I know a guy who stops on the way the way to work for a coffee almost every day. He pulls up in front of the shop on a busy thoroughfare and parks where it is explicitly signed he shouldn’t. He creates a standing wave in traffic that probably lasts for half an hour after he pulls away with his venti misto cinnamon surprise.
What makes this inconsiderate act even more remarkable is that he had the nerve to complain to the staff about his frequent parking tickets. The empowered barrista gave him a very nice travel mug, more less guaranteeing snarled traffic for years.
I recently had a miserable stay at a large hotel in Montreal. Lights not working, fan sounding like a freight train, that sort of thing. I mentioned this to the empowered, indifferent clerk at the desk, who started offering me things. Did I want $100 off? Not really; my employer is paying for the room, not me. Did I want a bunch of Starwood points? No thanks, useless program. What, for the sake of all that is holy did I want?
How about just fix the fan and change the light bulbs so the next person has a better night than I did? That’s what I wanted. Not compensation.
Just apologize for disappointing me and go fix it. I noted the empowered clerk didn’t write down any of the particulars and never enquired which room I was in. Empowerment, it seems, has its limits. To the people who have been subsequently kept up all night by that fan, and who couldn’t see to read or work, my apologies.
Ditto the posh department store that sold me a bacon and tomato salad, sans bacon. Here’s their response to my tweet.
I work in corporate communications; I know this game. Rule 1 is take bad conversations out of the public glare and solve them elsewhere, in this case by email. But Rule 2 seems to be to pay customers to shut up, rather than looking into what went wrong in the first place. I don’t want a coupon from the empowered social media manager for another disappointing salad; I want them to acknowledge they have a quality control issue and tell me they are fixing it. That’s what will get me back in, not a coupon.
When a certain brewery in Toronto included some bonus insect larvae in my organic brew, the empowered service manager mailed me coupons to buy more of the buggy suds. What they should have done was apologize, reassure me they are looking into how it happened and refund my money. Years later I still won’t drink their products because I have no evidence they cared enough to solve the issue.
Just as our herring-based programs delude us into believing we have loyal customers, our belief in empowered frontline employees convinces us the theatre that passes for customer service is actually fixing a problem.
We’ve empowered the heck out of our frontline employees to make people happy, but have we put any actual systems in place to stop the problem from happening again? Do frontline people have any visibility at all into what happens when they log a customer complaint? Do they have any way of finding out if the issue has been resolved? Are we arming them with anything more helpful than a bag full of squeaky toys?
Customer Problems or Problem Customers?
An unfortunate consequence of empowered frontline people is the generation of consumers we’ve trained to show up with their hands out every time something is not quite to their liking. But we needn’t indulge that garbage. A friend of mine owns a fast food franchise and recently had a customer demanding $200 because there weren’t enough sprinkles on her frozen thing. He told her he was looking forward to never having her in his restaurant again. The empowered barrista could take a page from this playbook.
For sure there are times you want to give out some goodies. Like when you are kicking someone off a plane to make room for an employee. That’s a giant inconvenience for the passenger so we want to make sure it’s not just a whack of money changing hands but also a high-touch, friendly experience as we find them another flight. The horribleness that was acted out on United the other day is what happens when empowerment meets policy and someone adds peer pressure to force all the common sense out of the room.
Similarly, when customers are out of pocket, you will want to make them whole, and apologize and demonstrate that you are not going to let it happen again, to them or to anyone. Empowerment plus refund works here.
When you have wasted their time, deprived them of sleep or otherwise failed to live up to your end of the bargain, start with the apology, then get all sorts of details about what is wrong, demonstrate you intend to fix it, thank them for bringing it to your attention and then, and only then, ask what you can do to make it up to them.
Chances are they’ll not want much now that you’ve paid attention. It would help if you wrote things down, asked clarifying questions and followed up at some future point to confirm the issue is fixed. The customers who turn this into an extortion opportunity have just self-selected their way off your list. Good riddance.
Things are trickier in B2B. As with the hotel, there is seldom any personal financial impact when you mess something up. Keeping customers on the phone forever costs their employer, not them, so handing out discounts, while it has its place, isn’t really making up for their missed deadline, long day or high blood pressure. Here’s where a little communication can go a long way.
When the requested wake-up call failed to materialize at a hotel in Vancouver, I grumpily complained as I rushed out the door, late for my flight. Nothing they could do was going to make me any less rushed, but the next day I had a call from the general manager apologizing for the error and letting me know they have a new process in place so it won’t happen again. I have since stayed there many times and never missed a wake-up call. This is what it looks like when a frontline employee is empowered not just to give things out but to make things better.
It’s time we redefined empowerment.
BizMarketer is written by Elizabeth Williams
I help companies have better conversations
Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org