By now, you may have heard about that audiotape featuring a Comcast employee and a long-suffering customer who wanted nothing more than to have his service canceled sans fuss.
Unfortunately, the very aggressive and very talkative sales representative refused to comply until the customer would tell him why he “wouldn’t want the fastest internet in the country.” Apparently, this employee was not deterred by the customer’s numerous attempts to assert his right not to answer the question.
However, the customer’s persistence eventually paid off, and received his cancellation … but not without a bunch of grief.
Um... It’s safe to say that when we talk of “empowered employees,” we are not thinking of this sales guy. We are not talking about employees given authority to bully and otherwise run roughshod over customers—anything to close the sale. Nope.
(Comcast later offered a public apology for the employee’s behavior, claiming that his conduct was “unacceptable and not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives.” Okay.)
Truly empowered employees make customers’ lives easier because they resolve their problems without much fanfare.
Whether the issue is a broken item presented for a refund, unexpected and too-high fees due for a reversal, or shoddy service that now requires an apology, when a customer representative can satisfy the customer quickly and fairly without jeopardizing profits, everyone wins.
So why are some companies so good at this while others are so lousy? I believe it comes down to trust and planning.
Trust. Companies committed to good customer service know their employees must be trusted to make decisions. For example, when someone contacts “customer service” with a problem, they don’t want to hear how the problem can’t be resolved or what the representative can’t do. That’s frustrating and causes the customer to wonder, “Then why am I talking to you?” Provided the customer’s expectations are reasonable; someone ought to do something without transferring the customer to three other people, giving conflicting advice. When employees aren’t trusted to exercise sound judgment (even within strict guidelines), customers lose out.
Planning. As they say, “there’s nothing new under the sun.” Most likely, whatever problem your customer has today, another customer had it yesterday. And when leaders take advantage of that consistency to plan how typical dilemmas can be handled by whatever party customers will naturally approach with a complaint first, the result is happier customers and employees.
When employees are empowered to make some decisions within their area of responsibility, rather than rely on other employees further up the corporate ladder, the company saves time and (therefore) money. Who wouldn’t want that? Responsibility without authority breeds big-time stress. Understand that regardless of what’s written in the job description, your customers want and expect the employees with whom they interact to solve problems quickly and efficiently and will (to some degree) hold these employees responsible when it doesn’t happen.
But even when the customer is (eventually) able to receive some satisfaction, the employee who wasn’t empowered to help the customer is left with negative feelings. Think about it. Who could really like a job that requires being confronted regularly with complaints they’re not in a position to address? After a while, it’s only natural for the employee to become apathetic, indifferent, or even hostile to customer concerns.
Excuse me, did you say something? Trusting employees to make decisions on your behalf is an important way to increase feelings of empowerment (and ultimately job satisfaction), leading to more positive customer experiences, but it’s not the only way.
Another way to empower employees is by providing an opportunity for them to voice opinions and offer input into the business.
Smart leaders know that a good idea can come from anywhere, and they’re savvy enough to develop processes that facilitate the sharing of ideas amongst staff because when staff is empowered to “speak up” without fear of reprisal or ridicule, customers are sure to reap the benefits of better ideas crafted from multiple viewpoints.
An employer can test candidates for assertiveness, candor, honesty, persistence, and so on (and the employer should if those qualities are essential for performing the job), but it won’t matter how well the candidate tests if that same employer won’t give employees the authority to exercise assertiveness, candor, honesty, etc. without experiencing harm.
Theodore Roosevelt once said: “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants to be done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.”