Let Employees Depart From the Script and Sort Out Customer Problems


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Everyone has a customer service horror story, especially at this time of year when a large percentage of the population is traveling for the holidays; nerves are frayed and airline employees are stretched to their limits as they cope with the crowds and the inevitable delays, missed connections and missing luggage. These are the stories that will be told and retold over the next couple of weeks. What we don’t hear about nearly as often are the good news stories of the individual employee who went out of her way to get something done or to sort out a problem.

One reason for this is that the events that spark the good news stories probably don’t happen as often as the bad news ones and, when they do, customers generally attribute them to the individual employee, rather than to any particularly effective policy of the company involved. That is something arising from my customer research that has often intrigued me — that customers will tend to blame the company when something goes wrong but will give the individual employee credit for making things right.

I think there is an interesting psychology at work here. I believe that, for the most part, companies (and large corporations and government agencies, in particular) are seen as large, impersonal, often-uncaring entities. On the other hand, individual employees are seen to be people like me who ought to see my side of the story and to be able to identify with me and the problems I am dealing with. And, generally, that is the case. Employees typically do see the customer’s side of the story and wish they could sort things out for him.

But, employees of many companies are frustrated with the rules and regulations that govern their interaction with customers, with the scripts that tell them what to say and when to say it, what to offer and what to hold back on. Progressive companies are realizing that such restrictions, while important in keeping employee behavior within tolerable limits, really gets in the way of solving customer problems and of protecting customer relationships.

The front-line employee with whom the customer deals directly has the greatest potential to resolve customer issues before they escalate to relationship-breaking proportion. Let them take the time and give them the resources to get on with it.


  1. I agree that it is very important to empower front-line employees to create positive customer experiences. In addition, it helps to keep front-line employees engaged with the company and make them feel like they have a voice in the process. Ultimately, empowered employees create legendary customer experiences, which lead to an improved bottom-line for the company. A win-win situation all around. I’ve written about this topic extensively on my blog, and would love to hear your comments too!

  2. One of the challenges front-line staff have is that I cannot DO thinks – they must refer someone to another department or to a manager. If those decisions were, instead, automated they could simply act the way the company wanted them to. Sometimes empowerment is not about relaxing a script but making a system do some of the work!
    Author of Smart (Enough) Systems

  3. I agree with Connie that employees who have the authority to step in and exercise their authority in the best interest of customers are more likely to be engaged and contributing participants in organizational success. They can reduce customer frustrations immensely with a simple “I’ll look after that for you.” I’ve written of a concept that I labelled “planned spontaneity” that involves a firm giving its employees the authority to surprise customers every now and then. It’s a very powerful concept.

    I suppoose it is possible to get closer to such a situation by automating decisions that are ultimately in the best interest of customers, as James suggests, but it seems to me that anything that can be systematized and automated first must be scripted, so we are back where we started with employees not free to improvize in the customer’s interest but rather dependent on the “system” to determine what he or she can offer — not what I was writing about when I advocated more flexibility for the front-line staff.

    Jim Barnes

  4. Great topic Jim, empowering front line staff is one of the many keys for business success. What would be helpful here is to talk about the ‘how’. Empowering staff calls for trust that they will look after the needs of the customer within reasonable boundaries. How do you define “reasonable boundaries”? “Looking after the customer” means different things to each of us so empowering staff needs to come with company boundaries don’t you think? Whether the company is small, medium or large the need is the same. This website is excellent for all the discussion on the topic of customer excellence. I would love to talk about application to put it all to good use.

  5. Jim

    It is interesting that most of the conversation on this topic is about companies whose customer service, almost by definition, has been found wanting. The underlying assumption seems to be that to overcome poor service, staff need to be given more authority to ‘spontaneously suprise’ customers by overriding the broken customer service system.

    Where I was brought up, on a small farm in rural Lincolnshire, problems were things that got fixed pretty quickly so that they didn’t happen again. Life was too busy to waste time fixing the same problem twice.

    The same applies to customer service. A far more effective solution than empowering staff to work around recurring problems, would be to fix the problems as they happen so that they don’t occur again in the future. That means fixing broken service processes that don’t deliver service justice, putting in better support systems that provide front-line staff the information they need and training staff on-the-job to manage customers appropriately.

    This might even leave staff with enough free time to spontaneously respond to already satisfied customers and deloight them, rather than just recovering from recurring customer service problems.

    Graham Hill
    Independent CRM Consultant
    Interim CRM Manager


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