How to Empower Employees (It’s Harder Than You Think)


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Empowering customer service employees is difficult.

If it were easy, more employees would be empowered. This clearly isn’t happening. A recent study by ICMI discovered that a whopping 86 percent of contact centers don’t empower their employees to provide outstanding customer service. 

An empowered employee has the resources and authority to make decisions about serving their customer. The benefits seem obvious:

  • Fast decision-making
  • Happier customers
  • Happier employees

Best of all, less work for the supervisor, right?!

Perhaps not. Empowerment takes a lot of work. Avoiding all that work is one of at least five reasons why customer service leaders don’t empower their employees.

Empowerment isn’t for meek managers. But, if you’re up to the challenge, here’s how to do it.

Step 1: Establish a Vision

The first step towards empowering your employees is to firmly establish a customer service vision

This is a shared definition of outstanding customer service that focuses on the customer. Employees must be able to answer two questions about this vision:

  1. What does it mean?
  2. How do I contribute?

An employee who understands the vision will actively look for opportunities to be empowered. Employees who don’t understand the vision may view their jobs as completing a series of tasks or enforcing rules.

In my book, Service Failure, I shared the story of Brett Dodson, who managed the parking enforcement team at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU). The customer service vision for Dodson’s department focused on improving access to OHSU’s campus. 

Embracing the customer service vision initially proved to be a challenge:

They relished the opportunity to issue a [parking] violation and viewed their role as catching people parking where they shouldn’t. A few of the enforcement officers would even watch for someone to park illegally and then wait until the driver left the vehicle so they could write a ticket rather than ask that person to park somewhere else.

Dodson wanted his enforcement officers to spend more time engaging in dialogue with drivers, explaining rules, and providing alternatives rather than catching people doing something wrong. 

Enforcement officers were empowered to do all that, but it took several months of coaching and feedback for the entire team to embrace this as their role. Dodson needed to change the team’s culture before they could fully empower themselves.

Eventually, the team achieved great results. The number of citations went way down, customer satisfaction went way up, and fewer people parked where they shouldn’t.

It was a great turnaround for the team. It also took a lot of time, effort, and commitment to get there.


Step 2: Identify Red Lines

The Ritz-Carlton hotel chain is famous for their exceptional service. One of their secrets is each associate is empowered to spend up to $2,000 to delight a guest.

You’re probably thinking, “There’s no way I’m going to let my employees just give away $2,000!” 

That’s understandable. Every situation is different. But, what the Ritz-Carlton is really doing with the $2,000 is establishing a red line.

A red line makes empowerment clear for employees. It tells them where the boundaries lie. 

Your red line could be any number of things:

  • It might be a dollar amount (you decide what makes sense).
  • It could be a policy that employees can waive.
  • It might be extra goodwill that an employee can provide, like a shipping upgrade or a free dessert in a restaurant.

There’s a second part to the red line. Employees must understand it’s the limit, not the only option.

Associates at the Ritz-Carlton don’t automatically spend all $2,000 in every situation. They’re expected to use their judgment to decide what’s best.

Anything less than the limit is a gray area. 


Step 3: Share Feedback

You should never punish an employee for making a gray area decision they felt was right.

Employees will shy away from empowerment if they feel every decision they make will be second-guessed and criticized. It’s also confusing to be told “you are allowed to do this” and then be told “you shouldn’t have done that.”

You should, however, discuss empowerment decisions so you, the employee, and the rest of the team can learn from them.

Here’s an example:

A small contact center empowered its agents to get product samples from the warehouse so they could answer detailed questions from customers.

Employees were simply asked to follow an inventory control procedure that tracked these items since they weren’t in their normal location. Following the procedure was the red line.

A gray area was when an employee should get samples from the warehouse.

Should the employee immediately go to the warehouse whenever a question arose so the customer could receive a call back within just a few minutes? Or, should they make the customer wait until later in the day, when the employee had more time?

What if it was a busy time of day? In a small contact center, just one employee getting off the phone to do some research could extend wait times for other customers.

Should it matter if the customer wants to place a large order versus a small one? 

Should a customer with a large order history (i.e. VIP customer) get faster service than a new customer?

The challenge is you can’t just come up with a rigid policy that covers every situation. There’s always a new twist that you hadn’t anticipated.

A better solution is for the employee and manager to discuss these types of gray area situations. It’s an opportunity for the manager to listen to the employee’s perspective and to provide some feedback on the employee’s actions.

Valuable lessons learned inevitably come from these conversations. Lessons that can be shared with the rest of the team so that everyone eventually shares a similar philosophy.


Empowering employees isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of effort and commitment from the customer service leader.

In most cases, the payoffs make it worthwhile:

  • Your employees will be more engaged (nobody likes to feel controlled)
  • Your customers will be happier
  • You’ll eventually spend less time putting out fires

Republished with author's permission from original post.


