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Monster Customer Service Blunders and How to Avoid Them

Despite all the rumbling and grumbling about poor customer service, there are always a handful of “renegade” businesses that somehow find ways to keep their workers fired up and their customers delighted and coming back for more. In these rarified places, highly motivated employees pursue customer delight with a passion; they ignite a flashpoint of contagious enthusiasm that spreads throughout the organization like wildfire.

How do they do it? They conscientiously avoid what I call the “Top 5 Monster Customer Service Blunders":

Monster Blunder #1: Trying to solve the problem with superficial employee training. Workers call it “smile training”—programs intended to convince staff to look and sound more cheerful, while giving them no particular reason to feel any more cheerful. When you boil it down, this kind of training does nothing more than itemize the specific service behaviors workers are expected to exhibit. It then becomes management’s job to somehow enforce these designated behaviors into the daily operation of the business. If this approach has any effect at all, it typically creates conduct that strikes customers as mechanical and insincere. Worse, it often intensifies worker resentment and cynicism.

Instead of attempting to dictate what workers should be doing to delight customers, the better approach is to give workers opportunities to generate their own ideas for delivering a better customer experience. Management’s role then becomes helping employees implement these ideas, allowing workers to enjoy the motivational boost they derive from positive feedback from delighted customers. This level of employee ownership and involvement is a key cultural characteristic of virtually all flashpoint businesses.

TO AVOID THE BLUNDER: Train managers and supervisors, not just employees, to facilitate interactive brainstorming sessions in which employees come up with their own strategies for improving the customer experience.

Monster Blunder #2: Blaming poor service on employee cynicism. When business leaders complain to me about the cynicism of their workers, I’m always inclined to ask them if they believe these workers were already cynical before their first day on the job. If so, the organization’s hiring practices are clearly not working very well. If not, then the cynicism may be a direct product of something in the organizational culture.

Employee cynicism is the direct product of an organization’s visible preoccupation with self-interest above all else—a purely internal focus. The focus in flashpoint businesses is directed outward, toward the interests of customers and the community at large. This fundamental difference in cultural focus makes all the difference in the world.

TO AVOID THE BLUNDER: Instead of trying to “fix the employees,” set out to fix the culture by removing operational obstacles to customer delight. Invite workers to participate in identifying and removing cultural roadblocks to further enhance their sense of involvement and ownership.

Monster Blunder #3: Using negative customer feedback as the primary basis for action. Businesses often implement elaborate customer surveys and other feedback mechanisms—but then use them primarily to highlight customer problems and complaints. Employees come to dread these measurement and data-gathering initiatives, since the emphasis is always on the negative, on finding out who’s to blame for anything and everything that went wrong.

Flashpoint businesses, too, rely on a variety of customer feedback tools—but for an entirely different purpose. Here it’s positive feedback that becomes the primary basis for action. Feedback is used to uncover and highlight everything that’s going right. Managers actively seek out “hero stories”—examples of employees going the extra mile to deliver delight. Positive feedback is the catalyst for ongoing recognition and celebration. In this kind of culture, there’s always some new reason for cheering and hoopla. It’s why employees in flashpoint businesses find it easy to see themselves as winners on a winning team.

TO AVOID THE BLUNDER: Start using your own customer feedback data to uncover—and celebrate—examples of service excellence.

Monster Blunder #4: Reserving top recognition for heroic recoveries. Does this scenario sound familiar? A customer’s order gets fouled up, and a dedicated employee catches the problem and goes to heroic lengths to correct the situation or make up for it in some way. The appreciative customer advises management of this employee’s heroic initiative and management in turn gives the employee special recognition for his or her efforts. You may be wondering, “Where’s the blunder in this?”

It’s a monster blunder when these kinds of recoveries are the primary—if not the only—sources of employee recognition. If foul-ups represent workers’ only chance to feel appreciated on the job, then in effect such foul-ups become almost precious to the workers. If, later, management announces that steps are being taken to correct these foul-ups for good, it’s news that may not win much support from employees. It can feel like this kind of corrective action will rob them of their only chance to shine.

Flashpoint businesses celebrate heroic recoveries, of course—but they hand out the splashiest recognition to employees who delighted customers where no foul-ups were involved. This makes it easier to motivate workers to strive for the elimination of operational problems.

TO AVOID THE BLUNDER: Reserve your most extravagant recognition for service champions who deliver delight in routine transactions that have no element of heroic recovery associated with them.

Monster Blunder #5: Competing on price. This is one of the most commonplace (and costliest) mistakes in business. When it comes to purchasing decisions, price becomes the ultimate deciding factor only in cases where everything else is equal—which is almost never. There’s usually at least one little “something” that gives one business an edge over another one. The real competitive advantage belongs to the business with the highest perception of value, not the one with the lowest price. The overall sense of value is based on the total customer experience, which takes into account less tangible factors, such as helpfulness, friendliness and the personal touch. These values often allow businesses to retain their competitive edge despite slightly higher prices.

TO AVOID THE BLUNDER: Institute a formal process by which employees can continuously come up with new ways to expand customers’ perception of value.

Concluding Thoughts:
The kind of customer-focused cultures we find in flashpoint businesses obviously don’t happen by accident. These organizations create, implement and refine a process for producing delighted customers. A good place to begin is to stop the top five customer service blunder monsters from rearing their ugly heads in your organization.