Service Failure – The Real Reasons Employees Struggle with Customer Service and What You Can Do About It

This has been my second reading of this book but made me get so many insights. It blew my mind off, when I realized that their are so many things that you miss out from a book in its initial first reading. Anyhow, I got down to making notes from this book this time. And here’s my quick review with detailed notes.

Service Failure – The Real Reasons Employees Struggle with Customer Service and What You Can Do About It

Written by Jeff Toister

Few Key Concepts in the book:

• A supportive work environment fosters a happy work force, and a happy work force provides excellent customer service.

• Include employees in decision-making regarding work procedures so that they can better understand the purpose of policy and gain a sense of proprietorship.

• Employees who feel divided between the interests of the company and those of the customer will likely choose an outcome that is least negative from their own short-term perspective.

• Executives should spend time familiarizing themselves with the day-to-day operations of their company so that they may make decisions based upon reality and not spreadsheets.

• The most successful companies are those with leaders who remain on the lookout for systemic problems and are not afraid to “confront the brutal facts” head on.

• Employees performances are greatly influenced by the cultures in which they work. Those in negative cultures work poorly, and those in positive ones perform well.

• One of the biggest keys to providing outstanding customer service is minimizing the constant visual and auditory distractions that keep employees from properly attending to the customer’s needs.

• Providing appropriate staffing levels alleviates the dangers of an employee being forced to choose between serving one customer well and many customers poorly.

• Employees should be trained to define their roles based not upon the list of tasks they are asked to perform but by the service they provide for the customer.

• The ability to empathize with customers is not a skill that comes naturally to all employees, but it is one that can be trained and learned.

Introduction

Everyone has been treated rudely or thoughtlessly by a cashier, clerk, waiter, or manager at some point. Most people probably do not have to think back too far to find an example. But why does this happen? Why should the people who make their livings caring
for the needs of customers so often do such a bad job of it? As it turns out, the basic tenets of delivering outstanding customer service are not as intuitive as one might suspect. In Service Failure, Jeff Toister points out the often unseen obstacles that come between a
company and the large and loyal customer base it seeks, and explores how to successfully navigate the way through. Drawing examples from scientific studies, the practices of successful companies, and his own experiences in customer service, he succinctly lays out the principles an organization needs to delight its customers and keep them returning again and again.

Hidden Obstacles to Serving Customers

People are not naturally good at providing customer service. It is a skill that needs to be taught and learned. Though, to do so, an employer or employee needs to understand two key factors that stand in the way:

1. Good customer service is incredibly difficult to achieve with consistency. Two different customers walking into the same store may have two wildly different experiences with the same cashier. Or one customer may have equally different experiences dealing with two different cashiers. In each scenario, the cashier may have believed he or she was providing proper customer service, though the customer walked away unhappy 50 percent of the time.

This is why companies must develop strategies designed to serve a wide range of customer needs and then invest the time and resources into properly training employees in these strategies.

2. Customers and companies may have different ideas about what constitutes good customer service. According to a 2006 Bain & Co. survey, 80 percent of companies believed they were providing outstanding customer service, while only 8 percent of their customers agreed. Due to a fundamental disconnect between the providers and consumers, companies often alienate their best customers without ever realizing it. Corporate managers, insulated from the day-in, day-out happenings of their companies may institute unpopular counterproductive policies, while frontline employees blame management for unhappy customers without realizing their own failings. If no one along the chain of command sees his or her own part in the failings, they will all have no reason to see the need for change.

The Customer Is Not Always Right

The oft-repeated axiom that “the customer is always right” is not always the best philosophy for conducting business, especially when the customer is decidedly wrong. For starters, customers may have mistaken ideas of a company’s services, or harbor unrealistic expectations. They may engage in self-sabotaging behavior or simply behave abusively. But whatever the scenario, a manager or frontline employee will want to please the customer or, at the very least, diffuse a potentially bad situation that could sour other customers using the following tactics:

• Companies should adhere to a modernized “the customer should always feel right” philosophy. Generous, customer-friendly policies may solve a problem before it even occurs. Lavishing consumers with discounts, deals, and gratuitous services keeps customers feeling content, while also providing  employees with the opportunity to say “yes” to a solution instead of “no” to a request so that complaints can be dealt with quickly and easily.

