Why Gemba is the Best Way to Solve Service Failures

Advertising disclosure: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

The CEO called me with an urgent training project.

Our parking management firm was in danger of losing an important contract at a hotel where we managed the valet and self-parking operation. The client was unhappy about poor service quality and gave us thirty days to improve.

The CEO told me to go to the hotel and train the staff and the manager. He wanted me to show them how to deliver service the right way, and then make sure they did it. This was going to be my priority for the next 30 days.

I decided to meet the parking manager and take a gemba walk. It was fortunate that I did, because it quickly became clear that training was not the problem.

A valet parking attendant is opening the car door for a guest.

What is a gemba walk?

A gemba walk involves going to where the work is done and observing it first-hand. It requires you to approach the situation with an open mind and ask questions to gain a better understanding of how people do the work and why they do it the way they do.

The term gemba (or genba) is a Japanese word that means "the actual place." It's a principle closely associated with lean manufacturing, but I've always found it to be a great way to diagnose service failures.

My gemba walk with the hotel parking manager was revealing.

Our client, the hotel's general manager, was unhappy because our valets frequently failed service audits conducted by mystery shoppers. These were auditors who posed as guests and evaluated the hotel on a comprehensive list of service measures. 

Graph showing actual mystery shopper audit score of 78% compared to a goal of 85%.

The mission was to find out why our valets were failing the audits.

I spent about an hour with the manager reviewing the valet operation. Unlike a mystery shopper, a gemba walk involves directly observing the work and talking to the people doing it.

  • We watched the valets serve guests.

  • I asked questions to learn about what they were doing and why.

  • We walked through the entire operation, include back-of-the-house areas.

This was just one shift, and the hotel was a 24/7 operation. I came back several times on nights and weekends to observe other valets in action and did another gemba walk with the supervisor who reported to the manager. 

We quickly discovered the root cause of the service issues.

What is the purpose of a gemba walk?

A gemba walk allows you to see insights that might otherwise be hidden. Leaders can be misled by data and easily jump to the wrong conclusions without seeing the full picture.

Remember the call from my CEO?

He had assumed the problem was training. Using this guide for diagnosing training issues, I knew that employees need training when they lack one of three things necessary to do their job:

  • Knowledge

  • Skill

  • Ability

The gemba walk with the parking manager quickly revealed the valets had the knowledge, skill, and ability to do their jobs. None of this was guesswork. 

  • I observed the valets providing excellent service to guests when the front drive was busy.

  • I observed them getting bored when the hotel's front drive was slow.

  • The valets told me exactly why they got bored and goofed off during slow times.

So it wasn't a training issue.

The problem was they didn't do the job consistently. The valets got bored when work was slow, lost focus, and started goofing off. They were also missing some critical information:

  • Mystery shopper reports weren’t shared with the team.

  • The valets didn’t realize the contract, and their jobs, were at risk.

I didn't have to suggest the solutions. The valets came up with some on their own, and the manager created a simple, but brilliant, plan to tie it all together.

When should you do a gemba walk?

A gemba walk is useful whenever you need to identify the root cause of a problem. There are a number of benefits to going directly to where the work is being done.

  • Test assumptions

  • Verify procedures are being followed (often, they aren't)

  • Talk to the people actually doing the work

Observing the work being done is one of the best quick fixes for solving performance challenges of any kind.

Throughout my career as a trainer, customer service manger, and a consultant, I've often seen gemba walks lead to very different conclusions than the initial diagnosis:

  • A "problem employee" was actually being victimized by a toxic coworker.

  • An incentive program designed to improve service made service worse.

  • A "short-staffed" team improved productivity by 25 percent without adding staff.

Gemba walks can also help you identify customer service icebergs.

An iceberg looks like a small issue on the surface, but a much larger and dangerous problem is hidden below the surface. For example, when the pages fell out of one of my books, I investigated the problem and discovered thousands of defective books had been shipped to retailers.

The author holding up a defective copy of his book, Service Failure.

How to do a customer service gemba walk

There are a few techniques that can make your gemba walk successful. Do a little bit of upfront planning, ask questions to approach the work with an open mind, and show respect to the employees doing the work.

Planning for a Gemba Walk

You don't need to do a lot of planning to prepare for a gemba walk, but a few simple steps will make the process much more useful.

  1. Clearly identify the objective. What are you trying to discover?

  2. Let people know you're coming.

These steps will help you get the cooperation and buy-in from the employees you observe. You'll learn a lot more, and get more forthright cooperation, if you avoid coming across as someone who is merely there to catch people doing it wrong.

I did a few things to prepare for my visit to the hotel.

First, I asked the CEO to let the president of the hotel division know what I would be doing, and that he had requested it. The president was a very hands-off leader, but I also knew he could easily get defensive. After all, the CEO was coming to me because the hotel division president had failed.

Second, I called the hotel parking manager. Fortunately, we already had a good relationship, so I was very candid about my project. I knew the contract was in jeopardy and it was my goal to help him save it.

Finally, I reviewed the mystery shopping audits. I wanted to make sure the mystery shoppers were looking at the same service standards we were training our valets to perform. (They were.)

Ask Questions

Keep and open mind and ask questions to reveal insights that you might otherwise miss. Resist jumping to conclusions. Even if you see an employee doing something wrong, asking why they're doing it can be revealing.

I asked a lot of questions when I observed the hotel valets. I even asked them why they were goofing off when I saw them get bored and start to stand in a circle and talk to each other. It wasn't an accusatory question— I really wanted to know.

The valets were very forthcoming about the reasons for this. The valets found it hard to stay focused and alert when nothing was happening. Most were young and inexperienced, and they enjoyed an easy camaraderie with each other, so goofing off was almost second nature.

They also had some suggestions for improvement.

  • Provide small tasks they could do in between guests.

  • Rotate positions during slow times to reduce boredom.

  • Share the results of the mystery shopper audits.

That last point was key.

The manager hadn't been sharing the audit reports with the valets. They knew the hotel's general manager was unhappy, but they had no idea the contract was at risk. And they didn't realize that losing the contract would mean losing their jobs.

Show Respect

Employees will generally be candid about how they do their job if you ask honest questions with an intention to help. Keep in mind that you're there to help them, not catch them doing something wrong.

With the hotel valets, I was careful not to come off as some corporate guy who was there to catch them doing wrong. I tried to convey to each one that I appreciated the work they were doing and wanted to help.

It was also important to show respect to the manager and the supervisor. Once we discovered the valets needed more information about the mystery shopper audits, I asked the manager what he thought could be done.

His idea was brilliant.

