It’s Customer Service Week and the Emperor is naked!

EmperorIt’s Customer Service Week. I suppose I’m obligated to mention it since I work in the field. It’s just difficult for me to get behind an event staged with banners, buttons, and other chotchkies lauding the importance of customers and customer service when the reality is that many customers at participating companies will remain underserved this week, as they were last week, and as they will be next week.

Besides, shouldn’t every week be customer service week?

Let me begin with a fairy tale. It’s about an emperor who unwittingly hires two swindlers to create for him a new set of clothes. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? The swindlers promise the emperor the finest suit of clothes from the most beautiful cloth. This cloth, they tell him, is invisible to anyone who was either stupid or unfit for his lofty position. Although the emperor cannot see the (non-existent) cloth, he pretends that he can for fear of appearing stupid. His advisors do the same.

During the course of the emperor’s procession through town, the swindle is exposed (no pun intended) by a small child who shouts, “The Emperor is naked!”

What does this have to do with customer service? I’m using it as a metaphor for the majority of people (employees, as well as customers) who are unwilling to state an obvious truth due to apathy, ignorance, or indifference: that the current state of customer service is unacceptable.

Here are three glaring examples of behaviors that I regularly observe in retail settings that store management appears to tolerate (because these behaviors are chronic):

1.) Routinely, I observe aloof employees checking their text, email, and social media accounts on their phones. Employees have one set of eyes and if they’re affixed to a handset screen they cannot be scanning for customers in need of service.

2.) I regularly walk past employees who are smoking near the main entrances to stores. Not only is this an eyesore, it’s disrespectful to customers and absolutely avoidable for a management team willing to establish and enforce minimal standards.

3.) Frequently, I encounter employees complaining about their schedules, coworkers, and even other customers. Customers should not be subjected to this toxic banter. In fact, customers should not be subjected to banter at all. Employees, in deference to their customers, should cease personal conversations while in the presence of customers. Instead, engage the customer regarding his or her shopping experience. There will be plenty of time for you to resume your conversation with your coworkers later—without making your customer feel non-existent, like a store fixture.

What’s happened to our sensibilities? It’s not okay to check your email or text a friend in full view of a customer. Besides the unsanitary perception, it’s wrong (and illegal in many locations) to smoke near the building entrance where customers must pass through employees’ secondhand smoke to spend their money. And it’s disrespectful—not to mention awkward—to complain in front of a customer or to carry on a conversation with a coworker in the presence of a customer. The emperor’s wearing no clothes and no one seems to want to acknowledge it!

What happens in most cases is that: a.) there are no credible standards in place to enforce; b.) even though standards are in place (usually in the employee handbook that hasn’t been cracked since each page was initialed during employee orientation), mangers are unaware of them or apathetic towards their enforcement; or c.) managers themselves engage in the same indifferent behaviors!

I could have used a lot of words just now to describe this behavior (e.g., poor, unacceptable, reprehensible, etc.) but I chose indifferent. I chose that word because that’s how I perceive these employees behave towards me: indifferently—as though my presence makes no difference and I really don’t matter all that much.

Here’s a litmus test I like to use when determining whether or not an employee’s behavior is acceptable: If I were the division president conducting an on-site visit, would this employee behave the same way? Would his manager tolerate it then?

If the answer to that question is “no” then clearly, instead of being some pet peeve of mine, the behavior is unacceptable. If the division president was on-site, everyone would get the message from management, loud and clear, that there would be absolutely no texting their friends while “on the floor,” no smoking near the main store entrance and no audible complaining or personal conversations with coworkers in the presence of the division president.

Even without the message from management, front-line hourly employees know better than to do these things in front of the division president. In fact, most of them will be on their very best behavior and productivity will likely soar in the days and hours preceding the executive’s visit.

So, why the double standard? Why is it okay to behave indifferently toward customers and roll out the red carpet for the division president? Why do employees paint, wax the floors, and polish the chrome for the division president and text friends, smoke, and complain and banter in the presence of customers? I have a theory about this but I’ll save it for a future post. For now, suffice it to say that this behavior is unacceptable.

I’m sure this post won’t be popular with many employees. That’s understandable because, based on my experience, customer service and, in some cases, work ethic aren’t popular either with the same employees.

Companies need to acknowledge that the emperor is not wearing any clothes. They must establish standards and then hire employees who can meet and exceed these standards. National unemployment is near 10 percent. Employers can afford to be picky. Be picky. Once hired, employees’ performance must be managed. This means that managers must communicate, reinforce, and model these standards—regardless of whether or not the division president is stopping by.

Now, put away the phone, find a different place—far, far away from customers—to smoke, and resolve never to complain or carry on personal conversations with coworkers in the presence of customers again. It’s awkward for customers and undermines customer service.

Take a stand during this Customer Service Week. Look around your operation. If you see the behaviors highlighted in this post in full view of customers or if you detect employee apathy or indifference towards serving customers, call out, “The Emperor is naked!”

Using this as your battle cry, initiate a revolution to treat every customer like the division president—with courtesy, respect, and care. Not just during Customer Service Week, but every week of the year. You will be amazed by the results you see in your customers’ satisfaction as well as your own job satisfaction.

Okay, here comes the Emperor’s procession. Get ready…

Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.
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