When we measure the customer-centric culture of organizations around the world, one of the recurring themes is a low score on “empowerment”.
Lack of empowerment – real or perceived – has a huge impact on the ability of frontline staff to solve a customer’s problem. It also has a big impact on costs and is seen in many ways – duplication of work, mixed messages to customers, bottlenecks and slowdowns in customer service, and new product introductions – just to name a few.
For frontline staff to be empowered to solve customer problems or rapidly respond to customers’ requests a business needs a culture that encourages staff to be accountable for ensuring a solution for the customer is delivered. They need to have the confidence to make a decision that is right for the customer without fear of retribution from their managers if it seems to cost the business money. If they can’t fix it themselves they need to be confident that those who are alerted to the issue will fix it for the customer quickly.
A great example of this is seen in the hospitality industry. Chateau Elan, a boutique resort hotel with a property each in the United States and Australia has created an empowered culture in which a customer can ask any member of staff to do something for them – book a restaurant or a cab or get extra towels in their room. The immediate response by the hotel employee is “consider it done!”
This is an emphatic promise to the customer that it will be done. Not only does it give confidence to the customer but it empowers staff to collaborate and ensure the customer is satisfied.
How do you go about creating a customer culture of empowerment in your business?
When I think about employee empowerment, I think of three dimensions: 1)The freedom to act, which is an outgrowth of leadership decisions and governance style, combined with 2) the desire to act, which is an outgrowth of connection to the mission of the organization, and 3) skill in action, which (especially in customer service situations) is an outgrowth of that individuals creative thinking.
Hey Bob thanks for your comment, the desire to act is a really important point. Its one thing to empower people and another for them to act! I agree it takes inspirational leadership and an organizational mission that people can really connect with!
It isn’t always appropriate for customer-facing staff to be empowered to immediately react to customers, at least not by themselves.
Experience suggests there are three types of situations where staff may or may not be able to immediately act. The first situation is where the staff have standardised, best practices to follow to respond to a common customer request. Staff can confidently reply “Consider it done!” if they know exactly what needs to be done and how. Service quality research shows that having a standard solution to a problem is one of the key drivers of service quality. I would estimate that 55% of customer enquiries in many industries fall into this situation.
The second situation is where staff are not sure how best to respond to an uncommon customer request. This often occurs when the request is similar but not identical to one covered by the best practices. Staff can still confidently say “Consider it done!”, even though they don’t know exactly what needs to be done and how. Staff need to be trained to solve unusual customer requests, have access to a range of good practices that have worked for others and that could be adapted, and know where to get help if they are not sure. I would estimate that 25% of customer enquiries fall into this situation. As experience is gained solving uncommon customer requests the solutions can be standardised and captured as best practices for all staff to use.
The final situation is where staff do not know how best to respond to a new customer request. This occurs when the request is nothing like anything the staff have encountered before. Staff cannot say say “Consider it done!”, but they can say “I’ll see what I can do” with confidence. As there are no best or even good practices to help, staff need to rely on their training to solve the request. They should be able to seek advice from colleagues and more experienced management where they get stuck. I would estimate that 15% of customer enquiries fall into this situation.
By providing staff with three things: a set of best practices for resolving common requests, training to solve problems and good practices for solving uncommon requests, and access to other staff and man agent for solving new requests, staff should be able to successfully resolve 95% of customer requests.
The other 5% are completely unreasonable requests. Staff should be able to politely turn down a customer request or refer it to more senior management, for example, if it is illegal, without feeling that their job is on the line.
I think Chris is right. And so is Graham.
In my research I’ve found that customer-centric empowerment is an important factor (not the only one, of course) related to business success. In general, companies don’t do a very good job empowering their workers with the training, tools and authority to get things done for customers.
Said another way, top-performing companies tend to invest more in their people and give them a longer “leash” to do their job without having to get permission for every little thing.
But as Graham suggests, more empowerment is not always the right thing. Here’s an excerpt from my book that I think is on point with this discussion:
Empowerment is not abdication. It needs to fit the business strategy and be relevant to the employee’s job. In “The Empowerment of Service Workers” (article in Managing Innovation and Change, Third Edition), David Bowen and Edward Lawler argue that empowerment fits better when one or more of the following contingencies are met:
• Basic business strategy is differentiated, customized, and personalized
• Tie to customer is a relationship over long time period
• Business environment is unpredictable with many surprises
• People are “Theory Y” managers, employees with high growth needs, high social needs, and strong interpersonal skills
Empowerment is not a good fit when a company is working in a “production line” approach. For example, when you go to a quick-serve restaurant, you don’t want the employee to be empowered to change how the food is prepared. Consistency is part of the value proposition, whether you’re eating a hamburger at McDonald’s or sipping a latte at the more experiential Starbucks.
If you shop at an Apple store, you’ll probably find the staff personable and engaging, without the hard sell. They don’t appear to be robotically following a script, but nevertheless they are intensively trained on what they can and can’t do. According to a Wall Street Journal article, a training manual instills the “APPLE” approach into every employee: “Approach customers with a personalized warm welcome,” “Probe politely to understand all the customer’s needs,” “Present a solution for the customer to take home today,” “Listen for and resolve any issues or concerns,” and “End with a fond farewell and an invitation to return.”
Finally, empowerment is one of those terms that can mean different things to different people. Here is a list of practices adapted from “Taking Stock: A Review of More Than Twenty Years of Research on Empowerment at Work,” by Gretchen Spreitzer (2008).
• Participative decision-making: Employees and/or teams may have input into and influence over decisions ranging from high-level strategic decisions to routine day-to-day decisions about how to do their own jobs.
• Skill/knowledge-based pay: Employees share in the gains of the organization and are compensated for increases in their own skills and knowledge.
• Open flow of information: Includes flow of information upward and downward in the organization, so that employees have “line of sight” about how their behavior affects firm performance.
• Flat organizational structures: Empowering organizations tend to be decentralized where the span of control (more subordinates per manager) is wide.
• Training: Educative efforts enable employees to build knowledge, skills, and abilities—not only to do their own jobs better but also to learn about skills and the economics of the larger organization.
Hi Graham and Bob thanks for sharing your thoughts, you both add considerable depth to the topic!
From the work we do we find generally companies still tend to provide less empowerment than is necessary for front line people to execute. Often it can be their direct managers that don’t feel empowered to make a quick decision that does the right thing for the customer.
An example of too little empowerment is when process is allowed to overpower common sense even when it is obvious that the process should be overruled. A real life example comes from a Telco – when a person took out a mobile contract for a family member who died a short time later and the process refused cancellation except at prohibitive cost.
Bob in the production line environment I would argue a level of empowerment is necessary, what if something goes wrong and it will impact the quality of the food being produced? At Starbucks barista’s have been empowered to throw out a bad expresso and start again if they feel it is not up to standard. I would hope someone preparing a burger would have the same latitude?