Improving Customer ServiceThis is the title of a recent report in the University of Pennsylvania newsletter Knowledge @ Wharton. Part of the article reports on “a recent study conducted by Marshall Fisher, a professor of operations and information management at Wharton, and other colleagues.” He goes on to show how one of the keys to improving customer service is:

“‘the power of management by common sense.’ When companies treat employees fairly and with respect, they have more loyal staff and they attract more talented people. He cites retailers such as Trader Joe’s, Costco, and Nordstrom as examples. ‘What underlies those companies is that they have a different labor model. Staff and customer service are not a cost; staff is an asset you invest in.’

Jill Donnelly, vice president of Customer Service Experts, an Annapolis, Md.-based consultancy, adds:

“create a great employee experience so those employees can deliver a great customer experience. Do workers have to jump through hoops to get a day off? Is HR doing all it can to support them? Are their paychecks coming on time? A company’s service will be doing all it can to support them? Are their paychecks coming on time? A company’s service will be successful when the processes, leadership, communication, and learning and development are all aligned to support the service standards and the employees who deliver on them.”

Years ago the title of an article on customer service in the Wall Street Journal said it all: “Poorly Served Employees Serve Customers Just as Poorly.” In the article, leadership author and consultant Robert Kelley explains the phenomenon this way: “Service providers treat customers similar to the way they as employees are treated by management. In many organizations, management treats employees as unvalued and unintelligent. The employees in turn convey the identical message to the customer.”

Excellence guru, Tom Peters agrees wholeheartedly: “I can think of no company that has found a way to look after external customers while abusing internal customers. The process of meeting customer needs begins internally.”

A large majority of successful customer service improvement efforts owe much of their success to effective employee engagement. An engaged workforce not only implements changes more effectively, if properly guided and trained, they make better improvement decisions. They are closer to the process and know from intimate personal experience — not some theory or model — what will work and what won’t.

The separation of decision makers from those who will make the decision work is a major shortcoming of the traditional organizational approach. Excellence author and management consultant, Bob Waterman explains, “Carrying out a decision doesn’t start after the decision; it starts with the decision. Figuring out how to get something done is just as important as deciding what to do.” So why aren’t employees more involved in decision making? Waterman points to one of the reasons: “We are so busy grandstanding with ‘crisp decisions’ that we don’t take the time to involve those who have to make the decisions work.”

Back in the forties, Allan “Mogie” Morgensen found in his consulting work with General Electric and other large companies that it was possible to increase the workforce’s output by as much as 50 percent by involving employees. One of the basic principles underlying his successful consulting work was “the person doing the job knows far better than anyone else the best way of doing that job and therefore is the best person fitted to improve it.”

Key reasons employee engagement works so well in improving customer service are relevance and ownership. With their experience and training, managers and staff professionals can be a valuable resource to frontline teams. But improvements made by those who are using the process or system everyday are far more likely to be practical and relevant. And when they’ve been involved in making the improvement decisions, employees have a much higher degree of ownership for the customer service standards they have helped to set.

How well are you serving the servers? How do you know?