Of employee empowerment and excellence in service to the customer

What is good customer service? How do you excel’ What do you do to excel? So why does anyone need empowered employees for that? Who will cover the expenses? Is there a way to evaluate those extra efforts objectively?

All of the above are obvious questions that a customer service enthusiast, advocate or guru will get asked at any event. Let’s dive head first into the subject matter and see what comes out of it. We’ll do that by taking each of the above questions, one at a time. If you have any further questions, do write them to me in the comments section below. On to the questions then:

What is good customer service ?

Customer service is a self explanatory term. It entails all the service that a customer receives. Given that a person becomes a customer when s/he agrees to engage in the purchase of good(s) or service(s) of a company. Once that contrat of purchase comes into legal existence by the signature of both parties being apposed on it, the company, in most countries around the globe, become liable to provide that customer with support to make sure that:

1. s/he is able to make the best use of the product they have just acquired;

2. s/he is satisfied with the product and knows enough to independently get the best out of the product for his/her benefit.

3. the service will be such that the customer will want to not only speak well about the product, and through it,  about the company.

Whether the support is provided by having a technician go on site, or by telephone, e-mail or chat is only secondary. What is required of the employee providing support is to constantly think that the person at the receiving end could be him/her, and then to provide the quality of service that s/he would expect to receive. If that quality of service coincides with or exceeds what the company claims to provide at the time of purchase, then that  employee fulfils his/her role as a good customer support provider.

How do you excel ?

As mentioned above, the most basic, first and foremost condition is for the customer support employee to take ownership of the case by putting him/herself in the shoes of the customer and aligning their behaviour with those expectations at least; by being courteous by assertive. A person providing support or customer service reflects what the company thinks of and therefore interacts with it’s customers. That person has to give the impression of knowing what s/he “is on about” even if half of it is only jargon at first, but then they also have to explain what that jargon means.

In short and in pictorial form, the fundamental qualities can be drawn from anywhere in literature which describes the basic needs of a human:

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

 

Figure 1. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.           Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maslow’s_hierarchy_of_needs.png

When you satisfy the above needs, you are doing a good job of providing good service to the customers. On the other hand, one look at the above figure, and one tends to think that a customer support employee would only fulfil the needs in the top three segments if at all. But let’s broaden the scope of customer service providing employees and consider any employee in any field who does not sell the product but is in direct contact with the customer as a service providing employee and we start seeing things in a different light altogether: a nurse, a waiter, a receptionist, a technician, a mechanic, a delivery man, onboard personnel of various means of transport are but few examples of people whom we do not think of as customer support providers, but think again!  Their’s is also the degree of dedication that is required by an employee to serv(ic)e the customer requiring the service in question.

What do you do to excel?

What is required to excel in the customer support arena? Quick (re)actions, knowledge base, proactive approach when it comes to receiving the issues and making the service providing process as seamless as possible.

One does excel at providing customer service because one has thought out the process well in advance, and what that brings with itself is the ability to think up new possible situations which might crop up, and ways in which the company can then be prepared to handle that customer in providing him/her with the best possible service in a bid to win his/her loyalty to the brand, and therefore the company. Something that the company must not cringe to do at this time is to invest in the means: the investment in providing for yet unknown situations in customer service should be similar to the level of it’s investment in a contingency plan with the only exception that a contingency plan is meant to be flashed out only in dire situations and in circumstances which put the very life of the company in danger, whereas the customer service readiness plan is a proof of proactive thinking and readiness to acquire the loyalty of a customer to the brand in order to further the company’s life. A similar approach serving diametrically opposite ends of the survival spectrum!

But why not get loyalty to the company? Because the company has already a relation of loyalty towards it’s employees. What the customer wants is a name by which to identify the people working in and things provided by a given company, collectively. Since the company and the employees have a pact between themselves on the one hand, and the customer’s relation with the company is primarily thanks to it’s products, it is but natural that the company and it’s employees be identified by the name of the product(s), i.e. the brand. Thereby giving rise to, I am (un)happy with the Gillette®s, Blackberry®, or British Airways®.