Additional Resources

Here are a few resources to help you plan your first gemba walk.

This short video provides some nice visual examples.


The CEO requested training, but I didn’t do any.

What I did was work with the valets, the valet manager, and the valet supervisor to understand the root cause of the problems. I then facilitated their ideas for improving service and keeping the contract.

The valets had made several suggestions for improvement. The valet manager tied it all together with a simple tactic.

He cleared a bulletin board in the parking office and mounted a piece of string horizontally across the board. Then he put a sign on the string that read "85%" to represent the target score for mystery shopper reports.

The manager began posting each mystery shopper report on the board as it came in. 

  • If it passed, it went above the string.

  • If it scored below 85 percent, he posted it below the string.

The valets immediately got the message. 

Nobody wanted to let the team down and fail an audit. They encouraged each other to stay sharp and implemented their ideas. The manager gave praise and recognition with each passing audit, and offered coaching each time an audit was failed.

The hotel's general manager was very happy with the results by the end of the month.

Graph showing the improvement of mystery shopper audit scores after one month.

My CEO was happy, too. He didn’t really care whether or not we did training. His goal was to save the contract, which is exactly what the gemba walk helped us do.

Cover image of Getting Service Right book.

In my book, Getting Service Right, I detail a number of service failures where the solution wasn't immediately obvious. The book also captures candid responses from employees:

  • Why an employee lied to customers.

  • Why an employee deliberately provided poor service.

  • What an employee really wanted to do when confronted by an angry customer.

Finding the solution to these problems often requires a gemba walk.

How to Gain Executive Buy-In for CX Initiatives

Shaun Belding, author of The Journey to WOW

Shaun Belding, author of The Journey to WOW

Advertising disclosure: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

"Our executives aren't committed."

That's the biggest gripe I hear about customer experience, or CX. Companies are launching new initiatives, but executives aren't making CX a true priority.

Here are some statements I've heard from frustrated leaders:

  • "We just report our Net Promoter Score results, but don't do anything."

  • "All we've done is have endless committee meetings."

  • "My VP doesn't want to hear customer feedback."

  • "I don't think our CEO actually knows what CX means."

  • "We were in the process of implementing the CX vision, when marketing surprised us with a new one."

One factor is the confusion between customer experience and customer service. 

Customer service teams are re-naming themselves the "customer experience" team, but customer experience is much broader than just service. (If you aren't sure about the difference, you can check out this handy explainer.)

There are other barriers to gaining executive buy-in.

CX expert Shaun Belding highlights a number of them in his book, The Journey to WOW: The Path to Outstanding Customer Experience and Loyalty. It's a story about a company embarking on a CX initiative and the difficulty the CEO faces when trying to get everyone on board.

The book is available on Amazon and I highly recommend it. 

Belding and I recently had a conversation about getting the c-suite to buy-in to CX initiatives. He provided insightful responses to a wide range of questions:

  • Why is it difficult to get buy-in for CX initiatives?

  • Should there be someone in the c-suite with CX in the title?

  • What does the CEO need to do to get the rest of the team to buy-in?

  • How do you prevent CX from becoming just a "flavor of the month" program?

  • Why is it challenging for leaders to embrace a CX vision?

You'll gain a ton of practical ideas by watching the 21 minute interview.

You can learn more about Belding by visiting his website or following him on Twitter.

I encourage you to pick up a copy of Belding's book, The Journey to WOW, and learn how to get your own CX journey back on track! 

How to Help Your Team Manage Customer Expectations

Advertising disclosure: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Many years ago, I managed a customer service team for a catalog company that sold imported items from Eastern Europe, including antiques. The antiques were often unique and were slightly different than the pictures on our website or in our catalog.

Russian samovars were a particular challenge. These are highly decorated tea urns that come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. A quick look at the ebay page for samovars can illustrate the variety.

This created an expectation management problem for my team.

A customer might get angry if they bought a samovar and it didn't look like the one in the catalog. So we devised a plan to manage expectations whenever we saw a samovar order.

  1. A customer service rep proactively contacted the customer.

  2. The rep discussed our actual inventory and emailed photos.

  3. The rep helped the customer make their selection.

You might not be selling antiques, but there's a good chance you have an expectation management challenge.

Think about how customers want to be served these days:

  • Easier

  • Cheaper

  • Faster

  • Better

  • Personalized

If a customer can easily order something on Amazon for a great price and get it delivered overnight then they will expect you to do the same. Unfortunately, giving a customer exactly what they want isn’t always practical or cost effective.

If that’s the case, you’ll need to help your team manage expectations.

A person holding a notepad with the words “customer expectations” written on it.

Why is it important to manage customer expectations?

Let's start with a general definition of good, poor, and outstanding customer service:

  • Good service occurs when a customer's expectations are met.

  • Poor service falls short of a customer's expectations.

  • Outstanding service exceeds a customer's expectations.

The key to it all is what your customer expects. This is frustrating for some service professionals because they might try their hardest and go the extra mile, but the customer still expected more than they could deliver.

Believe it or not, many of our customers’ expectations come directly from us:

  • How we advertise our products and services

  • What our salespeople promise

  • What the customer's last experience was like

  • How we communicate with customers

  • The way our products are packaged

  • How we display information on our website

  • Signage in our buildings

If we aren’t careful, we can help customers create expectations that won’t be met. You're probably well-versed with what can happen when service falls short of a customer's expectations:

  • Increased contacts

  • Increased escalations

  • Increased service recovery cost

  • Decreased customer satisfaction

  • Decreased customer loyalty

  • Decreased word-of-mouth

This short video highlights the impact of unpleasant surprises on our customers. The short scene 30 seconds in feels all too real to me, because I've heard it from an actual customer.

Customer Expectation Management Tactics

There are a few things you can do as a customer service leader to help your team.

1. Identify expectation management situations

Make a list of situations where customers might expect something more or different than your company can provide. Create resources and procedures to help your team guide customers through these situations.

Examples include:

  • How long does it take to respond to customers?

  • How do service delivery processes work?

  • Do you have any unusual or unfriendly policies?

  • Are there any unexpected fees associated with your product or service?

  • Does your product or service have any unusual features?

Customers might be surprised the first time they walk into a Bonobos Guideshop. The stores don't carry inventory like a typical clothing store. A helpful, friendly employee helps you select the right fit, styles, and colors, and your new clothes are shipped directly to you.

This is fairly unusual, so store employees are trained to share the explanation with new customers who visit the store. Bonobos also explains the process on its website and in this video.

