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Don’t Fear the Customer Experience

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Brian Cantor

In recent months, two nearby coffee restaurants suffered outages with their credit card systems. Always the lucky one, I happened to visit each restaurant on its respective day of strife.

Store One: As I got to the register, the cashier advised me of the credit card situation, before confirming, "You don’t have cash, right?" I began to reach for my wallet, only for him to repeat, "It’s cool…you don’t have cash." He winked, I understood what was going on, and I received my drink for free.

Store Two: Having reaped the rewards of the previous store’s outage, my eyes lit up when I found out store number two was now facing a similar credit card conflict. When the cashier asked if I had cash, I knew the drill: "Sorry, I don’t think I do." This time, however, there was no wink, and I instead heard, "Oh, really? Well, our credit card system is down so you have to pay with cash…we also don’t have change." A firm believer that the concept of "change" should no longer exist, I never carry change (the change I do begrudgingly receive goes into tip jars, the cups of homeless persons and street performers or my desk to use for the occasional pack of gum), and that meant I had to pay $4 cash for a $3.19 drink.

Care to guess which store I now prefer to frequent?

When complaints emerge about customer service, particularly in face-to-face retail environments, customer service leadership often feels inclined to absolve itself of the blame, arguing that some the "punk," disrespectful, minimum-wage teenagers they have to employee are neither capable of nor committed to delivering a great experience. To them, the face-to-face element of their organization’s customer experience is a crapshoot—either the "rep" is personable or not, and with little in the way of salary and benefits to incentivize improvement, there is no way to plug every gap.

True, some reps are just "bad seeds," and since the market value for a lot of customer-facing jobs is so low, it is hard to attract the world’s most elite talent. But, in many cases, these reps are failing at jobs that should be both simple and enjoyable for reasons that are not the consequence of inherent problems with ability and attitude. Instead, it is because their leaders, no matter how competent at "managing a workforce," are not directing them to the right perception of customer experience.

This is not a statement on "motivation" or feel-good agent engagement. Rather, it is a statement on customer management leadership’s failure to get reps truly aligned with how the customer values his or her interactions with the brand. It is always the case, and especially true in a tough economy, that reps take their cues from their managers—and if they perceive management’s interests to differ from those of the customers, the customer experience will suffer from that subordination.

As more and more C-level executives recognize the business value of customer experience improvement, it is simply unacceptable for organizations to perceive customer-centricity as counter to the bottom line. Customer-facing employees should not fear that a pro-customer "attitude" is detrimental to the business; they should see customer-friendly "mistakes" not as job-jeopardizing failures but as welcome occurrences that strengthen customer loyalty and satisfaction and, as a result, the business at large.

A very loyal restaurant customer, I often, quickly, find myself in first-name, stop-and-chat relationships with the workers, and I have been exposed to a lot of the perks that come with befriending the people in charge of doling out the food portions (free nachos, free sodas, taste-tests of new products, etc). Just recently, I began frequenting a new burger place that, in all honesty, could not be more mediocre from a taste standpoint. But when I come in, they always greet me by name, they overload my orders of fries and even once gave me a free order of chili. This is exactly how to treat a customer, and as a result, I am far more loyal to this place than is warranted by the quality of food.

It thus pains me to see those who are so afraid of violating corporate policy or enduring their supervisors’ wrath that they consciously shy away from these niceties that can make all the difference in the customer experience. I don’t expect to be treated like a king at every turn (I may like it, but I know that not every Chipotle server, for instance, can overload my bowl with steak just because we’re on friendly terms), but as a customer, I also don’t expect that my satisfaction should be completely ignored if an employee feels it interferes with what his boss wants.

Case-in-point: I might not be able to expect an amount of meat that would make a vegetarian shriek in horror, but I certainly haven’t been amused when seeing Chipotle servers carefully measure out the portion so it exactly fits the serving spoon (or, worse, actually take meat off my burrito because they accidentally gave me too much) just because their managers were looking. Currying favor with leadership at the expense of the customer is not only insulting to the customer and damning to the customer experience but the sign of a bad customer service culture. Customer experience absolutely should be the priority for the organization, so a pro-customer move should help gain favor with me and the manager.

At the expense of sounding like an alcoholic, when I visit a bar, I don’t want to see the bartender overload my gin and tonic with tonic and then "nod in victory" at the owner or manager. I want the bartender to overload my drink with gin (or at least give it a fair portion) and nod at me, confident that if I’m happy, the business wins.

Though perhaps best-illustrated by cute, fast-food anecdotes, the hazardous impact of a "fear" culture should be crystal-clear to all customer service professionals. This is not about my frustration over a soda with too much ice in it or my outrage at a slightly-understuffed quesadilla. It is about organizational policies and cultures stifling the customer experience by making it bad to overdeliver and by not making it clear that aggressively-limiting the "value" of what is given to the customer is bad, not good, for the bottom line.

It is about in-store and phone product return reps feeling pressured to reject returns, upsetting customers because they believe saving money on the refund is what the company really wants (for more strategic insights on product returns and how to use them when maximizing the customer experience, check out our free webinar). It is about pressuring agents to avoid—or go through endless "approval circles"—giving standard discounts or make-goods when approached with challenging service questions.

True agent empowerment—and true customer experience delivery—is not about sitting your agents at a bonfire and playing "Kumbaya." It is about signaling to them that the customer comes first and that they will be applauded, not penalized, for making common sense judgments that benefit the customer experience.

In removing this "fear" culture from your call center and retail storefronts, ask this one simple question: Are you more likely to pat your employees on the back for using policy to aggressively reject product returns and refunds or if they accept returns from customers who then leave the store with a smile and return to the store as frequent, loyal customers?