Where Great Customer Service Begins

Despite just about every company claiming that they are “rated #1 in customer service”, there is an abundance of evidence that customer service in general is getting worse, not better. If you’re like most people, you can probably recall your most frustrating customer service experience in a heartbeat. Emotions quickly rush back to the surface as you picture the look of indifference the company representative gave you as they declined your simple request.

When I encounter bad customer service, the management consultant in me often prompts me to dig a little deeper to find out why the company representative behaved the way they did. I’ve discovered that, except for the times when I was dealing with a completely inept individual, most of the customer service breakdowns I have experienced occurred because the company representative did not have the authority to make a relatively minor decision – a decision they should be able to make.

Here’s a prime example.

Tripping Over Dollars to Save Pennies

Within the last five years I’ve purchased two Mac computers and accessories from an authorized Mac dealer. I’ve used them for all my computer needs. A few weeks ago I forgot my power cord at a speaking engagement in a different city. So I popped down to my Mac dealer to ask them for a loaner for a couple of days until mine was returned. The store manager said he didn’t have one. I explained my purchase history to him and asked if he could open a new one for me and keep it as a spare. He said he couldn’t do that. Here’s how the rest of the conversation went:

Me: “I can’t be the only customer that has asked to borrow a power cord from you.”

Store Manager: “Actually, you’re the second person today that has asked for one.”

Me: “Wouldn’t it be a good idea then to spend $80 to be able to help your valued customers out when they’re in a jam?”

Store Manager: “I just can’t do that. I can’t resell it then.”

Me: “I don’t think you understand what I’m saying. If you spend $80 now, you could influence many customers, who have already demonstrated that they will spend money at your store, to continue buying computers and other big ticket items there. So you’re paying small dollars now to attract big dollars later.”

Store Manager: “I can’t do that.”

Me: “Are you saying you that don’t want to do that or that you don’t have the authority to make that decision?”

Store Manager: “I do not have the authority to make that decision.”

Autonomy: The Foundation of Good Customer Service

While it boggles my mind that a store manager can’t authorize an $80 expenditure, I recognize that there are some executives who believe that delegating spending authority is a precursor to anarchy. I would direct such executives to Zappos, the undisputed champion of customer service AND a highly profitable company. What’s Zappos customer service secret? Autonomy. For example, unlike most call center representatives, Zappos doesn’t keep track of call times or require them to read from scripts. And believe it or not, call center reps are even authorized to make $80 decisions on their own (gasp!).

The next time you have a bad customer service experience, ask a few questions and I’ll bet that you trace the problem to a lack of autonomy. Should you be in a position to influence customer service policy, take a risk and give customer-facing employees more authority, and then watch what happens.


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