• Manage expectations. Customers will evaluate a business’s service based upon their own expectations, and those expectations will vary from customer to customer. A successful business gives customers a realistic expectation of the services it provides from the start so that the customer does not feel misled. Whenever possible, employees should adhere to the Platinum Rule that customers should be treated the way they want to be treated.

• Customers sometimes create obstacles for themselves. Using the Circle of Influence exercise, employees must learn to differentiate between problems that fall within the circle of things they can control and those that fall outside. This may lead to better results when dealing with self-sabotaging customers.

• Invite abusive customers to take their business elsewhere. Abusive customers may be a net loss for a business, as their abrasive demeanor could lead other customers away and eventually create an unpleasant work environment for employees.

Align Employee Interests with Those of the Company

When an employee’s goals in dealing with a customer do not align with the company’s, all three parties often pay the price, through poor service, a decline in business, and loss of employment. So, it is imperative that a company works to keep the employee motivations in alignment with its own. There are multiple ways to achieve this:

• Hire employees who will enjoy their work. What does it matter if an employee has the proper skills for doing a job if he or she spends it miserably underperforming?

Managers should make a list of important traits that an employee must have to work for the company and then only hire people who fit the bill. They should then solicit input concerning policy from those hires. Having a say in decisionmaking and a sense of ownership in the business could help them understand the reasons behind certain policies and may even convince them to go along with policies they might otherwise find objectionable.

• Maintain an ongoing dialogue between employees and their supervisor. To avoid the bad habits that can be developed by employees who are not properly monitored and allowed to stray from company guidelines, supervisors should make a point of observing performance and offering praise or constructive feedback as the case may merit.

• Be careful with financial incentives and recognition programs. Strategies like awards or commissions put into place to motivate employees may yield unintended negative results, such as system-gaming schemes or permanent expectations of similar rewards.

If used at all, financial incentives should be tied to team goals rather than personal goals. Gestures of recognition should be unexpected awards for good performance.

Don’t Make the Employee a Double Agent

When a conflict occurs between a company and its customer, the employee may find him or herself stuck in the middle with conflicted motivations. The employee wants to help the customer, but is beholden to the policies of the company, and attempts to remain neutral may make the employee seem uncaring. There are a number of ways to avoid such problems and see to it that the employee is able to serve all interests simultaneously:

• Don’t force the employee to be the bad guy. Whenever possible, it is important to avoid instilling policies that upset customers and put the employee in the position of having to answer for them. Employees should be allowed to use their own judgment when handling customer issues, as opposed to binding them to a role and an unwavering set of rules.

• Make sure that employees are adequately monitored. When placed in a position to choose between the interests of the company and those of the customer, the employee’s actions are often dictated by whichever choice seems the least unpleasant. An employee who does not feel that his or her actions are being observed by management will be more likely to acquiesce to a customer in order to avoid conflict. Proper supervision minimizes this risk while also granting the manager an opportunity to guide the responses of the employee and set preferable precedents for such incidents.

• Executives should spend time on the frontlines. The kind of bad policy that often leads to double agent situations is often the result of executive ignorance. As such, corporate managers should listen more so to feedback from customers and employees than to spreadsheets and slide presentations.

Avoiding Mutually Assured Dissatisfaction

Just as the customer who is continually given subpar customer service is likely to stop seeking a company’s services, an employee who is continually put in difficult, or impossible, positions with customers while enacting company policy is likely to become disengaged and stop trying to provide good customer service. A successful business is one that takes steps to make it easier, not harder, for its employees to make customers happy:

• Identify and confront systemic problems. There is no secret customer service technique that will make a customer happy who is caught in the teeth of unnecessarily inconvenient or complex company policy. Employees from the corporate offices to the front line should continuously work to root out and amend such problems.
• Broken systems lead to learned helplessness. When an employee feels that he or she is powerless to solve problems, he or she will simply stop trying to solve problems and will instead refocus his or her energy to blaming the company for the dissatisfaction.
Sharing customer service goals with employees, while making them partners in achieving those goals will greatly help in keeping employees engaged in their work.

• Confront brutal facts. Simple fixes for what appear to be small isolated issues often fail to rectify the underlying issue. Just as the iceberg’s tip, floating above the water’s surface, is dwarfed in size and menace by what lies beneath, so too are many customer service problems. A company should seek to find previous occurrences of the problem, and estimate how likely it is to occur again and see what can be learned from it.

