Customer Service Edge Cases. To Empower or Not to Empower?

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Have you noticed the change in professional sports television viewing over the past few years where it’s become standard for a rules official, oftentimes a former referee, to provide expert interpretations of the rules and judgment calls in instant replay situations. If you’re not into sports, just take my word for it. My point is that if you’ve worked as a leader in a contact center, chances are you’ve felt like that rules official a time or two.

It’s been nearly two years since I shared my Recipe for Consistent Customer Service, and while that covers many customer service situations, there are still plenty of scenarios, or edge cases that require a rules interpretation from a manager or supervisor. In this article, I’m going to summarize a couple recent situations that challenged this recipe and then I’ll talk about how to address these and whether or not agents should be empowered to handle them.



Scenario #1: What if taking care of the customer might mean stepping on some toes?

A colleague recently approached me with a question. A support ticket had been handled by someone in another office and the customer was unhappy with the service they received. Remember that I work for an outsourcer and it’s not uncommon for our clients to have internal customer service teams as well as other outsourcing vendors. For one reason or another, the ticket came to our attention and we felt compelled to reach out to the customer to make it right.

Typically in the event that a customer is dissatisfied with the service provided by one of our agents, we review those cases, using them as opportunities to coach agents to provide better service. That didn’t apply in this case because someone at another office or vendor originally handled the ticket. While my colleague wanted to follow our normal process, she didn’t feel it was her place to reassign the case to an agent at another office or provide any coaching to them. After all, she didn’t manage that person and also ran the risk of making another vendor look bad in the eyes of our client.

When she asked for my recommendation I immediately asked, “What’s the top priority here?”

Yes, coaching agents for better quality and consistency and playing nice with our partners makes the list, but we agreed that the most important thing was to take care of the customer. We were then able to find a path to do so without causing a stir with the other vendor.



Scenario #2: Where’s the line when it comes to taking care of the customer?

A former colleague asked for my opinion on a recent customer service situation. She learned that a long time, repeat customer of theirs had passed away. Upon hearing the news she felt compelled to send flowers to the family of the deceased customer only to have the gesture vetoed by her boss. Thanks to Zappos and the effect they’ve had on global customer service, some might feel it’s their obligation to make a grand gesture in these cases — and anything less would be bad customer service. Furthermore, the boss that says no is heartless, right?

As we chatted, however, I encouraged her to look at this from the perspective of an owner of a small, but growing startup. Yes, we absolutely want to take care of the customer, but let’s also consider that having flowers delivered could run as much as $50. Is there something less expensive that can adequately express our sympathies — like a card or a phone call? Maybe the boss isn’t such a bad guy but is concerned about setting a precedent in the event that this happens again in the future. Or perhaps the customer, while a valued customer, only paid a few dollars per month.

To empower or not to empower

In my previous article, I spoke of authorizing or empowering agents to make decisions and take action on behalf of customers. In the two stories I’ve shared, you could make the argument that depending on the company, it would be easy to empower agents to handle these cases. But let’s assume these are indeed edge cases and talk about the best course of action. Here are four things to consider:

  • On support teams the old adage of one to say yes, two to say no isn’t a bad thing. While it certainly means more questions for supervisors and managers and it might reek to some of bureaucracy, it’s important to build checks and balances into your support operation where agents, if they don’t know the answer or aren’t empowered to make a decision, seek a second opinion. But before you shake your head no or wave your magic wand and make it so, you can still prepare your agents for the next level by reasoning through a decision with them. Ask them what they’d do if the decision was all theirs. Rather than shooting them down, take the time to affirm their judgment and steer them in the right direction. What a vote of confidence it is for your agents if they help make the decision and learned something along the way.
  • Keep track of the occurrences. Whether it’s a disposition or tag in a ticketing system or a tally on a whiteboard, keep track of how often such edge cases arise. You may find that some of these only come up once in a blue moon, like a customer passing away, whereas others are more frequent and require you to adjust policy and agent training to be able to guide these situations. That’s one of the benefits of requiring a second opinion because it helps leaders keep their finger on the pulse of what’s going on and how often these issues arise.
  • Point back to your north star. In my first story, there was never a question that the right thing to do was to take care of the customer with the unresolved issue. There were, however, a few other things in the way that required a bit of care and consideration. How often do we get bogged down with policy and procedure and forget that without our customers we don’t have a business? Think about that for a microsecond, the fact that we’re here to take care of the customer, and many of the other details become trivial and begin to fall into line.
  • Also don’t forget about customer lifetime value. I’ve heard a number of folks mention a customer lifeboat so I’m not sure who to attribute it to. To summarize, it’s a set dollar amount up to which agents are authorized to spend to make it right for a customer. At a previous job, we were authorized to credit a free month of service up to $50. At the Ritz-Carlton, employees are authorized for up to $2,000. While we want to take care of customers and share gratitude or sympathies, it’s possible that sending $50 worth of flowers is bad business — especially if the customer only spends a few bucks a month. Think about how much customers spend and give accordingly, but by all means, be sincere about it.


As I reflect back on these stories I’ve shared, my favorite aspect of both of them is that my colleagues were wrestling with this stuff. They genuinely cared about the customer and wanted to do right by them. If you do nothing else, be sure to continue to foster that in your company culture. My hope is that these few tips help us, like a good referee, make the right call.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for an excellent article, Jeremy. Especially agree with your ideas on empowerment. I’m a big fan of the “One to say YES and two to day NO” concept. I’m sharing this article with everyone! (At least everyone who will listen to me!)

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