2. Get inside your customers’ heads

Another step is to take time to understand your customers, so you can share those insights with your team and make adjustments as needed.

  • Review top complaints to see what bothers them.

  • Talk to customers one-on-one to get to know them.

  • Walk in your customer's shoes to see their perspective.

My wife and I own a vacation rental property called The Overlook. We spend a lot of time trying to understand our customers' perspective. We stay at the cabin as guests. We visit the cabin right after guests check out to see how they use it. This activity has generated a lot of insight.

For example, we learned through guest feedback that people had a hard time finding the WiFi password. It was on a sign that's easy to see, but the sign itself was so cluttered that people didn't read it.

So we updated it.

The old WiFi sign.

The old WiFi sign.

The new WiFi sign.

The new WiFi sign.

3. Conduct a marketing and communications audit

Take a close look at what your company is communicating to customers. Identify any possible misunderstandings and clear them up. Share key information with your team, such as new promotions, so everyone is on the same page.

Here are a few places you might look:

  • Commercials (radio, TV, etc.)

  • Website

  • Direct communication (mailers, catalogs, etc.)

  • Signage

  • Social media

My payroll provider recently emailed me a price increase notice. To add insult to injury, the new monthly price was 44 percent higher than the regular, non-promotional price listed on the company's website!

I contacted the company's customer service department, but the reps were caught off-guard. None of them were empowered to adjust my pricing to match what was advertised.

So I switched payroll providers.

4. Use data to spot trends

There's a good chance you're swimming in data. One way to make use of it is to look for places where a product or service consistently falls short of expectations and make adjustments.

Here are a few ideas:

  • What are the top reasons customers contact your company for service?

  • What products or services are frequently purchased together?

  • What are top reasons products are returned?

One company analyzed its product returns and discovered over $1 million in preventable returns per year. Customers were returning products that worked perfectly well, but customers couldn't figure out how to use them correctly.

5. Manage response time expectations

The amount of time it takes to respond to a customer is a big opportunity.

I conducted a consumer study in 2018, and learned that companies should respond to customer emails in just one hour. Better make that 15 minutes if you want to deliver world-class service.

Most companies aren't nearly that fast.

Another study of mind revealed that more than 60 percent of customer complaints on Twitter are because a customer is waiting for a response to a service issue or never received one.

The easiest solution is to respond faster. That's not always feasible, so here's what else you can do:

  • Post response time expectations on your website's contact page

  • Use an auto-response to tell customers when you'll respond to an email or text.

  • Share the expected wait time on your hold message or add a call-back service.

This webinar provides even more advice.

Customer Expectation Management Training

There are specific skills that can help your employees better manage customer expectations. For example, the particular language we use is important. 

Let's say you work in a doctor's office and want to let a patient know they'll get their lab results in 2-3 days. Most of us would say just that, "Your lab results will be ready in 2-3 days."

What you may not realize is that many customers hear and remember the best-case scenario, which is two days. So they'll expect to get their lab results within two days and might even be mildly annoyed if it takes three.

An easier solution is to train your team to use the worst-case scenario. You might say it this way, "Your lab results will be ready in three days."

Now nobody's upset if it takes three days as promised. And you can exceed expectations if it only takes two.

Here are some more examples of language that can help set expectations.

You can also have your team take my training program on LinkedIn Learning or Lynda: Managing Customer Expectations for Frontline Employees. Here's a preview.

How to deal with unrealistic customer expectations

There will always be a few unreasonable customers.

You'll encounter far fewer if you follow the advice outlined above. But that won't eliminate unrealistic expectations entirely.

Here are some actual complaints I've heard from Ben & Jerry's customers on Free Cone Day, a day once per year when Ben & Jerry's stores give away free ice cream.

  • "The line is too long."

  • "The cones are too small."

  • "They don’t have a good selection of flavors."

What's wrong with these people?! It's free ice cream!!!

The lesson is we can't make everyone happy. In their excellent book, Uncommon Service, authors Frances Frei and Anne Morriss explain how elite organizations keep their core customers happy by making trade-offs. These companies focus on what their customers really want, while ignoring what's not important.

  • Southwest Airlines offers low fares, but not assigned seats.

  • In-N-Out offers amazing burgers, but no salads.

  • Trader Joe's has amazing products, but relatively few options in each category.

Being selective about what you offer can help customers decide whether your product or service is right for them.

Of course, that still won't stop some customers from complaining. One solution is to focus on what can be done.

Let's say you are a restaurant host and a party of eight arrives on a busy night with no reservation. The only open table you have is one that seats four, yet the group insists on being seated.

You can relent, but that will only cause headaches:

  • Their service will be slow (so they'll probably complain, anyway).

  • They'll be uncomfortable, and it's likely the guests around them will be, too.

  • Other guests will receive slower, less attentive service.

You are suddenly worried that this might be a group of eight angry Yelpers who are just itching to leave a bad review. Despite the tough situation, there still might be some good options:

  • Explain how seating the group immediately would create a poor experience.

  • Suggest the group wait at the bar until a table opens up.

  • Recommend another restaurant nearby that's not busy.

I devoted an entire chapter to unreasonable customers in my book, Getting Service Right. It contains even more examples, insights, and tactics to help you solve this challenge.

Take Action

Customer service leaders should make it as easy as possible for employees to serve their customers at the highest level. This includes helping to manage customer expectations, so customers are less likely to experience an unpleasant surprise.

What customer expectation would you like to better manage?

How to Follow-up with Customers Like a Pro

Follow-up can be the difference between relationship-driven service or a mere transaction. 

A Customer Service Tip of the Week subscriber recently emailed to tell me she had stopped receiving the weekly tips. The subscriber wanted to know why they had stopped and how she could continue to receive them.

The challenge was everything looked fine on my end. Her email was correct in my email management system, her subscription was active, and the emails were being sent each week with no errors.

So I sent her my typical advice for situations like this: check your spam folder.

That's where the emails usually land when they're not being received. But I made a note to follow-up the next Monday to see if the issue was resolved. I'm glad I did.

This post looks at why customer follow-up is important, when you should follow-up, and how to remember to follow-up when you have a busy schedule like I do.

Notepad with the words “Don’t Forget to Follow Up” typed on it.

Why is follow-up important in customer service?

The benefits of following up with customers include confirming problems are resolved, preventing future issues, and building stronger relationships. Companies often gain far more customer feedback when they follow up after a service interaction.

Confirm Problems Are Resolved

Follow-up allows you to verify problems are resolved, and learn from situations when they aren't.

I followed up with my subscriber the following Monday. She had checked her spam folder and the emails weren't going there. So I dug deeper to do some more research.

