate their employees without incentives.

The answer might surprise you—if you hire right, your employees are naturally motivated! Most customer service professionals truly want to do a good job.

The key is to make it easy for your employees to do the right thing and take care of their customers. You can learn more and see examples in this webinar I facilitated with Five9's Darryl Addington and ICMI's Erica Marois.

Lessons From The Overlook: Stick to Your Core

Note: Lessons from The Overlook is a monthly update on lessons learned from owning a vacation rental property in the Southern California mountain town of Idyllwild. It's a hands-on opportunity to apply some of the techniques I advise my clients to use. You can find past updates here.

I haven’t written about The Overlook in awhile. That’s because my wife, Sally, and I have been working on a big change that we’re finally ready to announce.

We’re selling the cabin.

It was a difficult decision in some ways. We really like the cabin and we've put a lot of time, money, and effort into making it nice. Revenue is looking good this year, and the cabin was rented every weekend in May.

Yet the decision came fast when the moment was right to make it. We know we're doing the right thing because we're sticking to our core. 

Here's how we made the decision and how our process can help you make your next strategic move. 

The Overlook cabin in Idyllwild, California.

Know Your Core

Your core is the reason your business exists.

For small businesses, it might be your passion. Perhaps you started a wedding photography company because you love taking pictures. Or you spent years playing with recipes in your kitchen before opening a bakery.

The core can be tougher to find when a business grows larger and you have employees. Larger organizations often define the core through a mission statement. Some use a customer service vision, which is a shared definition of outstanding service that gets everyone on the same page.

What's our core at The Overlook? 

Sally and I wanted a mountain retreat. We love hiking in the mountains or just relaxing under a tall tree while soaking in big views and clean air. Property is expensive in Southern California, so we decided to turn the cabin into a vacation rental to help finance the cost of ownership.

Discussion question: What's your business's core?

Use Your Core to Make Decisions

Business leaders face a lot of difficult challenges every day.

Too many are based on theory alone—"I think this will work"—with no data to support it. Other decisions are backed by financials or other good data, but it's still hard to say for certain what's the right move.

That's where your core comes in. It acts as a compass to point you in the right direction.

The real estate market in Idyllwild has been heating up lately. Several real estate professionals have told us we could make a nice profit by selling our cabin. We ran the numbers and it seems they're right.

So we put it up for sale. You can see the listing here.

The decision wasn't too difficult because we stuck to our core. While we love The Overlook, it's too big for just Sally and me. The cabin has three bedrooms plus a loft bedroom and three bathrooms. It's usually just us, our dog, and maybe one other couple who visit the cabin, so that represents a lot of unused real estate for us personally.

In other words, the cabin doesn’t fully align with our core.

Our plan is to sell The Overlook, reinvest in a smaller cabin that better suits us, and pocket the profits. We still plan on turning the new cabin into a vacation rental, so we're not shutting down the business.

We never would have made that decision if we looked at our business as this particular cabin, rather than a more expansive view of why we started the business in the first place.

Discussion question: Think about a difficult business decision you have to make. What choice is most aligned with your core?

Take Action

It's easy to lose sight of your core.

Let's say your wedding photography company starts to expand. Your first love is taking pictures, but now you spend most of your time managing logistics. And if you're really honest with yourself, you love photography but not particularly bridal photography. Uh oh.

It's even worse if you work for a company. The company many not have a clear core, or it might not match yours. Or things just change over time in an endless pursuit of what's next. Work just becomes a serious of tasks, like in this example.

You can change that with a simple exercise:

  1. Reflect on your company's core. (If you're an employee, does it match yours?)

  2. What are you doing when you are fully aligned with the core?

  3. What would you be doing if you were aligned with the core more often?

I was lucky to learn the lesson of sticking to your core many years ago while working for a nonprofit. We were running a fundraiser that was very profitable, but pulled away from our core. Funding and impact both improved dramatically when we refocused.