Creating a Culture of Outstanding Customer Service

Employees may not even be aware when they are providing poor customer service, due to a culture of low standards in the work place. On the other hand, a clearly defined and consistently enacted commitment to providing excellent customer service can have an immensely positive influence on employees. But such a healthy culture does not happen by accident, nor is it the result of a clever marketing campaign or motivational conference. It needs to be deliberately ingrained and continually reinforced using the following guidelines:

• Root out negative social pressures. Whether the source of negativity in the work place springs from abusive and derisive supervisors or disgruntled coworkers, the source of the problem must be identified and swiftly rectified.

• Define the company’s culture. In order for employees to clearly understand the tenets of the company’s customer-focused culture, that culture must first be defined in a manner that is simple and easily understood.

• Set goals to achieve that culture. Markers along the path of company improvement should focus employees on the desired performance, while encouraging cooperation and making the team as a whole want to do better for the sake of the overall good instead of for external rewards.

• Identify and act upon “moments of truth.” It is important to recognize those times when the company has the opportunity to act in line with its new culture and make the most of them. These are the moments that will truly define a company’s character.

Helping Employees Pay Better Attention

One might think that it would be easy for a customer service employee to focus his or her undivided attention upon the customer, but that is rarely the case. The modern day work place is rife with auditory and visual stimuli demanding the employee’s attention and forcing him or her to complete multiple tasks less well than they would be able to complete just one on which they were focusing all of their concentration.

There are some ways to get around this problem:

• Discourage multitasking. There is, strictly speaking, no such thing as “multitasking.” What most people think of as “multitasking” is really just switching attention back and forth among multiple tasks, causing the brain to continually refocus, and losing valuable time in the process. Instead, employees should be able to focus on one task at a time. Adequate staffing should be provided to allow for such focus.

• Create automatic reminders for employees. Companies should set up auditory or visual alerts to help employees refocus on important tasks at the proper time. This way, an employee can dedicate his or her  attention to the task at hand, instead of continually looking away to keep tabs on an impending one.

• Establish customer service priorities. An employee who intrinsically knows which task is most important can more easily dedicate his or her attention to the right task at the right time.
• Train employees to listen properly. Coaching employees to utilize active listening skills—facing the speaker, making eye contact, etc.—will help them to more effectively meet the needs of the customer.

Finding the Right Role to Play

All too often, customer service employees define their roles in the company based upon the tasks they are asked to perform during their shifts instead of by the services that they provide for the customer. When an employee forgets or does not understand that his or her ultimate responsibility is to make the customer happy, the level of service begins to slide, and more and more customers begin to walk away feeling unsatisfied. Getting employees to internalize this distinction needs to be achieved through a conscious effort on the part of the company by:

• Aligning employee responsibilities with the company’s service philosophy. It is easier for a supervisor to tell an employee what tasks to perform than what results to achieve. But if the employee can be made to understand that his or her task is ultimately to help the customer achieve his or her goal, rather than to follow a list of protocols, the problem is neatly solved.

• Teaching employees to see themselves through the customer’s eyes. A simple but effective role-playing exercise may help employees to understand their roles more thoroughly. For example, an employer could have employees take a few minutes to write out their role as a customer might see it. Or, they could try asking them to write a thank-you letter from an imaginary customer, giving feedback and praise for specific tasks. Then, the employer could have them strive to receive such a thank-you letter from an actual customer.

• Taking extreme measures if need be. In the end, a company has to do whatever is necessary to right a sinking ship and start providing acceptable customer service, even if that means suspending or amending certain company policies designed to bring in profit or lower costs. There may come a time when the difficult choice between a strong bottom line and good frontline service must be made.

The Problem with Empathy

The ability to put themselves in the place of the customer and see things from their perspective is not a skill that comes naturally to all employees, but it is a necessary one for providing consistently top-notch service. An employee who cannot empathize with the customer will be less likely to navigate around frustrating situations that will reflect poorly upon the company. Fortunately, empathetic customer service can be taught through a few guiding practices:

• Communicate on the customer’s level. In a service failure situation, attempts by employees to find a rational solution without also acknowledging the mix of negative emotions a customer is likely feeling could make the employee, and by extension the company, appear cold and unfeeling, further frustrating the customer. Emotions can get in the way of a person’s ability to think rationally, but a simple validation of the customer’s underlying emotions could act as a salve so that a happy solution can be reached for everyone.

• Train employees to identify and address customers’ emotional needs. Employers should ask employees to recall a time when they were in a situation similar to the customer’s, have them explain how they felt, and how they would have liked a customer service employee to treat them.