So excelling at customer service providing entails acquiring the loyalty of the customer towards your brand by inventing new ways in which the company can satisfy him/her? Yes, but since the competitors will keep at your toes, the only way in which the customer service provider can stand a head above the rest of the crowd is by acquiring the kudos and by constantly innovating to come up with new ways in which they can differentiate themselves from the rest of the crowd.

But, you might well say, where are you differentiating yourself from the others who have told us this? True, I hadn’t thought of that… or had I?

Actually, I had. So how do I differentiate myself from others? I think I made it clear in the very first paragraph of this writing, and at the expense of quoting myself, “If you have any further questions, do write them to me in the comments section below.” Only I did not tell you what I would do with your questions, Well, I’ll research answers and get back to you, of course. Unless of course, you are able to research answers until you either resolve the issue or come to a wall where I will then research a way of helping you… and it will be free of cost for the first shot. Now is that satisfactory? And if you are satisfied, you can also put your comment below and say that you are happy with the service or information or help or support or guidance you got and if you paid money in the process, whether it was worth every juicy penny of it.

So why does anyone need empowered employees for that ?

Empowered employees are the ones who will really take ownership of each case as their own. Take away the empowerment from the employee and you take away the ownership of the work provided, which will adversely affect the quality of work that the employee shall provide.  What is important in this case is for the employer to lead by example and then expect what he wants rather than enforcing micro-measures for each step of each way so that the employee has only to “read the instructions and follow them to the letter”. Take away that sense of initiative from the employee and you might as well replace the employee with a robot, which will be more precise in it’s actions but will not judge the utility of an action.

To overcome that issue, the company has one of two choices: 

–  either have a robot or a computer which will function quasi humanely.

– empowered employees who will take the initiative and overcome all issues on the spot in a bid to satisfy every customer who calls in with an issue.

Going half way between the two possibilities given above will definitely not bring in the best of both worlds; chances are greater that the company will reap the worst of both worlds instead. The truth of the matter remains that when managers are not sincere in what they promise, whether the recipient of that word is a customer or a subordinate, the result is usually the same; the company loses credibility. It is the weakest link that will cause the chain to break, and if that link is an important one, then the disconnect will be felt even more violently and probably lead to unrepairable damage. Empowerment of a subordinate requires power to be relinquished by the one who holds it, and often wields it. It’s first and foremost component is faith, trust, belief, confidence. It is far from “laisser-faire” and has a lot to do with guidance. I know that I have always endeavoured to work in a manner such that my position becomes obsolete within the framework of the organisation that I serve. If I only made sure that the company never let’s go of me, then I am not working in their best interest but my own, and generally two interests in one mind do conflict sooner or later. Empowerment is rather like a firearm; it is not considered to be in the right hands until the recipient knows how, when, why and where to use it – else it is not empowerment, it is just power and that can have a very negative outcome. But once the empowerment initiative begins, the employees then have to manage the vessel on their own without any interference from anyone. If anyone does interfere at any time, the process starts from scratch and costs the company a lot more.

By empowering employees, the company gives them the means to take and use all means and measures required to resolve a case. If a customer service employee is empowered, s/he will make the experience a unique one for that person and increase the chance of that customer’s loyalty not only towards the product, the brand but also towards the company.

Who will cover the expenses ?

Initially, the company does bear the cost of investing in the initiative of bringing about the change within it’s structure and framework and as we know, any change or shift from status quo results in rising eyebrows and questioning looks, Skeptics of any change will not stop at anything to prove it all wrong. That brings with itself the prospect of added efforts being made and added resources being invested to acquire their buy-in.

But the costs generally are quickly recuperated as absenteeism generally diminishes amongst peers, which also renders the introduction of repressive measures to combat undue absenteeism by the management. The introduction of change within the organisation may well lead to a spike in the turnover rate but tends to quickly stabilise and remains constant and usually lower than previous records.  The safety level increases and the compensations decrease which also has an impact on the legal costs which can be quantified by the accounts department in due course.

As such, in the longer run, the cost factor of  the empowerment initiative shall generate it’s own means of functioning and might even be shared with those who have brought the added bonuses to the company: the employees; however, in most cases, that, in today’s world may well be considered utopian at least.

