customer service chain

How reasonable is it to hold a shipping dock worker responsible for the quality of the products in the boxes he or she is shipping? How reasonable is it for managers to hold the final deliverer responsible for the quality of the products or services he or she is delivering?

The person on the front serving line is a symptom carrier of their organization’s processes, systems, and culture. Rarely are they the source of the problem. While he or she may be contributing to low service delivery, blaming him or her is not only unfair; it’s mismanagement.

The cause of this confusion is that people are visible, but the systems and culture shaping their behaviors are largely invisible. So, when something goes wrong, it’s easy to trace the problem back to the last touch point and lay the blame there. A classic case of confusing correlation and causation.

The 85/15 Rule: Look for What, Not Who Went Wrong

When a good person works in a bad culture, the culture usually wins. This is a truism called the “85/15 Rule.” This research shows when errors or service breakdowns are traced back to the root cause, about 85% of the time; the fault lies in the system, processes, structure, or practices of the organization. Only about 15% of the services problems can be traced back to someone who didn’t care or wasn’t conscientious enough.

Many attempts to improve customer service levels are smile training programs. These send “you’re the problem” messages to frontline servers. And they do little to address 85% of the issues frustrating customers. How much does a smiley and “empathetic” server satisfy you if the food’s terrible, flight’s cancelled, product’s defective, or an invoice is a mess? If senior leaders want to find the source of their organization’s customer service shortfalls, the place to start is a deep look in the mirror.

Broken Links: Who’s Serving Who?

An organization that nurtures voluntarism through team-based employee involvement is turned upside down to serve the servers or producers, smashes its vertical chimneys, and flattens its management layers, obviously looks different from most today.

Here are snapshots of the traditional organizational paradigm and what’s been proven to sustain continuous service/quality improvement:

Top-Down Customer Service Management

Leading a Customer Service Culture

Management is the brain; employees are the hands. The expert in a job is (or must become) the person doing the job.
Management directs, plans, and controls daily operations. Leaders support frontline servers and teams running daily operations.
Management’s job is to solve operational problems. Leaders ensure teams have the skills, tools, information, and support to solve operational problems.
Operational performance is the combined result of individual performance. Operational performance depends on integrated systems, processes, structure, and discretionary teamwork.
Errors are caught and corrected by managers and specialists during or after production or delivery. Errors are prevented by teams managing the links in the customer-partner chain.
Crisp decision-making is the mark of a good manager. Building frontline/team ownership may slow decision-making but dramatically improves ownership and implementation.
Objectives, standards, measurements, and ratings are set at the top and cascade down the organization. Starting from the outside in, customers set the priorities and measurements for internal partners supporting each other.
Accountability moves up and down functional departments to serve management’s objectives. Roles, responsibilities, and accountability are cross-functional to serve customers’ objectives.

Customer service culture, behaviors, and attitudes start with leaders and the culture they’ve created. Strengthen leadership effectiveness to strengthen teamwork in the customer-partner chain. Improve teamwork and service to the servers and watch them boost customer service levels.

Cultural Evolution: Teaming with Customer Service

Traditional Culture

Participative Culture

Team Culture

Direct people. Involve people. Develop highly engaged teams.
Get groups to understand ideas. Get groups to generate ideas. Get diverse teams to carry out their own ideas.
Manage one on one. Encourage teamwork. Build teams managing much of their own work.
Maximize the performance of the department. Build relationships with other departments. Strengthen cross-functional process improvements.
Implement change. Initiate change. Innovate to meet/exceed customer expectations.

The service deliverer may be a weak link. But he or she is the last link in the chain of what’s created by the production and support services. The success or failure of first-line service providers is strongly determined by the quality-of-service leadership they receive.

Many frontline servers provide good service despite, not because of, the organizational support systems and culture they’re working in. Given the many dysfunctional or mediocre organizations, it’s a minor miracle that service is being provided at all by at least some exceptionally caring servers.

We’ve all had experiences with the lack of basic courtesy skills by servers. Rude, gruff, or indifferent treatment can quickly turn service encounters into negative experiences.

Senior Leaders: Is Your Focus the Weakest Think?

Most customer service training often sends the wrong signals to participants about how bright management thinks they are. Painted-on smiles will be quickly wiped off server’s faces by poor organizational support, lack of teamwork, or an abrasive supervisor. Many smile training packages or one-day wonder seminars are insulting to employees with their simple-minded approach and “you’re the weak link” messages.

Improving customer service and quality levels isn’t as simple as dunking service providers in a training program and dangling some incentives at them. Sustained and continuously improving service/quality results from strengthening your customer service chain through leadership and culture development.