That's when I learned my first response was incomplete. The other solution I should have suggested was to check with her company's IT department to make sure their email servers weren't blocking my email.

It turned out that was the issue. She planned to follow-up with her IT to see if it could be fixed. In the meantime, she subscribed using her personal email address so she could continue receiving the weekly emails.

I learned from this experience and updated the template I use to respond to this type of issue. Here’s the old template:

Old email template for responding to subscribers who don’t receive my emails.

The new template includes a more complete set of options:

  • Check your spam folder

  • Check with your IT department

  • Subscribe with another email address

Revised email template for replying to subscribers who aren’t receiving emails

I'm not alone with my inadequate email response.

A 2019 study from SuperOffice found that just 20 percent of companies fully answered a customer's question on the first reply. The same study discovered that only 3 percent of companies followed up after responding to a customer email. 

Without follow-up, it's difficult for these companies to learn from mistakes like I did.

Next Issue Prevention

Follow-up can help customers avoid future problems.

The Customer Service Tip of the Week subscriber mentioned that she was forwarding my weekly tips to her team. This meant that if she wasn't receiving them, her team wasn't receiving them, either.

So I forwarded her the current week's tip so she'd have it while we tried to figure out why she wasn't receiving the automated emails. I also sent her some additional advice on how to prevent people from accidentally unsubscribing her, since the "unsubscribe" link in each email remains active when you forward it.

When you reconnect with a customer, try to anticipate additional problems they might experience and offer solutions to those as well. This turns your service from reactive (responding to a problem) into proactive (preventing a problem).

Build Relationships

Follow-up allows you to build rapport with customers.

I followed up with the subscriber again the next week. She confirmed the email had come through via her personal email address, so our solution would work until her IT department could tell the company's email servers to allow my emails to go through.

It would have been great to solve the problem on the first try, but our email exchange helped us develop some rapport. She even bought a copy of my Customer Service Tip of the Week book!

Even a simple check-in message can let a customer know you care. It helps them see you as a person and not just the other end of a transaction.

When should you follow-up with a customer?

The timing depends on the situation. It could be immediately after you solve a problem, after a critical event, or after a designated period of time such as 24 hours.


Some situations call for immediate follow-up, especially when you are serving a customer face-to-face. 

You can see a great example of immediate follow-up in this short video on tending to customers' emotional needs. Pay particular attention to the vignette that starts at the 2:45 mark, where the barista masterfully de-escalates an angry customer and then follows up to ensure she's happy.

After a Critical Event

There are times when it makes more sense to wait for something specific to happen before you follow up with a customer.

For example, my Customer Service Tip of the Week email is sent out each Monday. So it makes sense that I wait until after the next email is sent before following up with the subscriber again. 

When I worked in the catalog business, my team would run a report of any order that had been upgraded to express shipping. We figured any order sent express was particularly important to the customer. So we would track the order to ensure it showed delivered, and then call the customer to verify everything was okay.

Designated Period of Time

Sometimes, it doesn't make sense to follow-up immediately, but there isn't a specific event you're waiting for. In those situations, you can follow-up after a set period of time such as 24 hours.

I recently interviewed Andrew Gilliam, an ITS Service Desk Consultant at Western Kentucky University who increased his team's survey response rate by 370 percent. The secret was a small change in how follow-up emails were sent.

Customers received an automated follow-up email 24 hours after an issue was resolved. The old message focused on confirming the customer's service ticket was closed. The new message asked the customer for feedback on how the ticket was closed, and invited customers to reconnect if there was still a problem.

You can watch the full, 20 minute interview here.

How to remember to follow-up with customers

People often fail to follow up because they simply forget. An automated reminder can prompt you at the right time to reconnect with a customer.

Here are a few examples:

Use your CRM system. Many customer relationship management (CRM) systems allow you to set follow-up reminders. That's how I usually remember to follow up with someone. I go into my CRM and set a reminder as part of post-contact wrap-up work. The reminder is automatically triggered whenever I select, such as 24 hours later or the following Monday.

Use a reminder app. You can set reminders on your smartphone to trigger at specific times. For personal tasks that aren't appropriate to enter into my CRM, I like to use the "reminders" app on my Mac. The app automatically syncs with my iPhone, and I can use it to trigger reminders on specific dates and times.

Automate it. Some follow-up tasks can be automated. When people subscribe to my Customer Service Tip of the Week email, it automatically triggers an email that confirms the new subscription and provides some tips for getting the most out of the emails.

Take Action

Follow-up doesn't happen by accident. I encourage you think through your own follow-up process:

  • What are situations where follow-up is appropriate?

  • When should you follow up with your customers?

  • How can you ensure follow-up happens?

You can test my follow-up process by subscribing to my Customer Service Tip of the Week email. If you do, you'll find an additional follow-up in my welcome email that I haven't mentioned here.

How Customer Service is Being Ruined by Toxic Coworkers

My favorite local coffee shop took a turn for the worse a few years ago.

A new barista was hired who was rude and abrupt with customers. She made frequent mistakes that caused extra work for her coworkers and created unnecessary service failures. The barista was persistently negative and refused to take responsibility for the problems she caused.

One day, the barista arrived to work and parked her car so far over the line that I couldn't open my car door. I went back into the coffee shop to ask her to move it. She begrudgingly did, but never apologized.

“I was running late,” was all she said.

A new study reveals this is a common issue. A widespread number of toxic employees are working in customer service jobs—far more than in other professions. And it's creating a big problem for both customers and coworkers.

A coffee shop employee parked so far over the line that she blocked my car door.

What the study on toxic employees revealed

The survey was conducted by my company, Toister Performance Solutions, in July, 2019. 

More than 1,500 adults in the United States were asked if they work with at least one toxic coworker in their current job. The results are startling:

Graph illustrating that 22% of employees work with a toxic coworker. The number jumps to 83% for customer service employees.

Customer service employees are nearly four times as likely to have a toxic coworker.

Toxic employees negatively affect the organization. They consistently engage in inappropriate behavior that makes them difficult to work with. This includes:

  • Poor customer service

  • Harassment

  • Theft and fraud

A separate study conducted in 2015 by Michael Housman and Dylan Minor found that 1 in 20 customer service employees were fired for toxic behavior within their first year of employment.

Toxic employees can also harm team dynamics. According to Melanie Proshchenko, Founder and Principal Consultant at Honeycomb Team Solutions, "One toxic team member can infect the entire team by turning otherwise positive, unsuspecting teammates negative."

The barista was a good example. 

