A ”Sure” Thing: How Empowering Customer Service Reps Leads to Increased Revenue

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Michael Alter

In an online world, there’s no hiding poor customer service. With instant access to information and the ability for customers to easily share their experiences with millions of others through product review sites, blogs and Twitter, your customer service practices can make—or break— your business.

As the president of an online payroll service dedicated to small businesses, I know firsthand the benefits of a happy customer. In a recurring revenue business like ours, we need our customers to choose to stay with us payroll after payroll. We count on their returning business, and on their referrals to other small business owners. We want them to be passionate advocates who always have something spectacular to say about us, whether that’s online to thousands of others or to a few friends at a cocktail party.

To get passionate customers, you need passionate employees who are empowered to do the right thing—and executives willing to walk a mile in their shoes.

I don’t think it’s possible to have passionate customer advocates without passionate employees. That’s why when we make hiring decisions at SurePayroll, we hire for passion above all else, especially with our customer service representatives who speak to our customers every day. Reps, like anyone, can be developed and trained, but not changed. So, we take extra care to hire people with the right energy as well as a desire to service others and stay committed right from the start. In fact, we even created our very own “Passion Test” that potential employees must pass before moving forward in the interview process at SurePayroll.

Once we have the right reps in place and trained, it’s essential to empower them to do what they need to in order to keep customers happy—regardless of whether the customer is right or wrong. All too often I’ve seen inspired customer service reps stripped of their ability to make a difference because they are required to follow procedures that aren’t in the customer’s best interest, and frankly, that go against the intuition of experienced reps who work with the customers day in and day out.

Our reps know that they can put down procedures manuals and follow their hearts—it’s simply in our business’ best interest to trust them. We encourage them to think about goals and milestones that will serve the business in the long-term and not to worry about small “issues of the moment.” The only true requirement of customer service representatives is that they can look their manager in the eye after every decision and say, “I did right by the customer.”

Our business leaders also need to be able to do the same. I believe that we earn the respect of the frontline folks if we’re on the floor with them. At SurePayroll, that means all hands on deck during our busy times. No one is exempt from this—not even me. During our busiest customer service times, executives are expected to take escalated calls and walk the customer service floor, helping in any way necessary. Whether it’s sending a fax for someone so he or she can stay on the phone with a customer, checking on the status of an issue with another department, or returning calls if hold times are increasing, if our reps are expected to do it, then management is as well.

High customer retention rates and referrals are the only meaningful measures of customer service success.

When it comes to proving whether we’re treating our customers right, we keep our eyes on two sets of numbers: controllable attrition rate and number of referrals.

Our controllable attrition rate is the number of customers who leave us each year for reasons we could have controlled, reasons other than the company going out of business. SurePayroll currently has a less than 3% controllable attrition rate; or said another way, we keep 97% of our customers happy. While that’s outstanding compared to the industry average of 87% to 90%, we’re always shooting for 100%, so that 3%  is important.

Another surefire way we can tell if we’re keeping our customers happy is if they are willing to put their name and reputation on the line by recommending us. We keep track of how much of our business comes from referrals, and we gauge customer referral sentiment with the Net Promoter Score—a measurement of the number of customers who say they will refer others to SurePayroll versus those who say they will not. SurePayroll currently gets a quarter of our business from referrals and our Net Promoter Score is at a world-class level, but there is always improvement to be made.

Promote the three Rs: Rewards, Recognition, and Relaxation.

In the end, keeping employees happy is just as important as keeping customers happy. If we can’t keep customer service reps, we’re not likely to keep customers. That’s why we like to reward and celebrate employee longevity with an experience they’ll remember. After every five years of continuous service, every SurePayroll employee is rewarded with an all-expenses paid, four-day vacation with a guest. The “anniversary employees” are invited to an upscale, all-inclusive resort in Mexico or the Caribbean, where there are company-sponsored events and plenty of free time.

Trust me, you’ll never keep employees for five years if you’re not committed to honoring and acknowledging them for the differences they make. Our annual SureChoice Awards recognize employees for their efforts during our busiest three months. Employees are asked to vote for coworkers in categories such as “Calmest Under Pressure,” “Best Team Player,” “Best Customer Service”—and the most highly regarded of them all—“Best New Mistake.” You can’t learn without testing ideas that may not work, and I’d rather have employees dedicated to learning than remaining stagnant in their professional lives.

The results speak for themselves. In the last several years, SurePayroll’s core business has grown in the range of 30% year over year, and the company has won several prestigious awards for outstanding customer service, including being named the 2009 “Customer Service Department of the Year” by the American Business Awards. The company has also been named to the Inc. 500 “Fastest Growing Companies” list twice and was named one of Chicago's “101 Best and Brightest Places to Work” in 2008 and 2009.

About the Author(s)

Michael Alter is president of SurePayroll, an online payroll service dedicated to small businesses.