  1. Jeff, a great article. I believe in doing the right things for employees. But I would prefer to enable them rather than to empower them or both. We will never be able to empower employees completely…lets take a salesman. Can we empower him to give a 20 % discount. Probably yes. But what if it is 25%? We have to enable him to get to the right people to make it happen.
    Very often, we empower employees but do nto give them the enabling tools
    Both are needed

  2. Empowerment is a core component of employee engagement, which, in turn, is a foundation for employee ambassadorship behavior: Several of the important points cited in your post have to do with employees proactively supporting and delivering value to customers. Like Ritz-Carlton, giving staff members financial latitude to rectify a guest issue is good for both the customer and the employee. If more organizations could learn from this example, both customer and employee advocacy would be advanced.

  3. Empowerment is a concept a lot like motivation. When a leader asks, “How can I motivate my employees,” someone is very likely to retort with, “You do not motivate anyone; people motivate themselves. The job of a leader is to create an environment in which self-motivation is likely to happen.” The same is true of empowerment. Leaders do not give power; they release and harness power. That means examining the barriers to people acting with power. Barriers most common are the absence of purpose…think of it as cathedral building power versus brick laying obedience.

    Proficiency is another common barrier. “Knowledge is power,” wrote Alexander obediance. It is vital people have the skill, competence, and wisdom to effectively use their power. Empowered ignorance is anarchy. Protection is another–that means if employees get on the high wire of risk (aka, exercise their power) and it fails, there will be a leadership net to catch them, using the error as an opportunity for coaching rather than a chance for rebuke. Payoff is another barrier–that means employees fail to see an upside advantage to taking a risk since there is no reward.

    Empowerment does not mean unlimited license; it means responsible freedom–helping employees balance the freedom to go the extra mile for customers while taking care of the interests of the organization. It is great service coupled with great stewardship. And, as you so eloquently outlined, it takes great courage on the part of leaders. Yet, it has great payoff since the customer can see the quality of a culture through the character of that organization’s front line ambassador.

  4. Hi Gautam. I’m not sure I know the distinction between empowerment and enablement. Can you elaborate on that?

  5. Thanks for your comments, Michael and Chip. I believe you are referring to something similar in ambassadorship and purpose. And, I think both are probably analogous to the first step I outlined in my post: establishing a vision.

  6. Jeff, Empower means I give you the power to do something (I tell my kid you can drive my car). Enabling means giving him the keys. Most times we say we empower the employees (nice words) but fail to enable them…I prefer enabling them, empowerment will come

  7. I looked up the dictionary as you suggested. Empower is about giving authority, and enablehelps them do these things:

    Empower: to give power to (someone)

    : to give official authority or legal power to (someone)

    Enable: to make (someone or something) able to do or to be something

    : to make (something) possible, practical, or easy

    : to cause (a feature or capability of a computer) to be active or available for use

  8. Jeff, in the post you cited at the beginning, you quoted ICMI:

    “Empowerment means having the resources and authority to take care of the problem right then and there. ”

    That’s generally in line with how the academic community has defined empowerment. Enabling someone is part of it (i.e. providing tools, training and resources), but empowerment also requires having authority.

    Said another way: An employee is not really empowered if he/she is only allowed to do exactly what told to do (e.g. follow a script, ask managers to approve any deviations), regardless of how many tools they have.

    Here’s a good definition from Adapted from: “Taking Stock: A Review of More Than Twenty Years of Research on Empowerment at Work, ” by Gretchen Spreitzer

    Empowerment Practices

    * 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 upwards and downwards in the organization, to 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.

    A simple example of real empowerment is allowing an agent to make a decision, without asking for approval, to give a customer a refund due to a problem.

    Empowerment is not just a call center thing, of course. Southwest trusts its people to use good judgement and backs them up even when the make a mistake. Ritz Carlton empowers employees to spend up to $2K to fix a problem or delight a customer.

    I wrote more about this in Want to Empower Call Center Agents to Delight Customers? Improve Your A.I.M..

  9. Gautam and Bob (and Michael, and Chip): I’m enjoying this discussion and appreciate your responses.

    Bob – for clarification, the definition of empowerment offered in my post was my own. It appears that my definition of empowerment equal’s Gautam’s definitions of empowerment + enablement.

    I will observe this: if we can’t explain it simply, or we don’t agree on what “it” is, we may have stumbled on another reason why managers don’t empower employees. Perhaps they also have different understandings of what empowerment means?

  10. Jeff, empowering is one thing.
    But to empower and get employees to do the right thing are not necessarily synonymous. An empowered employee may not deliver satisfaction or delight or a good customer experience to a customer.
    So apart from changing the employees mind set, we have to create value for the employee, and need a Chief Employee Value Creator.
    If we do all these things, along with good systems and practices (empower+enable, mind set changes at CEO and CXO level and at all other levels, especially the frontline people, create value for employees, and get all departments involved) we have a super customer value (customer experience) creating company


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