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Purpose, not policies, determines service quality

Bell1 copyThis is the second post in a series that will explore a set of questions I received from participants during a recent webinar on the topic of customer service.

Question: In many CS organizations, agents are bound by policies, procedures, and access restrictions. This limits an agent’s ability to “wow” someone when they are afraid to stick their neck out for violating policy. How do you recommend companies empower employees to “wow” the customer?

I have a couple of reactions to this question. First, I don’t believe it’s necessary to “wow” customers. My definition of customer service is: A voluntary act that demonstrates a genuine desire to satisfy, if not delight, a customer. Notice how it doesn’t read “…genuine desire to delight a customer”? There’s a popular perception that breathless, over-the-top customer service is required in order to achieve the same status or reputation as Zappos or Nordstrom. The reality is that this type of service model leads to employee (and, quite possibly, customer) fatigue and is, over time, unsustainable.

Customers do not expect you and I to go out of our way during every interaction. Most customers simply want to receive the product or service in question at the time and price expected. If this happens, it’s all good. As an example, consider Amazon. I just received a book order from Amazon yesterday. It was perhaps the third such delivery from them this year. I’m a loyal Amazon customer – although I wouldn’t say that anyone from Amazon has “gone out of their way” for me. They simply do an exceptional job of providing the products I order at the time and price expected. For me (and millions of other Amazon customers), that’s enough.

Second, the best way to avoid having to stick your neck out for violating policy is to create customer-centric policies that don’t require employees to stick their necks out! A great illustration of this is the Nordstrom “policy” that governs employee behavior with this solitary guideline: “Use your best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.” Based on my latest experience at Nordstrom, this seems to be working.

Zappos is another company that is renowned for its customer service quality. At Zappos, employee behavior is guided by the purpose statement: “To provide the best customer service possible.” As long as employees’ decisions are aligned with this purpose (the “why” behind the “what” of employees’ job functions), then their decisions are supported. And if their decisions undermine this purpose statement, then it becomes a performance management issue requiring intervention (E.g., feedback, coaching, counseling – even discipline).

I’m not sure they call it “empowerment” but Nordstrom and Zappos, by limiting restrictions and conveying job purpose, have successfully created work environments that encourage employees to provide exceptional customer service without undo reliance on policies or fear of reprisal.

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) 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.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Illustration by Aaron McKissen.

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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