Biggest Customer Service Blunders of All Time

These five common mistakes trip up a lot of businesses. Our customer service expert offers his tips on correcting the problems.

While howls of protest over poor customer service continue to beheard worldwide, there remain some businesses that manage toconsistently deliver superior customer service year in and yearout. These are the places where turbo-charged employees pursuecustomer delight with a passion, places that ignite a flashpoint ofcontagious enthusiasm in employees and customers alike. Foremostamong the lessons to be learned from such flashpoint businesses arethe blunders to avoid--those fatal mistakes that trip up just abouteverybody else.

Blunder #1: Making customer service a training issue.Businesses of all kinds invest huge amounts of money in trainingprograms that do not--and simply cannot--work. The function of suchtraining is to identify the behaviors workers are supposed toengage in, and then coax, bully or legislate these behaviors intothe workplace. At best, this is almost always a recipe for conductthat feels mechanized and insincere; at worst, it intensifiesemployee resentment and cynicism.

Instead of dictating what your employees should be doing todelight customers, the better approach is to give your workersopportunities to brainstorm their own ideas for delivering delight.Your role then becomes to help employees implement these ideas andto allow workers to savor the motivational effect of the positivefeedback that ensues from delighted customers. This level ofemployee ownership and involvement is a key cultural characteristicof virtually all flashpoint businesses.

Blunder #2: Blaming poor service on employee"demotivation." Businesses looking for ways tomotivate their workers are almost always looking in the wrongplaces. Employee cynicism is the direct product of anorganization's visible preoccupation with self-interest aboveall else--a purely internal focus. The focus in flashpointbusinesses is directed outward, toward the interests of customersand the community at large. This shift in cultural focus changesthe way the business operates at all levels.

The reality in most business settings is that employees aredemotivated because they can't deliver delight. The existingpolicies and procedures make it impossible. Instead of"fixing" their employees, flashpoint business set out tobuild a culture that unblocks them. Workers are encouraged toidentify operational obstacles to customer delight, and participatein finding ways around them.

Blunder #3: Using customer feedback to uncover what'swrong. Businesses often use surveys and other feedbackmechanisms to get to the root causes of customer problems andcomplaints. Employees come to dread these measurement anddata-gathering efforts, since they so often lead to what feels likewitch-hunts for employee scapegoats, formal exercises in fingerpointing and the assigning of blame.

Flashpoint businesses use customer feedback very differently. Inthese companies, the object is to uncover everything that'sgoing right. Managers are forever on the lookout for "herostories"--examples of employees going the extra mile todeliver delight. Such feedback becomes the basis for ongoingrecognition and celebration. Employees see themselves as winners ona winning team, because in their workplace, there's always somenew "win" being celebrated.

Blunder #4: Reserving top recognition for splashyrecoveries. It happens all the time: Something goes terriblywrong in a customer order or transaction, and a dedicated employeegoes to tremendous lengths to make things right. The delightedcustomer brings this employee's wonderful recovery tomanagement's attention, and the employee receives specialrecognition for his or her efforts. This is a blunder?

It is when such recoveries are the primary--if not theonly--catalysts for employee recognition. In such a culture,foul-ups become almost a good thing from the workers' point ofview. By creating opportunities for splashy recoveries, foul-upsrepresent the only chance employees have to feel appreciated on thejob. Attempts to correct operational problems won't win muchsupport if employees see these problems as their only opportunityto shine.

Flashpoint businesses celebrate splashy recoveries, ofcourse--but they're also careful to uncover and celebrateemployee efforts to delight customers where no mistakes or problemswere involved. This makes it easier to get workers participating inefforts to permanently eliminate the sources of problems at thesystems level.

Blunder #5: Competing on price. It's one of the mostcommon (and most costly) mistakes in business. Price becomes thedeciding factor in purchasing decisions only when everything elseis equal--and everything else is almost never equal. Businessesreally compete on the perception of value, and this includes morethan price. It's shaped by the total customer experience--andaspects such as "helpfulness," "friendliness"and "the personal touch" often give the competitiveadvantage to businesses that actually charge slightly more fortheir basic goods and services.

Those businesses that deliver a superior total experience fromthe inside out (that is, as a product of a stronglycustomer-focused culture) are typically those that enjoy along-term competitive advantage--along with virtual immunity fromthe kinds of headaches that plague everybody else.

Customer-focus consultant Paul Levesqueoutlines a step-by-step process for building a flashpoint culturein his latest book, Customer Service from the Inside Out MadeEasy, from Entrepreneur Press.

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