Her attitude put her coworkers on edge. They stopped being their usual, friendly selves whenever she was working. When she left her job after just a few months, the remaining employees quickly returned to their previous, customer-friendly habits. 

Why customer service employees are more likely to be toxic

There are a number of explanations for the high number of toxic customer service employees, including poor hiring, poor leadership, and a dangerous combination of risk factors.

Poor Hiring

Imagine you had a hiring process that accidentally made you more likely to hire a toxic employee. Unfortunately, that's exactly what's happening at many companies.

For example, many customer service job postings advertise a quest for "rockstar" employees. The Housman and Minor study found that self-regarding people who consider themselves to be rockstars are 22 percent more likely to be fired for toxic behavior.

Side note: I’ve put together a list of resources to help you improve your hiring process.

Poor Leadership

Catherine Mattice Zundel, CEO and Founder of Civility Partners, shares that many leaders are ill-equipped to handle a toxic employee.

"In my experience, there are so many toxic employees because managers don’t know how to address the behavior. Coaching bad behavior into good isn’t a skill people automatically possess–it requires training, practice, and empowerment from the organization. If the organization doesn’t provide the tools and encouragement for managers to coach toxic behavior, then managers will attempt to work around it instead."

One leader is so afraid of confronting a toxic manager who reports to her that she's resolved to wait until the manager retires—more than two years from now! Meanwhile, that manager's team has the highest turnover and the worst customer service in the organization.

Mattice Zundel also points out that some people may engage in toxic behavior, like workplace bullying, without even realizing it. These employees won't change if their boss doesn't address it.

Dangerous Risk Factors

A 2016 study by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) examined the risk factors that contribute to workplace harassment.

Customer service work itself was one of the risk factors identified. Customer service employees in some industries, particularly hospitality, are routinely subjected to harassment by customers. Some employees begin to accept inappropriate behavior as normal and can see it as tacit approval to act inappropriately themselves.

The EEOC study identified several other risk factors that are common in customer service work environments:

  • Young workforces

  • Monotonous work

  • Decentralized workplaces

The next time you read a headline about a fast food or retail employee doing something terrible, like this, this, or this, there’s a good chance the employee was young, bored, and working far away from corporate oversight.

How to prevent employees from becoming toxic

Organizations can address this issue by focusing on teamwork over individual achievement, setting positive examples, and preventing toxic behavior from spreading.

Focus on Teamwork

Grace Judson is a leadership geek, trainer, coach, and consultant. She wrote a useful guide called The Five Most Challenging Employee Types—and how to manage them. (Download your free copy here.)

Judson suggests emphasizing teamwork. 

"Toxicity can develop in an environment where individual achievement is valued over team accomplishment. It’s important to acknowledge outstanding contribution at the individual level–and it’s equally important to avoid creating competition between individuals by setting team goals and offering whole-team rewards."

My own research on customer-focused teams backs this up. I've discovered that team-oriented metrics are one of three criteria for effective goals.

Set a Positive Example

Melanie Proshchenko emphasizes the need for leaders to set a positive example.

"Get clear about what you expect and let the team dig deep into what that looks like in practice. Tired of backstabbing? Lots of complaining in the halls? Folks whining about petty problems? Define the opposite, positive, specific versions of the behaviors that are bringing the team down and showcase them to the team."

Leaders are often guilty of setting a poor example, and then wrongly expecting their team to do the opposite. For example, frontline employees frequently say the wrong thing to customers because their leader accidentally trained them that way.

One way to set a positive example is to establish a customer service vision. This is a shared definition of outstanding service that gets everyone on the same page, including the leader.

Prevent Toxic Behavior from Spreading

Companies are often too slow to fire people who routinely engage in toxic behavior.

Toxic employees can easily infect others. Research from Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist responsible for the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, reveals that when people around you are engaging in inappropriate behavior, it makes it more likely that you will do the same.

According to the Housman and Minor study, adding just one more toxic employee to a team of 25 made everyone on the team 46 percent more likely to get fired for toxic behavior.

Leaders must take action as soon as they spot inappropriate behavior. Allowing it to go unchallenged almost always results in worse behavior and negative consequences.

What's been your experience with toxic customer service employees? Please leave a comment or drop me a line.

Customer Experience vs. Customer Service: What's the Difference?

My beloved iPad is dying a slow death.

It's several years old and I use it daily. The memory is nearly full. I've dropped it a few times. The lightening connector is getting finicky.

So I'll soon be making a trip to the Apple Store to buy a new one. This process provides a nice overview of the differences between customer experience, customer service, and even customer success.

Man scratching his head in confusion.

What is Customer Experience?

Here's a definition from customer experience expert, Annette Franz:

The sum of all the interactions that a customer has with an organization over the life of the “relationship” with that company… and, especially, the feelings, emotions, and perceptions the customer has about those interactions.

The elements of customer experience go well beyond just customer service. To illustrate this, I've listed some of the steps in my customer journey with the customer service elements in bold.

  • My experience with my current iPad (I love it, so I want another)

  • Visiting the Apple website to research new options

  • Driving to the Apple Store and parking (gotta avoid the crowds!)

  • A person greets me as I walk in the door and offers assistance

  • The Apple Store layout

  • I'm introduced to another employee who assists me with my selection

  • The employee shows me some of the new iPad's features

  • The look, feel, and function of the new iPads

  • The employee rings up my purchase on a mobile device

  • Another employee retrieves my new iPad from the stockroom

  • Unboxing my new iPad at home after I buy it

  • I follow guided instructions to configure my new iPad

  • A support article helps me transfer my content from the old iPad

  • Using the new iPad every day

What is Customer Service?

This is a helpful definition from the Oxford English Dictionary:

The assistance and advice provided by a company to those people who buy or use its products or services.

Customer service also includes something called customer success, which I'll define in just a moment. Here is a summary of the customer service I can expect to receive from Apple, with the customer success elements in italics.

  • A person greets me as I walk in the door and offers assistance

  • I'm introduced to another employee who assists me with my selection

  • The employee shows me some of the new iPad's features

  • The employee rings up my purchase on a mobile device

  • Another employee retrieves my new iPad from the stockroom

  • I follow guided instructions to configure my new iPad

  • A support article helps me transfer my content from the old iPad

What is Customer Success?

Here's a straightforward definition from Hubspot:

An organizational function that helps customers get maximum value out of a product or service.

Buying a new iPad would be a frustrating experience if I couldn't figure out how to use it. There are a few particular functions, such as configuring the new device or transferring content from my old device that can either create a moment of delight or a moment of misery.

