BLOG: The Human Side of Customer Service


Recently, a major airline (United Airlines) garnered world-wide attention because it had a passenger (i.e. a paying customer) forcibly removed from an overbooked flight. Almost immediately, the video shot by fellow passengers showing the incident went viral.

Images of the passenger being dragged down the aisle by his arms and legs by three law enforcement officers, amid loud protests from fellow passengers, played non-stop for several days. The incident damaged the reputation of the airline, as well as its stock price.

The attitude exhibited at the time by the employees and the CEO was that the company had the right to treat the passenger this way, as the passenger should have willingly given up his seat (he did not volunteer to give up his seat, rather he was randomly selected by the crew). The company was well with in its rules and regulations to behave this way. This attitude, apparently engrained throughout the company, is not focused on customers, instead it focused on rules and policies.

Companies like this train their employees, who when faced with challenging customer situations, assume the fallback position of saying to that customer, “I’m sorry, I can’t do that. It’s against company policy.”

Instead, what companies should be doing, regardless of the industry, is hire people who have strong customer service skills in their DNA. This core belief system, already engrained within the employee, will be a platform for a customer-focused decision making process.

Then the company can infuse that DNA with training that empowers and encourages employees to solve problems for customers in the moment, teaching them to think about the customer experience first, in conjunction — or possibly in spite of — the rules and policies.

Training plus DNA will help enhance the customer experience and build long term business relationship’s by providing win-win solutions for customers under difficult circumstances.

Customer-focused service finds its way into every aspect of business, whether it’s marketing, sales, growth, or revenue. The best business leaders know this. They understand and recognize that every department, and consequently every employee, has an impact on the customer experience.

But customer service isn’t a department, it’s a philosophy. Every decision is made with the customer in mind. With proper training, every employee understands the role he or she plays in the customer experience. Management understands that customer service is a not about policies, rules, and procedures, although some of that plays a part in the overall strategy. They know and understand that customer service is a philosophy.

For this to work, the organization must move from being focused on rules to being focused on the customer. All decision-making is done with the customer in mind. That doesn’t mean that businesses can’t make decisions that the customer might not like such as raising prices or eliminating a service offering. It means customer responses and feelings are proactively anticipated good or bad, and the employees are trained to deal with those responses.

Once trained, employees are empowered and encouraged to come up with solutions to help their customers. They are allowed to give customers what they want and need, within reasonable and established boundaries.

There is a recipe for creating an organization that is focused on the customer experience beyond all else. The process is simple to understand and requires unwavering discipline to execute.

1. It all starts at the top. The leadership team has to be 100 percent committed to creating a customer-focused culture. They define what the culture will look like, and then lead by example. They must be the role models for their employees to look up to, and defend the culture when it goes out of alignment. Decisions are made on this customer-focused culture, up to and including firing employees and clients who do not fit the culture.

2. Our house, our rules. Before people are empowered to do the right thing, they have to know what the right thing to do actually is. This requires training on all levels, catered to an employee’s responsibilities and roles in the company. Customer service basics, like being nice, easy to work with, providing a timely response, etc., never go out of style.

3. The right players for our team. It goes without saying that you must have the right employees. They must be on board and be in alignment with your customer-focused culture and philosophies.

4. Empower the masses. Management has to take the leap of faith and empower their team.  Assuming the employees have been properly trained in the types of customer-focused decisions that should be made, let them do what is expected of them. Demonstrate that empowered employees don’t have to go to their boss every time they need to make a customer-focused decision that is outside of the norm.

5. Stories from the front line. When employees make decisions, both good and bad, share them as teachable moments within the organization. Management should share stories about how others have made decisions in which philosophy trumped policy. Other employees will learn from their peers on what is and is not acceptable.

In the end, it’s about a customer-focused culture, not policy. While these steps may seem like common sense to many of us, they are not necessarily easy to implement.