We Don’t Need Another Hero …


Share on LinkedIn

I recently had the chance to meet a group of young customer service professionals. They had been selected for their leading-edge skills and deemed to be best in class for their profession. Each had to present credentials, telling us why they were the best at what they did. Two out of the four had “fire fighting” jobs. They were heroes. They were there to clear up the mess their companies had made because of poor systems.

They told us how much they enjoy customers who were really angry and upset: “The more unhappy they are, the more chance it gives me to make them realize how good I am” was the subtext. When questioned, they said how much they enjoyed working for the company they worked for, as they felt supported and valued. Great! They felt supported and valued. What about the hapless customer whom the company had so badly mistreated?

Am I the only one who thinks this is rather shallow? Don’t these youngsters want to set about changing the systems, which creates the messes for them to clear up? I probed and questioned to find out if this was the case, and the answer was a fairly resounding, “That is not my job; I work in customer services”. What have we done in setting up so many contact centers that create the odd hero who can shine as a result of the failings of the organizations they work for? Why would organizations do this? What benefits do they get from such an arrangement?

He was engaged in making the systems at the company good enough to avoid the need for heroics.

To answer these questions, we need to think back to what most organizations are here to achieve, and in most cases, it is their “numbers,” whatever they might be. Their “numbers” are the things that define organizations these days. “Their numbers” are what drives the organization to do things and to be and look the way it does. In many cases, this focus on their “numbers” means that heroes are required throughout the organization to rescue the organization’s hapless users, suppliers and stakeholders from oblivion on a daily basis.

It is very British to want heroes, and there is a benefit in the comfortable feeling of familiarity, that comforting feeling that heroes will appear from the ranks to wave their magic dust and make things better again. But doesn’t this make us rather vulnerable to organizations with other cultures who want to get it right the first time, rather than creating a Dunkirk spirit organization? Won’t their customers and users be happier—and their costs lower? After all, let’s remember that Dunkirk was a retreat, and lots of people died in the process.

Pleasure and pain

So what have we got so far? An organization driven to make its numbers and a culture that loves and feels the need for heroes. The familiar scenario of pleasure and pain. Pleasure when people hit their numbers and pain when other things get forgotten in the pursuit of the numbers. Pleasure when the organization finds a hero and he or she spreads magic. Pain when that hero gets fed up and leaves—or in one of the many cases when there is no hero available—the the customer disappears from the radar screen and no longer adds to the numbers.

Therefore, the benefits are clear, comfort and familiarity. Brilliant. These are the two key requirements for a stale organization delivering average results—and, by “results,” I mean more than just profit figures and share price. In today’s world, organizations are complex at the micro level, needing to manage copious directives and masters to deliver their “numbers” and stay in the game. This leads to over-management of the numbers to convince company managers that they are on the right path. The trouble is that many of these numbers lead them in entirely the wrong direction or gently guide them toward a future they never wanted. Which brings us back to the beginning of this story.

The two “heroes” were measured on how well they turned around complaints. Therefore, for them to hit their numbers, they needed the organizations they worked for to deliver to them a good quantity of unhappy customers, with complaints. Heroes are strong and are good at getting what they need. The two leading-edge heroes we saw were clearly of this category. They were doing nothing wrong. In fact, they were doing what they were taught to do, better than anyone else in their organizations.

What of the other two? They were something a bit different. One was a local hero who worked with her employer in the community to bring her company into the consciousness of the community. A good plan and one that she loved and clearly excelled at.

The fourth person was different again. He might well have been a “superhero” or a very good person working for a very good organization. He had very few stories of heroism and none based on the failings of the company he worked for. He was engaged in making the systems at the company good enough to avoid the need for heroics. The work the company had done was all about ensuring that things went well and the systems were open enough for even the most junior staff to contribute to and change.

Superheroes are anonymous and go about their daily work incognito. They display their powers in disguise and only on very special occasions, and the rest of the time they live as normal human beings with all the failings and insecurities of human beings. This gives them an advantage over heroes, as it is far easier to empathize with other human beings if you are like them most of the time.

