Want Loyal, Happy Customers? Empower Your Team

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customer loyalty

Zappos’ customer service is legendary—and this comes down to, in part, the fact that they maintain a culture where employees are empowered. Image via Business Insider.

A few months ago, a handful colleagues and I went out to lunch. (We had barbecue, it was delicious, thanks for asking.)

In between the inevitable work chat, we talked recent trips and vacations. We skew pretty outdoorsy, so the talk turned to our managing editor Kateri Kosta’s experience at a famous and popular local outdoor attraction.

The trip had been great—but there was a catch.

Kateri told us how her credit card had been charged twice for a round of hot chocolates. The server said she reversed the charges there on the spot, but weeks later, they were still on her bill. When she called the business to ask them to resolve the issue, she was given a lengthy runaround. Bounced from staff member to staff member with no answers or resolution, a $17 issue that should have been resolved quickly became a huge headache that took four phone calls and a formal “disputed charge” on her card—and it left a bad taste in her mouth.

Plus, she told all of us about it, which unhappy customers are pretty likely to do when companies don’t resolve their issues. The star of that story should have been all the amazing nature that preceded the hot chocolate—not the poor customer service.

I bring this up not just as an introductory anecdote, but because it inspired us to do some serious thinking about the necessity of an empowered team—especially those team members involved with any aspect of customer service.

What does an empowered team look like?

I can say with confidence that we have all had experiences dealing with disempowered customer service workers.

It usually goes something like Kateri’s experience—you call, hoping to solve a relatively simple problem or get a question answered, but the person you reach doesn’t have the answers or the authority to help you. You’re then transferred to another person or department—who also can’t give you what you need—or maybe you’re just given another phone number to call after you hang up. So you end up telling the whole story multiple times to different people who can’t help. This process repeats until you’re left wondering why you wasted an hour trying to get your problem resolved in the first place.

Once all is said and done, even if you ultimately get that refund or solution, it’s unlikely that you’ll be eager to communicate with the business again. Why would you? They were a gigantic pain to deal with.
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To that end, I spoke with our Outpost customer advocacy team here at Palo Alto Software, hoping they could shed some light on why an empowered team matters, and how having an empowered team can increase customer satisfaction.

“There’s nothing worse than being unable to help a customer because of ‘policy,’” says Diane Gilleland, one of our customer advocates. “It puts agents in negative interactions over and over again. I think that when a customer service agent is limited in options to help, that erodes compassion quickly, and the service levels suffer.”

An empowered team, on the other hand, generally operates very differently. When businesses repose trust in their well-trained employees, they give them license to solve customer issues on their own, without having to track down a dozen higher-ups to get a sign-off.

“Everyone wins when front-line customer service employees have the power to resolve issues without delay,” says Celeste Peterson, our customer advocacy team supervisor. “Customers are more satisfied and likely to stay with your product or service.”

In short, empowered team members can spend more time actually helping customers, and less time asking for permission to help them.

An empowered team improves the relationship between company and customers

The Ritz Carlton has a policy in place that allows any employee to spend up to $2000 to keep any one guest satisfied. This customer service fund can be used without the approval of management, at the discretion of the employee.

Zappos, too, trusts their employees to offer great customer service at their own discretion. They’ve built a reputation around their almost obsessive devotion to excellent customer service. For instance, when a best man found himself shoeless the day before the wedding after an unfortunate UPS routing error, Zappos overnighted a pair of shoes. They comped the price of overnight shipping, of course—and the cost of the shoes as well.

These teams go above and beyond for their customers—and they allow their employees the freedom to determine the correct course of action.

The reality is, no matter how hard you try to provide great customer service from the start, there will likely be a time when you end up with a customer who is unhappy or disappointed. Maybe there was a miscommunication, or perhaps you made a mistake; whatever the reason, it’s your responsibility to determine how the resolution will be handled, and whether or not you will empower those employees on the front lines of customer service to handle situations on their own as they arise.