• Neutralize negative emotions before they arise. It can be very advantageous for employers to train employees to identify situations that may cause negative feelings in a customer and then to preemptively acknowledge them, making certain to offer a solution so that potential problems can be solved before they occur.

• Employees have feelings, too. Often times, employees may be aware of a customer’s negative emotions but will not or cannot respond to them due to the negative emotions they are experiencing. Managers should be trained to empathize with employees just as employees are trained to empathize with customers.

Emotional Roadblocks

Unless steps are taken at the managerial or corporate level, customer dissatisfaction can be easily spread to employees, causing a spiral of frustration and anger that is not productive. The company needs to make it easy for its employees to be happy, and should take steps to help them acquire the skills needed to navigate through all the negative emotions that may be stirred up during the workday. To do so, companies should follow these suggestions:

• “Don’t take it personally” is bad advice. It is unrealistic to ask employees to dismiss the negative emotions experienced when customers direct their anger and frustration at them. These are normal human emotions that cannot be easily ignored. A better option is to train employees to deal with these emotions in a productive manner so that they will not be tempted to lash out in an effort to protect their own self-esteem.

• Employees require a supportive work environment. Dealing with the negative emotions of customers is made even more difficult for employees when they are also made to work with unsupportive supervisors or co-workers. The well-being of the employee, not the customer, should be a company’s top priority.

• Turn negative incidents into learning opportunities. Instead of leaping to take disciplinary action against an employee who experienced an altercation with a customer, it is beneficial to attempt to work together to find the root cause of the incident and  take steps toward seeing that it does not occur in the future.

• Positive emotions are just as contagious as negative emotions. Companies should encourage friendships among co-workers and foster an environment that allows employees to feel comfortable and content in the workplace. This will make it easier for them to leave personal problems at the door and view their jobs as a respite from everyday life.

The Casualties of Cost Consciousness

The costs of providing excellent customer service should be viewed as an investment in a company’s future, not as a needless expense that can be minimized to heighten profits. While it may seem as though lowering customer service standards can save
money, taking a longer view of the business or digging down deeper into financial statements will often show the opposite to be true:

• Do it right the first time. What are the actual savings of sending out a poorly trained or less-capable employee to represent a company if another employee — and perhaps another one after that—must be sent out to right the first one’s wrongs? Spending a little more money up front to see to it that mistakes are not made and a job is done correctly is ultimately a money-saving endeavor. Companies would do well to look closely at financial reports to see the true cost of poor customer service.

• Build a sufficient workforce. Fewer employees on the sales floor often results in fewer customers having their needs met or being introduced to additional sales items. And self-service kiosks can sometimes prove to be more of an annoyance than a convenience for customers if they are not backed up with enough employees available to step up in the event of a problem. The value of the human element in customer service cannot be overstated.

• Consider the impact of raising prices. Executives should make certain to carefully weigh any potential price increases or new fees against the potential for customer dissatisfaction or the loss of patronage. Providing excellent services at reasonable rates is a good way to build and maintain a loyal customer base.

Know the Destination Before Embarking

It can sometimes feel as though a lot is being accomplished when in fact a company is wasting resources, exerting useless effort, and potentially damaging the brand. This occurs when executives set the company on a journey without a full understanding of where it is headed or what it will actually take to get there. Company leaders should instead take the time beforehand to clearly define outstanding customer service as they see it. They should then use that definition to guide them in all of their decisions along the way, making certain to reinforce it at every available opportunity, such as by holding regular meetings to discuss customer service or by providing frequent individual feedback to employees. In this way, a strong positive culture will be deeply ingrained in the company for when it does arrive at its ultimate destination as a model of exemplary customer service and financial success.

Features of the Book:

Estimated Reading Time: 6 hours, 202 pages

Service Failure is a great resource for anyone at any point along the customer service line—from corporate leader to frontline employee—who wants to improve his or her own skills in pleasing customers or in fostering a companywide culture of positivity.

Jeff Toister developed his insights over the course of two decades spent working his way up the ladder of customer service and as the president of his own consulting firm. Each chapter expands upon the lessons of the previous ones, so Service Failure should be read in chronological order. Most chapters conclude with a “Solution Summary” section, which includes an overview of the chapter as well as a bulleted list of key points to remember. An index is included at the end so that the reader may quickly call up needed sections.

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