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3 Examples Proving Employees Make the Customer Experience

Brian Cantor

Conceptually valuable and accurate, the notion that "happy agents = happy customers" is also dangerously reductive.

For starters, it overstates the importance happiness plays in the customer experience. While a happy, pleasant demeanor definitely sets the right tone during a customer interaction, it represents a mere piece of the customer satisfaction puzzle. If the agent does not accompany his smile with effective and efficient service, his happiness will most certainly not translate into customer happiness.

It also mistakenly assumes that all agents are equal—and equally committed to the customer. By attributing customer satisfaction to agent happiness, the notion effectively functions as a call to action for leadership. It contends that if a business produces happy agents by establishing the right workplace culture and offering the optimal combination of training and incentives, it will assuredly cultivate a satisfied customer base.

Reality offers no such assurance. Because all agents are different, their happiness will emerge in different ways. Some agents, therefore, will produce markedly superior or inferior service experiences despite possessing the same degree of workplace satisfaction.

A business that creates happy agents but fails to appreciate the differences between those agents will most certainly not produce happy customers.

Over the past few months, I have repeatedly witnessed the extent to which the intricacies of each agent drive and define the efficacy of the customer experience. Dealing with different employees within the same business—and thus subject to the same workplace conditions, same training and same empowerment—produced dramatically different levels of satisfaction.

Insofar as that experiential inconsistency affected my loyalty to each business, the companies would have been wise to understand the impact its individual employees were making on customers. Instead of worrying about customer support at the abstract level—and determining how conceptual agent happiness will transform into conceptual customer happiness—these businesses should instead adopt a microscopic approach. As should all businesses.

Those with larger contact centers should analyze how specific agents are impacting specific customers and determine how training, scheduling and routing could be used to create optimal agent-customer pairs. Those operating on a smaller scale should determine which specific qualities will most consistently drive customer satisfaction.

None should pretend that agent intricacies do not matter.

These real-life examples highlight the extent to which the specific agent—not simply the support system behind the agent—impacted my experience as a customer.

Example One: The Dry Cleaner

A few years ago, a dry cleaner refused to promise that my suit would be ready the following day even though it allegedly offers "same-day service." At that moment, I vowed never to do business with that particular cleaner.

Unfortunately, a change in management at what had become my preferred dry cleaner spurred a massive decline in service, and I opted to give the store that offended me a second chance to win my business.

It absolutely did. Instead of being greeted by the clueless, unlikable woman who could not process why a business that can offer "same-day service" should face no difficulty offering "next-day service," I was greeted by a courteous, energetic new employee whose demeanor and attitude epitomized customer-centricity.

More importantly, so too did her work.

In addition to committing to (and always successfully delivering) next-day service, she also came to know me by name within two or three weeks, put my credit card into the system so that I would not need to deal with tickets and routinely engaged in cordial conversation. So strong was her service that I could not envision a scenario in which I would switch to a different cleaner.

Three weeks ago, things changed. Upon walking into the store, I was greeted by the offensive woman from a few years ago (whom I learned was the manager) rather than the employee who won my business. She explained that the other employee was no longer working a full schedule; if I wanted to use this particular cleaner, I would be required to deal with her or a different coworker).

I gave it a shot – and I seemingly made the right call. While she did not know my name and thus could not operate on the ticketless system, she did promise to return my garments the next day. She was also far friendlier than I first remembered.

Unfortunately, she did not deliver. When I arrived to pick up my items the next day, I was told that I needed to wait until tomorrow. The items, she explained, had not yet come back from the cleaning facility.

After many months of stellar service when one employee was at the helm, I was forced to deal with poor service the second a different employee got involved. Could it have been a coincidence?

Optimistic that it was, I gave the cleaner one final chance. I brought in my clothing the following week, and I once again received assurance it would be ready the next day (from a third employee). Once again, it was not. Worse – a full rack in the back of the store revealed that the clothinghad been returned from the facility. The employee had simply failed to label the garments, and she refused to search for my items in the moment. I was required to wait until the following day.

At that moment, I realized that I was not dealing with a strong, reputable business. I was dealing with one built on underperformance and misinformation.

A strong employee overcame those limitations and won my satisfaction in the process. Unfortunately, she was the exception rather than the rule. Other employees with access to the same systems and in possession of the same stakes (or greater stakes, in the case of the manager) failed to deliver the same service.

The deli cook

Two delis operate across the street from my office, and neither demonstrates much differentiation in product.

Their menu options, food quality and prices are almost identical. Their convenience factors absolutely are identical.

If any potential point of differentiation were to exist, it would fall within the service realm. And after a period of sampling both experiences, I identified the one that did provide a more consistently remarkable experience.

While the deli seemed victimized by significant and frequent employee turnover, it never failed to find new employees with the same degree of passion, courtesy, skill and customer-centricity.

At one point, the organization seemed to hit the jackpot. It hired the perfect person to work its grill. He had great culinary instincts. He was immensely friendly. He always maintained an upbeat demeanor. He wanted to get to know his customers.

Knowing that each visit would bring a friendly conversation – and a new, custom sandwich to try – wholly secured my loyalty. I had no need to go anywhere else for lunch.

Until I did. At one point, the individual disappeared from the grill, and a rigid, angry, impersonal cook stood in his place. This man had no interest in banter. He had no interest in smiling. And he had absolutely no patience for custom requests – he was there to cook menu selections rather than personalized meals for customers. If what one wanted did not precisely exist on the menu, that one needed to find a different place to order lunch. And I soon did.

The new cook is skilled. He often puts more meat on each sandwich than the old employee did. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the culinary product he is creating.

Unfortunately, those who frequent the deli are buying more than quality sandwiches and salads. They are also paying for the experience, and an experience sans a friendly grill chef and custom menu options is not worth the same price. I had no choice but to take the bulk of my business elsewhere.

Most frustrating? The current cook—the least personable ever to man this deli’s grill—now holds the record for longest tenure. He has held his role for many months, and there is no indication he is about to depart.

The cable hookup

The most stereotypical conception of the contact center is a robotic one. It is one that features rows of impersonal agents who do nothing but unemotionally present generic information to the customers with whom they interact. It does not necessarily offer great service, but insofar as it is so structured, systematic and hierarchical, what it does offer should certainly be consistent.

It rarely is. And it definitely is not within the realm of Time Warner Cable, my local television and internet provider.

Routinely upset or confused with the service I am receiving, I frequently call the provider’s customer service department. No two calls are ever the same.

From the demeanor of the agent on the other line, to the type of verification information I need to provide, to the creativity and value of the resolutions offered, to the efficacy with which the agent actually delivers that information, every facet of the experience seems to be impacted by the specific agent with whom I am interacting.

Because the natural monopoly associated with the local cable system prevents me from switching, I cannot necessarily directly punish Time Warner for its inconsistency. I can, however, share my frustration with the business – and I very often do.

I can also use the Time Warner setup to illustrate the impact individual agents have on the customer experience. Specific agents can dramatically change the parameters of each call and thus dramatically change my opinion of the overall brand.

And that variation occurs within a customer support function that is designed to be homogeneous. It exist within a contact center that provides agents with a rigid set of service guidelines, a standard level of happiness and a stock assortment of tools to use when engaging customers. If agent intricacies can alter the customer experience in that environment, they can do so in all environments.