“Let me speak to your manager” is the typical phrase spoken by an angry, frustrated customer, and it’s a big flashing sign that your customer service department has failed in its main mission. More likely than not, that customer became even more angry and frustrated because the customer service representative was unable to help them. Furthermore, it probably wasn’t the fault of the representative, but of company policy limiting the power of that representative to effectively resolve that issue by taking immediate action.
Sometimes these policies come about as deliberate defensive strategies from the executive level, instituted to prevent agents from giving away the store by accident, or satisfying customer requests just to make their jobs easier. The problem is that such restrictive policies always backfire because customers know they’re talking to someone who really can’t help them. How do they know this? Because your agents will usually tell them out of their own frustration, “I’m not authorized to do that.”
Frustrated customers lead to frustrated customer service agents, which leads to frustrated managers and executives, which can only lead to more severe problems. “An atmosphere of frustration and dysfunction can destroy your whole company,” says attorney Phil Gibbons of Phil Gibbons Law.
A better approach than just muddling along is to alleviate the restrictions that cause frustration. For instance, many front line agents aren’t authorized to issue refunds or order replacement products, especially over the phone. In other situations, agents aren’t empowered to update a customer’s subscription level or service packaging without getting management or sales involved. For customers who show up wanting those very things, they end up asking themselves, “Why am I even talking to this person, then?”
The solution to all these problems is to empower your customer service employees to actually perform their jobs effectively. Here are four Ts to follow for empowering your customer service employees.
Train. You’ve hired honest, smart, responsible people to interact with your customers, right? If not, then start over and hire honest, smart, responsible people to interact with your customers. The next step is to train them on your expectations, policies and procedures. Train them thoroughly, and test them so you can be confident in their abilities.
Trust. You’ve trained them well, so trust them. This really means trusting your own ability to properly hire and train your customer service staff. Tell your agents that you’re trusting them with a great deal of power so they can do the best job they can.
Track. Like the Russian proverb supposedly says, “Trust, but verify.” Monitor your customer service interactions to make sure nobody is taking advantage of their power and freedom. Monitoring and measuring customer service is always important, but when it comes to empowerment, the very factors that enable excellent customer interactions are the same ones that can cause harm to your bottom-line if abused. Also look for opportunities to help your agents do their jobs better.
Tweak. Adjust your methods as needed. Perhaps you need managers to start auditing agents daily to prevent mishaps, or maybe you find that things are going smoothly and your managers are wasting too much time monitoring and reviewing cases. Don’t be afraid to tune the system, but don’t change too many variables at once or you could upset the whole balance of operations without a clear way to return to normal.
Another approach is to streamline the chain of command. Software on the agent’s computer can send an alert to the manager for authorization. As long as the manager is available and informed, there’s a good chance he or she can instantly authorize the request. As far as the customer is concerned, they got what they needed — problem solved. For potentially complex customer service interactions, a tiered approach to authorization levels using Access Control Lists (ACLs) will probably prove most flexible (talk to your IT department about ACLs).
Empowering your frontline agents makes them agents for positive change. Theodore Roosevelt is supposed to have said, “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” Whoever said it, you should take that advice to heart when it comes to your customer service employees.