What would be appreciated is for recognition to be given where it is due and for

Is there a way to evaluate the results of such measures ?

But of course. Beside the financial benefits enumerated above, there are a few more aspects which have been covered, such as reduced turnover and therefore reduced induction training hours which can be converted into advanced training hours for the empowered employees. Higher income due to a higher rates of satisfied customers. Knowledge base created with the help of customer support employees and their interlocutors within the company and beyond.

Other advantages can be motivated and committed employees who work cohesively in a close knit, independent team of leaders who resolve issues in the best interest of the customer and the company, leaving their line managers to indulge in the company’s strategic development.

Reference:

C. Elliot, (2014), “The High Cost of Great Customer Service”, Newsfactor Business Report, USA Today, available at http://business.newsfactor.com/story.xhtml?story_id=10300BSB77G4 accessed on 20th March 2014

 

How empowered does an employee feel as an owner?

Can an employee be empowered to the point of acting as the owner of an organisation? Is empowerment all about relinquishing control? If not, how can the leaders of the organisation actually keep the power whilst empowering the subordinates?

Holmes (2013) touches on the subject somewhat squarely by alluding to “training employees to take full advantage of new sales opportunities” So in essence, the investment is manifold in that the employer provides the training, invests in the time of his employees that undergo the training, and what goes without saying, will incentivise any efforts made by sales force to up the sales figures’ and market share ante. All of it, at the very risk of seeing them walk away to the competition and employ his training to his own detriment.

As such, if the employer does make them aware of their responsibilities (empower, I’m told), by treating the company as their own, but fails to make them feel that they are running their own company and has them running to him better job involvement, suggestion to improve or even every operational decision, give-away, then the employee will be right to feel disinherited by his employer who only feigns to adopt the leadership path. At the advent of the first best opportunity beyond the known pastures of the organisation, and into the greener pastures of the outside world, the employee is bound to seize it and run with renewed energy, albeit a more circumspect approach.

So you might well ask, what stops employers and managers from empowering their subordinates? Because most of them have only thought of it without really considering it any more seriously. Bowen and Lawler III (1994:422) point out “Many lessons have been learned in manufacturing about how to best use quality, circles, enriched jobs, and so on. And the added good news is that many service businesses are ideally suited to applying and refining these lessons.”

Let us just hope that current managers, and employers of service businesses, especially multisite ones, will be able to take ownership of the situation and adapt empowering approaches to their specific needs on the one hand, but that there will be studies carried out to get the information out into the world to prove that employee empowerment, employed correctly, will bring unexpected results with itself.

Can empowerment be quantified? If so, how much empowerment is good, how much is satisfactory and how much is insufficient? If, however, it cannot be quantified, how does one then go about getting dependable and objective data from a field of subjective practices amongst others?

Quantifying employee empowerment is best possible within the context of its application to a business, a site or a department. Let me explain: if employee turnover was the issue that triggered the measures, then one can evaluate the reduction of employee turnover. If employee empowerment was introduced to improve sales figures, then either the sales team needed to be empowered with added responsibilities but also the authority to decide what works best for each salesperson. The diversity of approaches will bring not only a better understanding through varied market analyses which are all going to be based on individual analytics. If, on the other hand, the empowerment was introduced to improve communication within the organisation, various tools can allow a very objective evaluation of intra-organisational communication

Reference:

D.E. Bowen and E.E. Lawler III (1994), “The empowerment of service workers: what, why, how and when”, The training and development Sourcebook, Ed. C. E. Schreiner, Human Resource Development Press Inc. Massachusets, USA, available at http://www.google.lu/books?hl=en&lr=&id=vnyFFWL0loEC&oi=fnd&pg=PA413&dq=employee+empowerment,+profit&ots=ag_EOFicdw&sig=T6MndRsvcdwgsz7ZvbpcCETaan4&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=employee%20empowerment%2C%20profit&f=false accessed on 1.4.2014

C. Holmes (2013), “Growth coaching must balance technology with employee empowerment”, the Chet Holmes Method, availabe at http://www.chetholmes.com/tips-and-advice/?p=29#sthash.EvRtCBvq.dpuf accessed on 1.1.2014