Sally and I are excited about what happens next. I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

A Fun and Simple Way to Build Elite Customer Service Skills

There are a lot of flight attendants who make air travel more pleasant.

I was relaxing on a recent Alaska Airlines flight, traveling home from Fort Lauderdale where I had just spoken at ICMI's Contact Center Expo. A flight attendant slipped me a bar of chocolate when she came by with the drink cart. 

It was the good stuff. A fabulously delicious jcoco chocolate bar. 

Later on, I took a walk to the back of the plane. The flight attendant and her colleague were in the rear galley, so I said "Hi" to my new friend. She smiled and told me she appreciated me. "You've been so sweet and patient."

What did I do that was so special?

There's a special customer service skill-building workout that I like to do. The best part is you can do the workout while you are the customer.

It's convenient and it often leads to better service, like my experience on the flight. Here's how it works.

A smiling grocery store cashier bagging groceries for a customer.

My Customer Service Workout

The workout starts with the intention to be a good customer. 

If you've read this blog before, you know I've often written about the importance of having a customer service vision. This is a shared definition of outstanding customer service that gets everyone on the same page and gives each employee a clear purpose in their daily customer interactions.

So my intention to be a good customer is a way to practice having a vision.

I know from personal experience how hard customer service can be. You work long hours, you're tired, and attending to other people's needs can drain you emotionally. I also know that it takes just one great customer to give you a huge lift and make it all worth it.

So I try to be that customer. Someone who is pleasant, friendly, and easy to serve. Considering the encounter from the service provider's perspective is also a great way to work on my empathy skills.

From there, I like to practice the fundamentals:

  • Building Rapport

  • Exceeding Expectations

  • Solving Problems

I look for opportunities to build rapport and break the ice with service providers. I try to be an easy customer to serve, thereby exceeding their expectations for me. And I collaborate with them to solve problems or even prevent them from occurring.

Working on all these skills while I'm a customer helps drill them into my unconscious memory, so they become habits I can easily turn to when I'm serving customers myself.

What I Did on the Plane

There wasn't anything special I did on the plane to earn a little extra attention from a flight attendant who was already friendly and helpful. But I know the small things add up.

I took my head phones out and paused the movie I was watching when she came by with the drink cart. It's amazing how many passengers don't do this, but those same people would throw a fit if the flight attendant was preoccupied with her phone while trying to serve us. 

Giving people your full attention is simply polite. I did a few other small things that are basic demonstrations of courtesy:

  • Smiling

  • Saying "Please" and "Thank you"

  • Preparation—my credit card was out and ready for the snack I purchased

  • Waiting patiently for my turn to order a beverage

None of these would be special in a social situation. It's exactly how you would behave if you were a guest at a friend's house. Yet something magically changes when people become customers, and I can tell you from observation that what I was doing was rare.

There were a lot of passengers whose actions unconsciously demonstrated they felt the flight attendant was beneath them.

  • Headphones stayed in and the movie stayed on, versus pausing and paying attention.

  • “I’ll have an orange juice” versus “I’d like an orange juice, please.”

  • A head nod as they went back to their movie versus “Thank you.”

So my small acts of courtesy stood out in a positive way. Practicing them in this situation helps these skills come more naturally when I'm serving my own customers.

Create Your Own Workout

The workout is called "practice while you shop." You can do it almost anyplace you are a customer.

When you call a contact center, try to start the interaction by learning the agent's name and developing some rapport, even if you're annoyed by having to wade through the endless phone menu. It often helps the call go better.

When you're dining in a restaurant, introduce yourself when the server share's their name. Give them your full attention, and ask for their recommendations (everyone likes to be an expert). You'll often receive more attentive service.

And each time you think of complaining about a company on social media, try complimenting five other companies or individuals for a job well done. Sharing more compliments than complaints helps you appreciate the positive.

You can get more practice while you shop ideas from this LinkedIn Learning course.

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.