Here are some examples of how Apple focuses on customer success:

  • The Apple Store employee shows me some of the new iPad's features

  • I follow guided instructions to configure my new iPad

  • A support article helps me transfer my content from the old iPad

The Total Customer Experience

One of Apple's secrets is the organization's understanding of all three elements and how they work together.

The overall experience is customer-focused. Apple's products work seamlessly together, which is why I own a MacBook, an iPad, and an iPhone. 

The customer service function is designed to quickly get me the help I need. When there's a human involved, I've consistently been served by someone who was friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable. 

The customer success function is dialed in to make using Apple products easy and intuitive. There are gentle nudges, such as on-screen prompts, in just the right places along with deeper assistance and even in-store classes if I need them.

So yes, I'm a huge fan.

Customer Experience vs. Customer Service Infographic

customer experience vs customer success infographic

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The Best Phrases for Taking Ownership of Service Failures

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Customer service often involves solving problems we didn't create.

Our colleagues make mistakes. A defective product, a late shipment, or a billing error can all send fuming customers in our direction. Sometimes, customers themselves cause the issue.

We're expected to take ownership of these situations, represent the company, and help customers feel better. Yet it's tempting to deflect ownership when the pressure is on:

  • "They don’t know what they’re doing in that department."

  • "They've been having problems in production."

  • "You should have read the policy."

The instinct is to deflect blame and distance yourself from the issue. While the words may be true, they aren't very helpful. Customers still look at you and your company as one and the same.

Here are some positive phrases that can change the tone when you have to resolve a problem that's not your fault.

Stamp with the words “own it.”

What to say when a coworker makes a mistake

Our colleagues sometimes make mistakes, and we have to pick up the pieces.

I once tried to use a paper certificate to rent a car. The employee at the rental counter told me to present it as payment when I returned the vehicle. 

Unfortunately, this was a mistake. The employee should have taken the certificate. I learned this when I returned the car and explained I was told to use the certificate then. "Who told you that?!" asked the visibly frustrated employee.

His defensive statement was designed to distance himself from the problem, but it actually made him seem less capable. Here’s a better way to handle a coworker’s error:

  1. Acknowledge the error, using “we” to accept ownership.

  2. Refocus on a solution. 

Here's what he could have said:

"I'm sorry we gave you the wrong information! It will take just a moment to get this resolved so we can get you on your way to the airport."

The time to address a coworker’s mistake is after the customer has been served. This is still an important step, since the employee might continue to make the same mistake if nobody shares any feedback.

What to say when there's a delay

Delays often happen that cause our customers to become anxious or frustrated.

You've probably found yourself getting hungry while waiting for your food in a restaurant. It doesn’t help when the server defensively says, "They're backed up in the kitchen. There's nothing I can do."

Here's a better way to approach a delay:

  1. Apologize for the delay, using “we” to accept ownership.

  2. Provide a brief explanation (this helps the customer feel better).

  3. Refocus on a solution.

A server might say it this way:

"Thanks for your patience—I'm sorry about the wait. We got a lot of orders in at the same time, so it's taking longer than usual. I just checked with the kitchen, and your food will be out in a few more minutes. May I refill your drinks in the meantime?"

Notice the brief explanation comes after the apology. 

The explanation will sound like an excuse if it comes before a sincere apology. However, providing a brief explanation after the apology can make the customer more understanding of the situation. 

What to say when it's the customer's fault

Customers are sometimes the ones who make the mistake. 

A couple went to the theatre, but discovered they had purchased tickets for the next night's show! They had paid for dinner, parking, and a babysitter, but now their fun was in danger due to a careless error.

It would have been tempting to blame the customers in this situation, but that was a lose-lose move. The customers would lose out on a night of fun, and the theatre might lose out on the couple's future business because the couple would be frustrated and embarrassed.

Here’s a better way to handle a customer’s error:

  1. Avoid blaming the customer.

  2. Minimize their embarrassment if possible.

  3. Refocus on a solution.

Here's what the theatre employee said:

"Don’t worry, this happens more than you might think! I do have two seats available a few rows back. You're welcome to take those and enjoy this evening's performance, or come back tomorrow and use your tickets then. Which would you prefer?"

Giving options reduced friction because it involved the customers in finding a solution. The grateful couple accepted the offer to attend that evening, and were happy and relieved that the theatre employee had help them recover from their own error.

Take Action

These phrases are just a few common examples. There will always be tricky situations where taking ownership and saying the right thing is a challenge.

There's a wonderful exercise in the book, The Effortless Experience, by Matt Dixon, Nick Toman, and Rick DeLisi called "say this, not that." I highly recommend you get the book, but here's an overview of the exercise:

  1. List situations where you might be tempted to avoid ownership.

  2. Brainstorm a list of things you should definitely not say.

  3. Discuss more positive alternatives that accept ownership.

I've facilitated this exercise with customer service teams before and it's a lot of fun. People enjoy the chance to say the wrong things out loud in a safe setting, and they appreciate coming up with effective alternatives.

Saying the right thing isn’t easy. I said the wrong thing to the first customer I ever served, but I made sure I learned from the experience.

Why You Need to Fire Your Toxic Employee

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Some people suck the air out of the room.

George is an example. He talks too loud on the phone, to the point where it seems like he's shouting in an open space work environment filled with coworkers and customers. He frequently makes promises to customers that can't be kept, and George's coworkers end up having to deal with the fallout.

Even worse, George is manipulative. He begs, needles, and cajoles customers into giving him good survey scores. At George's company, good survey scores are all that matter.

His coworkers don't like him. He's abrasive and difficult to work with. Many customers don't like him either, after being on the receiving end of his poor service. It's like a breath of fresh air when George has the day off.

Yet George's boss hasn't done anything about it. Here's why that's a big mistake.

An angry boss firing an employee.

How common are toxic customer service employees?

I recently wrote a post describing ways customer service leaders accidentally hire toxic employees, and how to avoid it. (Read that post here.)

Much of the post was based on a 2015 study by Michael Housman and Dylan Minor that reviewed hiring and termination data for 58,542 customer service employees. The study revealed 1 in 20 were terminated for toxic behavior within their first year of employment.

Housman and Minor defined toxic behavior as "an egregious violation of company policy. Examples include sexual harassment, workplace violence, falsifying documents, fraud, and general workplace misconduct."

What the study didn't account for was toxic employees who weren't fired.

George's behavior qualifies as toxic. He manipulates survey results to keep his job. His boorish presence and repeated service failures have a negative impact on his coworkers. Somehow he’s managed to stay employed for years.

