Recently, I was approached by a misguided manager looking for training and motivation programs to “fix” their frontline service staff. This is a fairly wide spread and common problem showing a lack of understanding about basic customer service cause and effect. And it’s focused on treating symptoms rather than the underlying disease.

How reasonable would it be to hold a shipping dock worker responsible for the quality of the goods in the boxes he or she is shipping? Not only would that be unfair, it would be bad management. A good manager would argue, quite rightly, that the manufacturing process should be traced back to find the ultimate source of the defects.

So how reasonable is it to hold the frontline server responsible for the quality of the products or services he or she is delivering? Sometimes poor service is their fault. Some servers are rude, sloppy, or uncaring. But most often the person on the front serving line is a symptom carrier, not the source of the problem. While he or she may be contributing to low service delivery, blaming him or her is also not only unfair but looking for answers in all the wrong places.

Even if poor service did originate with the service deliverer, who hires, trains, rewards, coaches, and measures that person? Like so much about culture, performance, and leadership it really is common sense; if you put a good person into a bad system, the system will win most of the time. This obvious observation has been proven so many times that it has become a truism called “The 85/15 Rule.” The 85/15 Rule shows that if you trace service breakdowns back to the root cause, about 85% of the time the fault lays in the system, processes, structure, or practices of the organization. Only about 15% of the service breakdowns can be traced back to someone who didn’t care or wasn’t conscientious enough.

But the last person to touch the process, pass the product, or deliver the service may be burned out by ceaseless service problems, overwhelmed with the volume of work or complaints, turned off by a “snoopervising” manager, out of touch with who his or her team’s customers are and what they value, unrewarded and unrecognized for their efforts, given shoddy materials, tools, or information, not given effective coaching and feedback, measured (and rewarded or punished) by results conflicting with his or her immediate customer’s needs, unsure of how to resolve issues and jointly fix a process with other functions, trying to protect themselves or their team from searches for the guilty, or not knowing where to go for help. All this lies within the system, processes, structure, or practices of the organization. And all this is a leadership, management, and culture issue.

Many of the manifestations of the “our staff are the problem” assumption stem from the all too common, but badly misguided, inclination to go on “seek and destroy missions” by asking “who” rather than “what” went wrong. Symptom carriers of the organization’s system and process problems are hunted down and hung by the neck on lampposts. The result is a culture of fixing the blame rather than the problem. This creates a culture of fear, cover your backside, and finger pointing. That’s clearly not a culture that creates higher customer service.

Treating symptoms can provide quick relief and make us feel like we’re fixing the problem. But until a management team is prepared to treat the underlying leadership and organizational root causes by applying The 85/15 Rule, they will be locked in a repeating loop of mediocre or poor customer service.

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