The thing is I am human, and I like to deal with other humans. So doesn’t this answer the question of how to be successful in business? Set your operating systems to have humans in control of them, serve humans and allow yourself the luxury of knowing that the odd superhero will appear when he or she is needed. But the rest of the time you will have humans, and that is good enough.

Alison Bond
Alison Bond, director of The Halo Works Ltd., is the author, with Merlin Stone, of Direct Hit (Financial Times/ Prentice Hall, 1995), The Definitive Guide to Direct and Interactive Marketing (Financial Times/ Prentice Hall, 23) and Consumer Insight (Kogan Page Ltd., 24). She is also visiting fellow at CSEM, a partner of Brunel University.


  1. Great article, Alison!

    I remember working at a small business years ago when the head of sales operations was one of these “heroes.” Every day was a new drama, with something gone wrong that required her to fix a problem.

    Unfortunately, nothing was done to fix the root cause of the problems. So the company basically had a fix-it specialist. And she loved her job, and was rewarded for her prowess.

    After looking at the root cause of the problems, the company implemented a number of changes to eliminate the major problems at the source, and, eventually, the fix-it specialist left for greener pastures because the job wasn’t so much “fun” anymore.

    While dealing with tough problems is an important and valuable skill, I think companies would be better served by following Amazon.com’s customer service motto: “The Best Service is No Service.”

    Meaning of course, to strive to eliminate the need to call customer service in the first place.

    Bob Thompson, CustomerThink Corp.
    Blog: Unconventional Wisdom

  2. Alison – great article! I enjoyed reading it. However, I’d like to add one comment. Customer service “heros” and well-designed service process go hand in hand, as often as not. In a recent blog I cited several examples of customer service heros that could not have been heros without solid process support. I agree that needing a hero to sort out a prevailing problem can be a sign of poor service process or lack of training. But in very many instances properly designed process enables the hero to solve the problem when it first occurs, as in each of my examples, rather than when all other efforts have failed.

    Please write more.

    Dick Lee

  3. One approach could be to clearly spell out what a hero is and what a hero is not. For example: A hero is someone who causes a change to be implemented that a number of customers regard as an improvement. A hero is not a fire fighter who only resolves a problem for an individual customer.

    Malcolm Wicks

  4. Alison

    Great post!

    I like the Pleausre and Pain part most. After all, it’s all about the balance of pain and pleasure, isn’t it? Too much pain, no go. Too much pleasure, no go also. There has to be some pain and some pleasure in order to move things forward.

    Your idea of superhero reminds me of what superman says in Superman Returns.

    Superman: Listen, what do you hear?
    Lois Lane: Nothing.
    Superman: I hear everything. You wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior, but everyday I hear people crying for one.

    And this classic…

    Lois Lane: I… Will we see you… around?
    Superman: I’m always around. Good night, Lois.

    Superheroes are always around, just that we don’t realize…

    Daryl Choy
    Make Little Things Count

  5. Hi Dick,

    Thank you for your thoughts. I agree heros are excellent if they fit into the overall system and add to it over time. My thinking that if you need a hero once then that is good, if you need them twice then perhaps there is carelessness in the system, if you need them constantly then there is something wrong with the process. Alison

  6. Great memory for dialogue, and wonderful conept to rememeber that there are always heros around, and most of the time they are just going about their daily business. Thank you.

  7. Allison,
    I love the article and have to admit I am a fire fighter by nature. My real job though is that of an IT Manager who just happens to have a premadona (sorry I meant to say Hero) on my staff. This individual is of great value when there is a damsel in distress however, the rest of the time he is a know it all who produces very little and spends a considerable amount of time letting others know he is the one with the super powers. The issue I have is I spend a considerable amount of time explaining to the rest of the staff the ones I will call “quiet heroes” as to why there seems to be a different set of guidelines if you are the man of steel.



Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here