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The business implications of throwing co-workers under the bus

On three different occasions over the course of a week, I experienced customer service issues at small businesses where front-line employees who were interacting with me threw co-workers under the bus. The blame was presented as an explanation for mistakes or poor performance. What a waste.

When your small business lets a customer down, the best reaction – the only reaction – is for the customer-facing, front-line staff to own it. Your customers don't care who dropped the ball and who is ultimately responsible. In their eyes, the business is responsible and how it plays out behind the scenes is of no interest.

My first example took place at a fast-food restaurant where I was charged for, and given, twice as many drinks as I had ordered. When I questioned the server, she promptly replied: "I didn't take your order and ring it in so I don't know what happened. That was Shelly. My screen says four bottles of water, not two."

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As a customer, this information is of no use to me. I said I was happy to keep all four drinks and roll with it (which I did), so all the server had to say was "thanks for your patience and understanding" and it would have been over. Instead, I was drawn into a situation where employees were busy blaming each other in an attempt, one must presume, to avoid taking the heat.

What I would rather experience is employees taking responsibility on behalf of the business, no matter whose fault it was. In this situation I would rather hear: "We are sorry for the mix up. We entered your order incorrectly and we're happy to refund the difference." I still would have kept the extra two drinks, but I would have left the restaurant with a much stronger feeling that its employees were working as a team and looking out for the business first, as opposed to saving their own skin.

Another example was far worse. I was at a factory, representing the interests of a client whose shipments from the plant were chronically late. Our business was worth just under $1-million to this modest factory, so my client was a meaningful account.

I met with the factory's production manager and the manager in charge of my client's account. After we discusse production and technical challenges, which appeared to be mostly behind them, I expressed my disappointment in the timeliness of communications from the factory. Having production problems and delayed shipments is one thing, but slow or no responses to calls and e-mails from my client were another. How they replied and communicated with my client was entirely within their control.

That's when the sales manager replied: "That's a customer service issue. Laurie handles your account and she is not here today." Really? That's the best you can do? You throw Laurie under the bus and think I'm going to consider you a victim?

If the owner had been there, I bet he would have taken responsibility for the problem on behalf of the business and dealt with Laurie after I left. The sales manager should have said: "Your customer service experiences sound frustrating. I will work with the team to make sure we communicate in a more timely and thorough fashion. If you continue you to experience issues, please bring it to my attention immediately."

It doesn't matter if Laurie reports to this account manager or not, he was the face of the business at that moment and he should have owned the issue and the solution. I would have felt better. Instead, I know his commitment to the business is limited and there really isn't a team behind this organization, there is a group of individuals looking out for themselves. If this is how the employees treat each other in front of customers, I can't imagine their co-operation behind closed doors.

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As an owner, you know the right thing to do is to give credit to your team when things go well and take personal responsibility, on behalf of the business, when things go wrong. You need to work with your employees so they have the confidence and security to behave the same way. You can all sort out the details of what went wrong later – as the face of the company, you are all one entity supporting the business in front of the customer.

Do you have a question about a small-business topic? Let our resident expert Chris Griffiths take a run at it. E-mail your questions to Confidentiality ensured.

Chris Griffiths is the Toronto-based director of fine tune consulting, a boutique management consulting practice. Over the past 20 years, he has started or acquired and exited seven businesses.

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