Are you ready for the really scary part? According to data from a recent study, 83 percent of customer service employees work with at least one toxic coworker.

How much do toxic employees cost their employers?

Housman and Minor estimate it costs companies an average of $12,489 to replace a toxic employee. This doesn't include the impact of theft, fraud, litigation, fines, penalties, and other legal fallout from a toxic employee's behavior. 

Toxic behavior includes harassment, which can be an especially costly issue for companies. The typical costs involved in resolving a sexual harassment complaint include:

  • Internal time to investigate

  • Legal fees

  • Cost of settlements or lawsuit payouts

Even the cases that are quickly resolved can add an additional $5,000 to $10,000 in expenses. The cost increases substantially if it can be proven that a company leader knew about the behavior and failed to take action. This doesn't even take into account the soft costs associated with unchecked harassment such as lost productivity, decreased morale, and turnover.

The poor service provided by toxic employees like George is also costly. There's no way of knowing exactly how much he has cost his company in lost business, discounts, and refunds, but it's certainly thousands of dollars.

How do toxic employees impact their coworkers?

Absenteeism. Turnover. Poor productivity. These are all negative impacts associated with having to work with a toxic employee. A colleague shared this example with me from a previous experience. 

"It made me not want to go to work knowing I was going to have see them and deal with their toxicity."

Toxic employees tend to cause other employees to become toxic as well. The Housman and Minor study found that adding just one more toxic employee to a team of 25 people made everyone on the team 46 percent more likely to be fired for toxic behavior.

One customer service leader put it this way:

"Total trickle effect. Instead of just managing one person's bad behavior, their impact resulted in having to manage subsequent toxic behavior, resulting in more time spent coaching those sucked into the spiral."

Employees start to see their boss as part of the problem if the manager doesn't do anything about it. They question why toxic employees are seemingly able to act with impunity.

When I was writing Getting Service Right, a book about obstacles to great customer service, I uncovered amazing stories of toxic behavior that became ingrained in a company's culture because the boss failed to act:

  • Bankers signing off on home foreclosures without due diligence.

  • TSA agents physically violating airline passengers with overly aggressive security screenings.

  • Customer service reps lying to vendors about unpaid bills.

  • Hotel associates deliberately providing poor service to guests.

  • Retail employees bad mouthing coworkers in front of customers.

Take Action

First, a short disclaimer. This post is not legal advice. Please consult your human resources representative or attorney before firing anyone.

If you have a toxic employee who works for you, the best thing you can do is fire them.

I don’t make this suggestion lightly. I'm generally an advocate for employees. Poor performance can be improved. Mistakes can be learned from. Most people want to do a good job.

The first assignment I was given as a new supervisor many years ago was to document an employee's poor performance and fire her. I saw her potential instead, and convinced my boss to let her stay. Five years later, that employee was promoted into my boss's job.

Toxic behavior is different. It's egregious. Examples include harassment, theft, or changing a customer's name to "Asshole" in the billing system. (That last one really happened.)

This type of behavior challenges customer service leaders. Many are naturally compassionate, and want to find a way to save a toxic employee. Perhaps the employee is a top performer, they've been with the company a long time, or the manager is simply afraid.

But what about that employee's coworkers? What about customers? 

When I investigated the person I was supposed to fire, I learned her work was consistently being undermined by a toxic employee. This person would deliberately sabotage my employee's work, and then blame my employee and complain about it to my boss. (This was happening before I was hired and my role hadn't yet been filled.)

The worst part was she got away with it. When I was hired, I documented what she had been doing to my employee and shared it with her boss. Her boss wanted to write her up, but relented when she started crying in the meeting and the boss felt bad about it. The toxic behavior continued.

So dealing with a toxic employee won't be easy. They often don’t go quietly. But what you do next speaks volumes about you as a leader and the culture you're trying to create.

Why Should You Care About Internal Customer Service?

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Imagine a customer service manager needs to hire a new representative.

There are probably a lot of other employees they depend on to get that done. A recruiter posts the job and screens candidates. Human resources provides an orientation. Payroll enters the new hire into the system so they can get paid. Facilities gets the new hire's workstation setup and issues any necessary access badges. IT creates all the necessary software accounts.

All of those people are responsible for internal customer service. 

Internal service doesn't always get the same level of scrutiny as external service, yet it's vital to a company's success. If any of the employees in the scenario above fail to do their job, the new hire won't enjoy a smooth onboarding experience and they may not live up to their potential.

Approximately 50 percent of the training requests I receive are for internal customer service. This post takes a closer look at who is an internal customer and why internal service is so important.

Group of happy coworkers high-giving over a conference table.

Who is an internal customer?

An internal customer is any internal stakeholder you serve. This typically means other employees, but it might also include contractors, temporary workers, or owners. The goal of internal service is usually to help someone else so an external customer receives better service.

There are a few common characteristics of internal customers that help separate them from external customers:

  • Frequency of interactions: we tend to serve the same internal customers more often.

  • Closer relationships: we form tighter bonds with the people we work with.

  • Two-way service: internal customers often serve each other.

That last point is important, yet often overlooked.

Why is internal customer service so important?

Internal service is an essential part of the employee experience.

I once hired a new customer service representative, only to be told by the IT manager that it would take three weeks to get their new computer. That created a poor experience for my new hire and made onboarding more difficult.

It felt like a service failure from the IT manager, but the reality was we were both at fault.

The IT manager learned about about the new hire once they had accepted the job offer, which was just one week before they started. In my mind, this was plenty of time to get a computer and setup the employee's workstation, but that was a big assumption on my part. I caused unnecessary tension with the IT manager because I didn't proactively let him know about my hiring plans.

He doesn't get off the hook in this scenario, either. The three-week lead time to order a computer was excessive, and entirely due to his desire to stick with a certain model of computer. He would have been able to get the new hire setup much faster if he had been more flexible.

It was a powerful learning experience. The next time I hired someone, I was much more proactive. And to the IT manager’s credit, he was much more flexible. The end result was the next employee had a workstation ready to go on their first day.

Later in my career, I saw the concept of mutual internal service play out with a hospital where I was doing some consulting and customer service training.

The hospital provided scrubs for its medical staff. The team responsible for stocking the scrubs was receiving complaints that there were not enough scrubs available and designated storage areas were frequently empty.

The supply manager took a tour of the hospital with a few internal customers to get a closer look. The tour quickly revealed the two-way street that often happens when serving internal customers.

The supply manager learned medical personnel got nervous when the supply of scrubs ran low. They didn't trust the supply team to refill them in time, so people would take extra sets of scrubs and hide them for later. Then when a unit ran out of scrubs, they'd go raid the supply cabinet in another unit, causing them to run out as well.

