The 5 Biggest Customer Service Blunders of All Time

While howls of protest over poor customer service continue to fill the air, there remain some businesses that manage to consistently deliver superior customer service year in and year out.

Customer crisis

These are the places where turbo-charged employees pursue customer delight with a passion, places that ignite a flashpoint of contagious enthusiasm in employees and customers alike.

Foremost among the lessons to be learned from such flashpoint businesses are the blunders to avoid—those fatal mistakes that trip up just about everybody else.

The 5 Biggest Customer Service Blunders of All Time

First Blunder: making customer service a training issue. Businesses of all kinds invest huge amounts in training programs that do not—and simply cannot—work.

The function of such training is to identify the behaviors workers are supposed to engage in, and then coax, bully, or legislate these behaviors into the workplace. At best, this is almost always a recipe for conduct that feels mechanized and insincere; at worst, it intensifies worker resentment and cynicism.

Instead of dictating what workers should be doing to delight customers, the better approach is to give workers opportunities to brainstorm their own ideas for delivering delight. Management’s role then becomes to help employees implement these ideas, and to allow workers to savor the motivational effect of the positive feedback that ensues from delighted customers. This level of employee ownership and involvement is a key cultural characteristic of virtually all flashpoint businesses.

Second Blunder: blaming poor service on employee demotivation. Businesses looking for ways to motivate their workers are almost always looking in the wrong places. Employee cynicism is the direct product of an organization’s visible preoccupation with self-interest above all else—a purely internal focus. The focus in flashpoint businesses is directed outward, toward the interests of customers and the community at large. This shift in cultural focus changes the way the business operates at all levels.

The reality in most business settings is that employees are demotivated because they can’t deliver delight. The existing policies and procedures make it impossible. Instead of “fixing” their employees, flashpoint business set out to build a culture that unblocks them. Workers are encouraged to identify operational obstacles to customer delight, and participate in finding ways around them.

Third Blunder: using customer feedback to uncover what’s wrong. Businesses often use surveys and other feedback mechanisms to get to the causes of customer problems and complaints. Employees come to dread these measurement and data-gathering efforts, since they so often lead to what feels like witch-hunts for employee scapegoats, formal exercises in finger-pointing and the assigning of blame.

Flashpoint businesses use customer feedback very differently. In these organizations the object is to uncover everything that’s going right. Managers are forever on the lookout for “hero stories”—examples of employees going the extra mile to deliver delight. Such feedback becomes the basis for ongoing recognition and celebration. Employees see themselves as winners on a winning team, because in their workplace there’s always some new “win” being celebrated.

Fourth Blunder: reserving top recognition for splashy recoveries. It happens all the time: something goes terribly wrong in a customer order or transaction, and a dedicated employee goes to tremendous lengths to make things right. The delighted customer brings this employee’s wonderful recovery to management’s attention, and the employee receives special recognition for his or her efforts. This is a blunder?

It is when such recoveries are the primary—if not the only—catalysts for employee recognition. In such a culture, foul-ups become almost a good thing from the workers’ point of view. By creating opportunities for splashy recoveries, foul-ups represent the only chance employees have to feel appreciated on the job. Attempts to correct operational problems won’t win much support if employees see these problems as their only opportunity to shine.

Flashpoint businesses celebrate splashy recoveries, of course—but they’re also careful to uncover and celebrate employee efforts to delight customers where no mistakes or problems were involved. This makes it easier to get workers participating in efforts to permanently eliminate the sources of problems at the systems level.

Fifth Blunder: competing on price. It’s one of the most common (and most costly) mistakes in business. Price becomes the deciding factor in purchasing decisions only when everything else is equal—and everything else is almost never equal. Businesses compete on the perception of value, and this includes more than price. It’s shaped by the total customer experience—and aspects such as “helpfulness,” “friendliness,” and “the personal touch” often give the competitive advantage to businesses that actually charge slightly more for their basic goods and services.

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

About the Author

Customer-focus consultant Paul Levesque outlines a step-by-step process for building a flashpoint culture in his book “Customer Service From The Inside Out Made Easy” (Entrepreneur Press). Paul has helped over 350 businesses plan and implement their customer-focus initiatives and has spoken to audiences on every continent and in most North American cities.

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