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"Oops!" photographed using a mix of vintage letterpress characters. (Alan Merrigan/iStockphoto)
"Oops!" photographed using a mix of vintage letterpress characters. (Alan Merrigan/iStockphoto)


Biggest customer-service blunders Add to ...

Some businesses know how to do it right. They consistently deliver superior customer service year in and year out. These are the places where turbo-charged employees pursue customer delight with a passion, places that ignite a flashpoint of contagious enthusiasm in employees and customers alike.

Foremost among the lessons to be learned from such flashpoint businesses are the blunders to avoid – those fatal mistakes that trip up just about everybody else.

Blunder #1: Making customer service a training issue

Businesses of all kinds invest huge amounts of money in training programs that do not, and simply cannot, work. The function of such training is to identify the behaviours workers are supposed to engage in, and then coax, bully or legislate these behaviours into the workplace. At best, this is almost always a recipe for conduct that feels mechanized and insincere; at worst, it intensifies employee resentment and cynicism.

Instead of dictating what your employees should be doing to delight customers, the better approach is to give your workers opportunities to brainstorm their own ideas for delivering delight. Your role then becomes to help employees implement these ideas and to allow workers to savour the motivational effect of the positive feedback that ensues from delighted customers. This level of employee ownership and involvement is a key cultural characteristic of virtually all flashpoint businesses.

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Blunder #2: Blaming poor service on employee “demotivation”

Businesses looking for ways to motivate their workers are almost always looking in the wrong places. Employee cynicism is the direct product of an organization's visible preoccupation with self-interest above all else – a purely internal focus. The focus in flashpoint businesses is directed outward, toward the interests of customers and the community at large. This shift in cultural focus changes the way the business operates at all levels.

The reality in most business settings is that employees are demotivated because they can't deliver delight. The existing policies and procedures make it impossible. Instead of “fixing” their employees, flashpoint businesses set out to build a culture that unblocks them. Workers are encouraged to identify operational obstacles to customer delight, and participate in finding ways around them.

Blunder #3: Using customer feedback to uncover what's wrong

Businesses often use surveys and other feedback mechanisms to get to the root causes of customer problems and complaints. Employees come to dread these measurement and data-gathering efforts, since they so often lead to what feels like witch-hunts for employee scapegoats, formal exercises in finger pointing and the assigning of blame.

Flashpoint businesses use customer feedback very differently. In these companies, the object is to uncover everything that's going right. Managers are forever on the lookout for “hero stories”– examples of employees going the extra mile to deliver delight. Such feedback becomes the basis for ongoing recognition and celebration. Employees see themselves as winners on a winning team, because in their workplace, there's always some new “win” being celebrated.

Blunder #4: Reserving top recognition for splashy recoveries

It happens all the time: Something goes terribly wrong in a customer order or transaction, and a dedicated employee goes to tremendous lengths to make things right. The delighted customer brings this employee's wonderful recovery to management's attention, and the employee receives special recognition for his or her efforts. This is a blunder?

It is when such recoveries are the primary – if not the only – catalysts for employee recognition. In such a culture, foul-ups become almost a good thing from the workers' point of view. By creating opportunities for splashy recoveries, foul-ups represent the only chance employees have to feel appreciated on the job. Attempts to correct operational problems won't win much support if employees see these problems as their only opportunity to shine.

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Flashpoint businesses celebrate splashy recoveries, of course, but they're also careful to uncover and celebrate employee efforts to delight customers where no mistakes or problems were involved. This makes it easier to get workers participating in efforts to permanently eliminate the sources of problems at the systems level.

Blunder #5: Competing on price

It's one of the most common (and most costly) mistakes in business. Price becomes the deciding factor in purchasing decisions only when everything else is equal – and everything else is almost never equal. Businesses really compete on the perception of value, and this includes more than price. It's shaped by the total customer experience, and aspects such as “helpfulness,” “friendliness” and “the personal touch” often give the competitive advantage to businesses that actually charge slightly more for their basic goods and services.

Those businesses that deliver a superior total experience from the inside out (that is, as a product of a strongly customer-focused culture) are typically those that enjoy a long-term competitive advantage – along with virtual immunity from the kinds of headaches that plague everybody else.

Customer-focus consultant Paul Levesque outlines a step-by-step process for building a flashpoint culture in his book Customer Service From the Inside Out Made Easy, from Entrepreneur Press.

Copyright © 2010 Entrepreneur Media Inc. All rights reserved

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