The solution was fairly straightforward. The supply team agreed to refill the supply cabinets more often, which helped build trust because there was usually an ample amount on hand. And medical staff leaders agreed to reinforce the one pair of scrubs at a time policy, while proactively alerting the supply team if scrubs were getting low so there could be an extra delivery.

Steps to improve internal customer service

The first step to improving service is defining what great service looks like.

This can be done by creating a customer service vision, which is a shared definition of outstanding customer service. My research into customer-focused organizations reveals that elite teams share the same vision for internal and external service.

Brand leadership expert Denise Lee Yohn captures this concept well in her book, Fusion. In it, she describes how the most powerful and authentic brands are a reflection of the company’s internal culture.

On a personal level, you can serve your internal customers better by identifying each one (or group of customers) and their core needs.

For example, in the hiring scenario, I needed the IT manager to provide my new hire with a computer and all the necessary software access. In return, the IT manager needed me to provide him with timely notification of new hires.

You can use this downloadable worksheet to complete the exercise.

This short video provides even more insight into who is an internal customer and why serving them is important.

How to Avoid Hiring Toxic Employees

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Larissa (not her real name) was partying with coworkers and subordinates outside of work. There was a lot of drinking and things got out of hand. People started arguing and a fight broke out.

Intoxication impaired Larissa's judgement. She added fuel to the fire by choosing sides and gossiping.

There was fallout the next day at work. Employees were upset about the altercation and angry at Larissa for her role in it. After all, Larissa was a manager and someone people expected to be a voice of reason.

Her boss quickly got wind of the story and had to investigate.

Larissa admitted her role in the fracas, but didn't accept responsibility. She felt that what she did on her own time was her own business, without understanding that a manager drinking with employees can still be considered a work function.

Her boss subsequently learned that Larissa had created issues at her last job. None of that surfaced during the interview process because Larissa's references had lied about her qualifications and conduct.

Avoiding toxic employees like Larissa can be tricky. In a surprising revelation, many common hiring practices actually attract toxic workers. Here's how to avoid that.

Recruiter evaluating puzzle pieces representing employees. One piece clearly does not fit.

How common are toxic employees?

Michael Housman and Dylan Minor conducted a study of toxic employees in 2015. They reviewed 58,542 customer service employees from multiple companies and found that 1 in 20 were fired for toxic behavior within their first year of employment.

Toxic behavior is defined in the study as "an egregious violation of company policy. Examples include sexual harassment, workplace violence, falsifying documents, fraud, and general workplace misconduct."

It makes sense to avoid hiring toxic people, but that's easier said than done. Larissa got hired by getting references to lie on her behalf and falsifying her resume (more on that in a moment). 

So how can you spot a potentially toxic employee? The study highlighted three specific factors to look for. 

How can you screen out toxic people?

The study identified three prominent risk factors for toxic behavior:

  • Overconfidence

  • Self-regarding

  • Rule-orientation

Let's take a closer look at each one, starting with overconfidence. 


These are employees who believe they're awesome, even when they're not. 

Study participants were asked during the interview process to estimate their level of computer skills. The applicants were later given a skill assessment to determine their actual skill level.

A whopping 34 percent were overconfident, with the skill test revealing they were less skillful than they had claimed. These employees were 15 percent more likely to be terminated for toxic behavior than the rest.

I've run my own experiments that reveal customer service employees consistently overrate their abilities. These overconfident employees are less likely to accept feedback, learn new skills, or improve their performance because they don't believe they need to.

One of the warning signs Larissa's boss missed during the initial interview process was Larissa lied on her resume. She overstated her qualifications and was overly confident about her ability to do the job. 

You can avoid hiring overconfident employees by having them demonstrate their abilities during the selection process whenever possible. This might include a computer test or asking them to write a sample customer email.

Some abilities, like defusing an angry customer, are more difficult to test in an interview. One solution is to ask candidates to relate a specific experience rather than respond to a hypothetical situation. So you might ask, "What happened the last time you had to defuse an angry customer?"

Janis Whitaker's excellent book, Interviewing by Example, provides lots of great examples and ideas for crafting these types of interview questions.


Pop quiz. What type of person do you think is generally better at customer service?

  1. Someone who is self-centered

  2. Someone who cares deeply about others

If you answered "someone who cares about others," you're right. The study found that self-centered, or self-regarding, employees were 22 percent more likely to be terminated for toxic behavior.

Recall that Larissa focused on her desire to party and have a good time with friends, rather than her responsibility to be a good role-model when socializing with subordinates outside of work.

Many customer service leaders make the mistake of designing a selection process that attracts people who are more self-regarding.

  • Including self-centered terms like "rockstar" or "superstar" in the job posting.

  • Promoting perks like games, incentives, and prizes for top performers.

  • Selling candidates on advancement opportunities, rather than the job itself.

The way to fix this issue is by emphasizing teamwork and company culture in the interview process. Here are just a few ways to do this:

  • Highlight culture on your career page, such as this one from Squarespace.

  • Use team-focused descriptions in job postings.

  • Screen candidates for culture fit using this guide.

Above all, do away with contests, games, and prizes that promote self-regarding behavior. There's extensive research that proves incentives can crush an employee's motivation to do the right thing.


Job applicants in the study were asked to decide which of two statements most applies to them.

  1. I believe rules are made to be followed.

  2. Sometimes it's necessary to break the rules to accomplish something.

The surprising twist is people who chose "I believe rules are made to be followed" were 25 percent more likely to be fired for toxic behavior. It seems that someone stating they are a rule-abider doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll actually abide.

Customer service managers with a lot of toxic employees tend to be overly focused on rules.

  • Attendance policies

  • Dress codes

  • Conduct policies, such as the use of personal cell phones

The solution to this challenge can be counterintuitive. Customer-focused leaders spend less time on rules (what not to do), and more time reinforcing positive behaviors (what to do).

For example, rather than reviewing the attendance policy with an applicant, a customer-focused leader might emphasize why an employee might want to come to work every day. Perhaps the company offers fun and challenging work, has a compelling customer service vision, and creates an environment where coworkers genuinely trust and support each other.

Take Action

Hiring good, non-toxic employees is difficult.

When I wrote about customer-focused companies in The Service Culture Handbook, the chapter on hiring was the most difficult to write. There were too few companies that did a fantastic job recruiting the right people.

You can make strides by avoiding overconfident, self-regarding, and rule-oriented job applicants. I've also created this hiring resource page to give you more tools and information.