Jeff Toister on the Number One Reason Employees Struggle with Customer Service

photo of Jeff ToisterThe following is a guest post by Jeff Toister, author of Service Failure: The Real Reasons Employees Struggle With Customer Service and What You Can Do About It, about why employees often struggle to provide the kind of customer service companies want them to give customers.

There’s a question I invariably ask when I sit down with a new client to discuss ways to help them improve customer service:

In your company, what does outstanding service look like?

In my experience, the number one reason employees struggle with customer service is they lack a clear answer to this question. If employees don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing, how can they possibly be expected to do it with any consistency?

There are three typical problems that prevent employees from understanding what outstanding service should look like.

  1. It’s not defined.
  2. It’s not understood.
  3. It’s not customer-focused.

It’s Not Defined
Some companies have never defined what outstanding customer service means to them. You could ask 10 employees to describe it and get 10 different answers, so the quality of service a customer receives will vary from one employee to another. Managers in these companies find it hard to coach and train their employees with any consistency, since they don’t have a common template to work from. Even at the executive level, strategic decisions are made without a consistent focus on how these choices will impact customers.

Early in my career, I managed the call center for a catalog company that lacked a clear definition of outstanding service. The company’s owner frequently gave me conflicting expectations that created a moving target. For example, he expected our call center to employ sophisticated customer service reps, yet he insisted that we pay below market wages. He wanted to appeal to affluent customers, yet our catalog primarily featured low quality products. He expected our team to offer high-end customer service, yet we were hamstrung by penny-pinching policies. This lack of clarity led to repeated service failures that alienated customers and eventually put the company out of business.

Companies who do have a clear definition of outstanding service will get a consistent answer when employees are asked this question:

In our company, what does outstanding service look like?

It’s Not Understood
Some companies have taken the time to create a shared definition of outstanding customer service, but nobody understands it. It might be because the definition is wordsmithed to the point that it reads like an unintelligible piece of marketing jargon. Or, perhaps employees understand the definition from an organizational perspective, but aren’t quite sure how their specific role fits into the big picture.

I recall one company that had gone through a great deal of trouble to communicate its take on customer service to every employee. They held company-wide meetings, erected signs and posters in every office, and distributed all sorts of mugs, t-shirts, and notepads to reinforce the message. It was a successful campaign from the perspective that employees were universally aware that their company had its own unique brand of service. However, when employees were asked how this definition related to their specific jobs, they struggled to respond because they weren’t quite sure what it meant.

Employees who understand the meaning of outstanding service will be able to give a clear answer to this question:

How do you contribute to our company’s ability to provide outstanding service?

It’s Not Customer-Focused
Some companies have a clear definition of outstanding customer service that’s universally understood, but they still struggle because their definition is really a set of tasks each employee must follow. The focus of employee training, supervision, and evaluation is based on whether employees comply with the prescribed tasks, not whether or not they provide their customers with an outstanding experience.

Here are a few examples:

  • One call center defines “outstanding service” with a call monitoring form that includes 35 requirements employees are expected to adhere to on every call, but doesn’t measure customer satisfaction.
  • A restaurant chain defines “outstanding service” with a 17 step procedure for waiting on tables that servers must follow with every guest, but many of these steps are unimportant from a guests’ perspective.
  • A credit union defines “outstanding service” with a set of 22 expectations that govern each interaction between a teller and a credit union member, but doesn’t assess whether these expectations truly lead to a better experience for the member.

Employees who are focused on their customer rather than a set of required tasks will have a clear answer to this question:

How do we want our customers to feel about the service they receive from us?

Jacket image, Service FailureWhenever I advise my clients on improving customer service, I start with defining outstanding service. Without this definition, outstanding service simply won’t happen consistently. With it, your organization suddenly has a compass to follow that will guide every decision from employee selection to product delivery and everything in between.

Jeff Toister is president of the consulting firm Toister Performance Solutions, Inc., and has worked as a customer service trainer, manager, and frontline employee for over 20 years. 


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