Happy employees, happier customers

Empowering employees is critical for two reasons:

First of all, creating an atmosphere of trust is hugely important for morale and performance. Allowing your team to use their own judgment when it comes to helping customers shows that you have faith in their ability to serve customers well.

“Employees feel trusted and valuable,” says Celeste. “I believe that when you trust your employees or direct reports, they act in a way that’s more trustworthy. If you treat someone with respect, they’re more likely to feel obliged to honor that level of trust and act in a way that is honest and straightforward.”

Trusting your employees can sometimes seem like a leap of faith, especially for business owners who have nurtured their “baby” to success. However, failing to trust your employees can create a climate of resentment. “No one wants to feel like they have to hide things from their manager if something doesn’t go according to plan,” Celeste says. “That could lead to poor communication, high turnover rates, and just an unhealthy work environment. Also, happy employees provide better service, which leads to happier customers, too. We can all sense when we are communicating with someone who hates their job. It’s not pleasant.”

Secondly, when employees are empowered, customer service improves tremendously.

“I used to work for a shoe company that would routinely fail to deliver product to its customers,” says Diane. “I was constantly delivering this bad news, but without much ability to soften the blow with other concessions. I could offer free shipping, and that was it. Customers quickly grew tired of that offer when what they really needed was product they could sell in their stores. It felt terrible to have to say, ‘I’m sorry, that’s all I can offer.’”

Diane adds that “most customers just want to feel that they’re being listened to and understood—that someone is taking an ownership stake in their problem,” something that is difficult to do if those handling customer issues do not have the tools or authority to solve problems.

The result? Unhappy customers, and customer service agents who are poorly equipped to turn bad situations around.

How to empower your team

Creating an empowered team doesn’t have to be a challenge.

In fact, the more I use the words “empowered team,” the more they start to feel like buzzwords—the reality is, an empowered team is just one that has the freedom and authority to make decisions and get things done, in a way that serves both the interests of the business and leaves customers as satisfied as possible.

At a basic level, this means eliminating red tape.

Cutting down on the procedural steps employees need to go through in order to solve customer issues is the most important area for businesses to consider. Do employees need permission from management to grant certain customer requests? If so, why?

Ideally, your team should be made up of people you trust, who share your values and are kept informed of the company goals. As such, there is no reason to shy away from allowing employees to make critical decisions.

If you are hiring employees that you trust, train them thoroughly and then trust them to work in your best interests and make the best call themselves. Not only will it improve customer interactions and employee morale, but it will free you up to spend your time on other areas of the business.

“Operations are efficient and managers can focus their time managing—and less time processing refunds or rubber stamping requests—when it’s easier for the person working directly with the customer to take care of it,” says Celeste. “It’s important to have the freedom to improvise as needed to resolve issues as they arise. If you’re chained to rigid policies and procedures, it can significantly slow down the process of resolution.”

She adds that the reluctance to give over the reigns to employees can sometimes stem from a business owner’s wish to not waste the extra time it takes to hire and train a strong team. However, she argues that this is a worthwhile trade-off, as businesses will reap the rewards both in terms of employee satisfaction and customer happiness.

“Investing in your team’s level of skill and knowledge is worth it,” she says. “If you can’t trust a team member to make good choices on their own, it will cost you more time, money, and headaches overall.”

Briana is the content marketing specialist for Outpost and Palo Alto Software. She enjoys discussing marketing, social media, and the pros and cons of the Oxford comma. Briana is a resident of Portland, Oregon, and can be found working remotely from a variety of local coffee shops. She can also be found on Twitter.

Posted in Customer Service

Briana Morgaine

Briana Morgaine

Briana is the content marketing specialist for Outpost and Palo Alto Software. She enjoys discussing marketing, social media, and the pros and cons of the Oxford comma. Briana is a resident of Portland, Oregon, and can be found working remotely from a variety of local coffee shops.