What a Customer Should Never Hear


How to change an employee culture toward customer problems

In a customer service situation, those words are equivalent to “buzz off” (or worse).

Here’s what customer service managers, from healthcare to telecommunications, from utilities to gyms, should have tattooed on the inside of their eyelids: Because employees feel powerless to deal with customer problems, they default to the most brain-dead, frustrating response a customer can hear: “Well, I’m sorry, but there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s out of our hands.”

Where do they get that attitude? Where did they get the training or mentoring that creates such a visceral employee response? From you, the managers. The ones, as the late, great, W. Edwards Deming famously put it, “that are in charge of 94 percent of all the problems because that’s the percent of the problems caused by the system that you idiots set up!”

I was among the audience of 400 who howled with laughter at Deming’s comment, but even as we laughed, every single one of us instinctively knew he spoke the truth. Even the skeptics in the audience, who still doubted the “special cause vs. common cause” theory, never argued about the fundamental truth of Deming’s premise, although they argued about the numbers: “94 percent–6 percent is just absurd! It can’t be that lopsided. Maybe more like 70 percent–30 percent.”

Really? Who cares? What possible difference would a tweak in those percentages make? Management still holds, by far, the greatest ability to make changes in the system and affect the customer experience. Arguments about the percentages amount to an argument about rounding errors.

Employees see the systems and processes their managers have set up, recognize all the stupid flaws in the process, and then are told to just do their jobs. They also see their leaders speaking disparagingly about customers, with snarky remarks like, “You’d think they could at least bother reading the instructions before calling us,” and, “Is it really that hard for customers to figure out which section of the website they should be on?” This is where a culture is incubated, where employees learn to look down their noses at customers for their stupidity. Yes, some customers are absolutely stupid, rude, and troublesome—but this small minority should not dictate customer-service policy making.

LA Fitness

I love my LA Fitness gym in Mill Creek, Washington.

But with the growth in the greater Seattle area, traffic has become a nightmare. As a corollary, more drivers are now competing for precious parking spaces. So when I rolled into the LA Fitness parking lot for a 5:45 p.m. class the other day, I found myself in the company of a dozen other drivers roaming the lot, desperate to snag the first free space. Then I tried parking in the lot across the street but got kicked out the moment the guard saw my gym bag—that lot is for bank customers only.

In the end I parked three blocks away and was late for class.

‘There’s nothing we can do about it’

“Hope you had a good workout!” was the enthusiastic goodbye as I was walking out the door after class. I spun on my heel and asked about the parking shortage.

The receptionist’s response was a matter of fact, “No, it is what it is. It’s just crowded this time of day, and it can sometimes be tough to find a place to park.”

“It took me 25 minutes. Do you guys have any advice about the best place to park?”

At which point I learned how far LA Fitness was willing to go about the matter: “There’s nothing we can do about it,” the receptionist maintained.

Now, being the sort of fellow who likes creative solutions and lots of options, I said, “Oh, yes there is. There always is.”

Clearly annoyed that I had an opinion about how she and her employer should do their jobs, she replied, “If there was something we could do, we would have done it.”

At this point I knew I was sounding a bit obnoxious, but as a quality professional, I felt it was my duty to disagree. “I can list five or six right now,” I said. I plowed ahead, not waiting for an answer. Here are my suggestions, virtually word for word:

1. You could have a sign at the entrance to the parking that says “Lot is full” so we don’t waste time driving around and around.

At first this could be manual, putting an employee at the parking entrance between 5 and 6 p.m. to change the sign as people leave and parking spaces become available. Right now I see three of you behind the front desk, all greeting customers. Could one of you manage the parking lot for an hour? Later on you could install an electronic system, and I bet it would cost less than $2,000. A small price to pay for the convenience of perhaps a hundred customers during this time period.

2. You could contact the bank across the street and see if they would be willing to change their sign to “No LA Fitness parking” instead of the unclear sign that’s currently there, which helped waste several minutes of my time today.

3. You could provide a map of overflow parking areas where customers can park and post it on the wall or make handouts. I found no restrictions to parking north of here in the residential condo area. I never considered parking there until today, when I ran out of options.

4. You could ask customers as they walk in how long it took them to find a parking spot, and after a month of data gathering, you’d have a pretty good idea of when the really bad times are. Post a sign or make a handout about this news. Send me an email. Post it on your website. Customers could use this information to decide to come slightly earlier or later, or at least add more time for parking.

5. You could adjust the time of classes, maybe by just 10, 20, or 30 minutes.

6. If customers take an Uber to the gym during crowded hours and show their trip on their phones, they could get a free vitamin smoothie.

7. How about a valet for that busy hour?

Those are just a few from a lowly customer. Imagine what a team of enlightened managers and employees could come up with in an hour—20 or 30? Combine them, morph them, fine-tune them.

How to change employees’ attitudes

You’d like to have employees respond to these customer complaints with, “Now that’s definitely a problem, and I know our managers would want to know about this and try to solve it.” To encourage that sort of behavior, and to let customers know that it’s sincere, requires only a few changes to your approach.

Wrong way

Right way

Management tells employees that their opinions are valued and that they want to hear their ideas for improvement.

Management tells employees their job requires them to submit ideas for customer service improvements, at least one per month.

Management tells employees to write down the customer’s name and pass it to management for follow up.

Scan the customer’s key tag ID, their profile pops up on the screen, and the employee checks the box that calls for a manager to call that customer. (Your webmasters will tell you this is a simple job)

Managers are told they should be looking for opportunities to improve customer service.

Managers are required to call three customers a week and ask how service could be improved. This becomes a line item in their performance appraisal.

Managers are told they should be working on projects to improve customer service.

Managers are required to show one implemented improvement to customer service every quarter. This becomes a line item in their performance appraisal.

When something new is implemented that improves service, it is announced to all.

When something new is implemented that improves service, the genesis of the idea is traced back to the employee(s) who originally encountered the problem and forwarded it to management. The employee(s) receive public recognition.

Employees have the manager’s business card and give it to a customer who is complaining.

Employees pass out the manager’s business card with an enhancement: The words “I want our customers to call me. We need to know about your problems” are printed on it. Employees point out this very important phrase—an invitation to call and complain!

Senior managers tell junior managers that spending time with customers is an important part of their job.

Senior managers hang out with customers, and are seen doing so by all. In the case of LA Fitness, I would have them at the front desk interacting with the customers, coming and going, wearing a notable badge that says “Senior Management Team.

Employee empowerment

Fundamentally, we’re talking about employee empowerment. Empowerment means taking some of your managerial power and giving it to your employees. From Ritz-Carlton to Nordstrom, and companies far less enlightened, employees are given not just the right, but the responsibility, to make on-the-spot decisions to solve a customer’s problem or customer service failure.

Here’s an example. I was at a Hyatt, and because the airport van broke down, within seconds the front desk clerk summoned three taxis to shuttle the guests to the airport at no charge. Very impressive. I asked if this was “standard operating procedure,” and she said, “No, I just thought it was the right thing to do, and I knew my boss would have approved. And if she didn’t, she would say, ‘You did what you felt was necessary for your mission: Make our guests comfortable.’”

Four percent of customers who were ‘wronged’ by a company complain. The other 96 percent tell 9 or 10 others within a week about their poor treatment.

John Goodman, TARP study

This article first appeared online on May 9, 2018, at Quality Digest, a Kaizen Institute Online partner.

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