Tough Customers

Empowering Employees

How do you keep your employees from shouldering all the burden that comes with a difficult customer?

Service employees need to be empowered to make confident decisions on the spot, says William Ward, Warehime professor of business administration at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania. "Employees need to be trained in problem-solving," Ward says. "This is where training and procedures pay off for businesses."

But employers can send mixed signals when they set time limits on helping customers or mandate a long list of daily priority tasks other than taking care of customers. These mixed signals increase the chances that a problem won't be resolved, making it natural for upset customers to unload on the closest target: the employee, who is torn between serving the customer and finishing his or her daily to-do list.

Another basic mistake is defining service with vague phrases like "service is our mission" instead of creating structures that guide employees through difficult customer service situations. "You see a lot of service employees with that look of 'Please don't ask me a question because I don't know how to answer it,' " Csordos says. "If you're unsure about what you're allowed to do for a customer, you feel silly."

Patrick Marchese is co-founder and president of Santa Ana, California-based Markzware, a 25-employee software development company. He believes in giving the nine customer service representatives in his company an arsenal for dealing with difficult customers who call the company's toll-free number.

Markzware's service employees know exactly how to route difficult callers up the company chain. "We get someone else in on the call right away," says Marchese. Employees also have a lot of leeway to throw in freebies like T-shirts and software. A little empowerment and teamwork can go a long way. "The customer service rep doesn't feel isolated in handling a problem," says Marchese, 41. "It's a big score personally for employees to successfully handle a difficult customer. When they get a thank-you at the end, they're on Cloud 9."

Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog,

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This article was originally published in the May 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Tough Customers.

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