Empower Your Front Line

Sept. 1, 2007
p class="style5" When a customer calls you with a problem, the immediate focus should be on the customer and the problem, rather than company policy.

When a customer calls you with a problem, the immediate focus should be on the customer and the problem, rather than company policy. In fact, policy, if it's any good should be to focus on the customer.

The front line (i.e., your call taker in this case) is the first point of customer contact and the point of the most frequent contact. Front line
contact presents the best opportunity to nip a problem in the bud before it becomes a feud between the customer and you. Far too often, though, the call taker starts quoting company policy with bare restrained glee, giving a knee jerk "no" as the answer to the customer's request. Or, they buck the problem elsewhere, requiring the customer to sigh, take a deep breath and repeat the story of their ordeal all over again.

Your call taker should be empowered to address the lion's share of customer problems on the spot. For those rare cases where someone else's input is required, or when the phone is ringing off the wall and the call taker cannot devote the time to the customer that they deserve, the immediate response should be to get someone (i.e., a person, a human being, not voice mail) on the line that can resolve the problem. Fast.

Policy usually arises because one person abused the system and took advantage of you, sometimes years ago. At the time you thought that, by gosh, you're not going to let that happen again. So you penalize the 99.9% of good customers for the one bad apple. This is upside down.

Frankly, you probably know it's upside down. You probably make exceptions all of the time. Now, if there are ever exceptions to the rules (and
don't kid yourself, there are always exceptions to the rules), then the front line service providers should be empowered to make them as well.
Finish it. Solve the problem with the first person the customer encounters. Why make the customer explain over and over again as they are
shuffled from one person to the next? Unless your company wants to exhibit customer antipathy by design, you will give the customer what he or she wants eventually. If you will give the customer what he wants eventually, why not drop the "eventually?" Why not give them what they want right away?

Think about your own attitude when you've had to fight a company for what you wanted? In the end, you feel triumphant. And in your triumph, a transformation has taken place. You no longer see the company as your partner or trusted supplier, but as a vanquished adversary. They put you through it, but you prevailed. You battled and you won.

Guess what? You're right. You did win and the company lost! And you lose whenever you put your customers through it too.

Conversely, think about a time when the first person you talked with, listened to your problem, clarified, apologized, and immediately . . . IMMMEDIATELY, gave you what you wanted. Wow! You're overwhelmed. You're grateful. You want to do business with that company again!

You won! But then, so did the company. The company didn't waste a bunch of management time fighting you. They gave in. By losing, they won you over. They earned your loyalty. In fact, as long as they don't screw up again, you're going to be more loyal to them now than you were before the screw up.

You might be thinking that you would empower your people if only you had the same caliber of personnel at some of these companies you encounter where they solve your problems almost as soon as you state them. Well, guess what. You do. Allow your people to solve the customers' problems and you'll see a remarkable transformation.

It's incredibly demoralizing to hear other people's problems when you can't solve them, you can only tell them what they don't want to hear. After a while, it beats down the positive person. On the other hand, it's uplifting to be able to leave people with a smile on their face, even if it's only over the phone. By empowering your people, you're helping them to maintain a positive, upbeat attitude that will pay off in more calls captured, better customer service, and less turnover.

Why not keep the problems off your desk by empowering your people to act in the customer's and company's interests? Why not win your customers over? Why not design a job that's uplifting rather than demoralizing? Why not empower the front line?

Matt Michel is president of the Service Roundtable (www.ServiceRoundtable.com), an organization dedicated to helping contractors prosper. Matt is also the publisher of Comanche Marketing, a free marketing e-zine. Subscriptions are available at www.ComancheMarketing.com. You can contact him directly at [email protected]. Or send your comments to Contracting Business at [email protected].