By Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden
There are few connections in the world of business clearer than the
one between how an organization treats its employees and how those
employees treat their customers. As Bill Black, former CEO of
Canada’s Maritime Life Assurance Co., once said, “We're not running
a country club around here, but we are in a service industry,
and the best way to have happy customers is to have happy
Though the connection between joint employee and customer
satisfaction isn’t 100 percent, it is patently clear that you can
hardly have happy customers with disgruntled employees serving them.
Just ask most air travelers.
Yep, there’s an awful lot of bad customer service out there. But
it’s not due to a shortage of books and seminars to teach the
unenlightened how to be nice to people trying desperately to give
them their money. And it’s not because customer service employees
are innately rude. OK, some are, but most aren’t. Where service is
lousy, it’s often because managers haven’t equipped their employees
to provide the good service that they’d like to believe
Research into service providers that understand the
employee-customer connection suggests that you can substantially
improve customer service in at least three ways:
1. Give employees reasons to be proud: People truly want to
take pride in their work. Good chefs get their thrills creating
great meals and then watching appreciative guests devour the food.
But if that chef has to make do with
third-rate meats purchased by a stingy or ignorant corporate buyer,
the chef can’t help but fail. Ditto for the server who brings the
sub-prime steak to the table.
Whether you’re selling food, freight service, hotel rooms, computer
operating systems, or any other product or service, the employee who
makes, sells, delivers, or services a high-quality product is going
to have a better day at work than the one who has to associate with
One factor that has propelled Rochester, New York-based Wegman’s
Supermarkets to a position at or near the top of Fortune’s list of
“100 Best Companies to Work For” for more than a decade is a
distinctive commitment to customer service. That’s right. Rather
than creating an added burden on employees who are expected to go
out of their way to serve customers, Wegman’s high service standards
actually improve working conditions for their employees.
“This is hard work,” a Wegman’s
employee told us on a recent store visit, “but what makes it worth
it is that our customers are great. They love shopping here, and
that makes me feel good about what I do … even if I’m worn out at
the end of the day.”
Create the connection: No one can possibly put everything
they’ve got into their job until they see how their daily work
benefits the end customer.
Lots of workers have this opportunity, first-hand, every day;
nurses, auto mechanics, realtors, HVAC installers, your morning
barista. The list goes on and on, but it’s shorter than the list of
those who, in the regular course of their work, never, ever, have an
encounter with a real paying customer – those millions of people
working diligently in factories, back offices, and elsewhere,
supporting the work that touches the customer.
When the employee-customer connection isn’t obvious, sometimes
leaders have to create it.
Morale was low, error rates were high, and employee turnover was
rampant in a factory where workers made hospital
products—specifically, tubing assemblies used to deliver intravenous
medication, fluids, and nutrition to patients. The HR Department
sweetened the benefits pot, and hired a team of consultants to
implement such techniques as job variety and job enhancement.
Finally someone decided to put all the factory workers on a big
yellow school bus, and take them to the nearest hospital, where
everyone could see, at work, these tubing assemblies they make all
day. When they witnessed the very tubes their hands had wrought
being used to deliver lifesaving medication and nourishment to
patients, that’s when things turned around. People came away saying,
“So that’s what we do. Now we see why we come to work every
day.” Within weeks, morale rose markedly, as did quality. Turnover
dropped, and people began to work with an energy the plant manager
had never seen before – because someone created an
Get the system off their backs: In most organizations, there’s a
substantial disconnect between those who make corporate policy and
those who are tasked with delivering customer service. If you’re a
member of the former group, remember that good employees won’t
suffer dumb systems.
The late great management thinker Peter Drucker once opined that,
“Ninety percent of what we call ‘management’ consists of making it
difficult for people to get things done.”
A national chain of café/bookstores has a rigid policy requiring
multiple levels of approval for the purchase of any piece of
equipment costing more than $100. As a result, when, for example, a
commercial bagel toaster toasts its last, it takes nearly a month to
replace it. During that month, the attendants at its understaffed
counters have to make do with inadequate equipment and apologize to
every customer for why their service is even slower than usual.
By contrast, organizations that experience high degrees of employee
engagement take deliberate, preemptive steps to avoid putting their
workers in the line of fire of angry customers. Nowhere is this
ideal violated more frequently or more egregiously than in the realm
of customer service call centers.
The quality of a call center employee’s workplace experience varies
directly with that of the customer’s service experience, and
inversely with the number of minutes spent on hold and the number of
touch-tone qualifying prompts required to reach a human with a brain
set to the “on” position.
Face it, by the time your customer has answered 20 electronic
questions and waited 30 minutes listening to a recording of how
important their business is to you, when they do finally
reach a real person, they can’t help but take out their frustrations
on your service rep – the one person in your company least
responsible for the asinine system that so provoked your customer.
The number one reason for high call center turnover is the daily
wearing down of the spirits of employees by a system that serves
customers poorly, and which employees are powerless to change.
If you’re hiring right in the first place, your people want to do
good work and deliver great customer service. But after the new
wears off the job, they can only continue to do so if they are able
to take real pride in what they do, if they see a direct connection
between their work and real paying customers, and with systems that
allow them to do their very best work.
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