3 Ways to Empower Customer Service Employees

John Tschohl

When it comes to customer service, employee empowerment is defined as allowing employees to make fast decisions -- on the spot -- in favor of the customer.

Unfortunately, empowerment is the single most difficult skill to get employees to utilize. That is a problem for businesses and governments, because if they do not have empowered employees, they will never be service leaders.

It is critically important for businesses to give employees the power to make decisions on the spot; one generic policy cannot cover everything. There are too many weird, unexpected things that happen every day.

The good news is that most decisions will cost the company less than $50, which is a pittance when considering the lifetime value of the customer and the goodwill that empowered decisions can cultivate.

If you have happy customers, you position yourself to make a lot of money. And since most customer interactions are directly with an employee, It is vitally important that employees know they are empowered to offer resolution.

Unfortunately, even employees of businesses that rhetorically claim to support empowerment fear making the needed decisions on their own. There are three key reasons employees do not take the initiative to solve problems:

1. They think they will lose their jobs. In fact, in their minds, they absolutely know they will lose their jobs. To them, it is less risky to lose a customer than your job. After all, they think, "No one ever got fired for enforcing a policy, rule or procedure."

2. They are afraid they will be penalized and have to pay for what they did. For example, if they upgrade a person from a room to a suite, they will have to pay the difference.

3. They do not want to get chewed out. In the status quo, there is very little upside for an employee who makes empowered decisions. Celebrations—or even pats on the back—are rarely offered to employees simply because they made an independent decision to satisfy a customer. There is, however, downside when an employee is criticized for ignoring policy or subjecting the business to undesired costs.

In order to overcome this culture of fear, businesses need to adopt three steps for boosting employee empowerment:

1. Assure every department and manager is on board. They must enforce a culture of empowerment culture within their teams, and they must stand by employees when they do color outside the lines. It just takes one piece of negative management feedback for the employee grapevine to get the message that the policy is just lip service or the policy du jour.

2. Train employees on empowerment. You have to teach them what is it, how to actualize it and how the organization celebrates it.

3. Reinforce and celebrate empowerment. Most empowered decisions have no significant cost. For example, it might include opening doors early to let in a customer. Empowered employees can bend policies and procedures to fit a situation. In a restaurant, they can let customers mix and match menu items.

There are so many little things businesses can do to make employees happy.

I recently wanted to buy my wife an iPad from the AT&T store so that I could get the affixed $100 voucher. However the store was out of stock. But instead of simply telling me to go to the Apple Store across the mall, the employee walked me to the Apple Store, bought the iPad and gave us the $100 voucher anyway. That is the result of empowerment!

Only a handful of fellow organizations that fit the required bill. Ritz Carlton, for instance, empowers any employee to spend up to $2,000 on the spot.

In reality, no one ever gives $2,000 way. Companies that do not promote empowerment think employees will give away too much, but the reality is that they will not. They will give what is required to satisfy the customers.

And some such decisions do not even require money. They do, however, always improve the customer experience.

Another irony is that companies spend massive amounts of money on marketing to attract customers but skimp when it comes to keeping them. If budget were devoted to customer retention by training employees to make empowered decisions, they would see a far more immediate, measurable return on their investment.

You want to empower employees to make decisions on the spot. When they do, the impact on customer is immediate.

By empowering employees, you will have happy customers. You will increase market share. And you will make more money.

John Tschohl - described by Time and Entrepreneur magazines as a customer service guru and service strategist - presents strategic keynote speeches to companies worldwide. He is the author of "Empowerment, A Way of Life." Contact him at John@servicequality.com or http://www.customer-service.com/