As a business owner or manager, you have probably heard management experts refer to the importance of service standards for frontline employees. The idea is that managers should give customer-contact people a performance goal or service standard by which they can be measured and rewarded. Sounds good in theory. Unfortunately, over my years as a consultant and business advisor, and as a customer myself, I find that some service standards are not only ineffective, they are actually counterproductive. I wonder if this may be the case in your organization.
When most managers hear the term service standard, they think in terms of delivery and turnaround times. In other words, phone calls will be returned within twenty-four hours, customers will wait in line no longer than five minutes, etc. Those types of standards assume that faster is better, which isn’t always the case. Consider this scenario…
When my wife, Lydia and I decided to buy a new home, we quickly concluded that my forty-year-old lifelong pals could no longer be bribed to spend a weekend helping us to move. At this stage in life, they knew that we could afford to hire movers, and we knew that they could afford their own beer and pizza. So, when we were scheduling our move, I set up appointments with two moving company sales reps for estimates.
The representative from the first company seemed willing to take his time. He was interested in hearing about the home we were moving into and the special requests we had for handling certain pieces of furniture. He walked us through his presentation binder and shared tips to make the move go more smoothly. The impression I got was that he genuinely wanted to help.
On the other hand, the sales rep from the second company seemed rushed. He dashed through the house, checking items off on his chart, answering my questions in clipped tones. Overall, I felt like I was just an interruption to his important day.
Both sales reps had spent over twenty years in the industry, so experience wasn’t the issue. The services offered were more or less the same. When it came to price, the second rep’s - the one who was in such a hurry - was actually lower. Yet, as you might have guessed, the first rep got the business because he took his time. In other words, he got better results by going slower.
Keep in mind that shopping for a moving company is not something most people relish. For most of us, even if we love the new home we’re moving into, the thought of the move itself is about as welcome as undergoing amateur eyeball surgery. It’s a chore that we want to get over-with quickly and painlessly. Ironically, when it comes to the face-to-face time spent between the customer and the company rep, speeding up the process won’t necessarily be perceived as providing better service. When customers are uncertain about what they are buying, they want the service rep to take their time. In doing so, the rep shows that they get what the customer really needs - understanding.
How Managers Make Things Worse
Strange but true, is the fact that in most cases the company rep does not want to rush. Rather, it’s the company’s employee-performance measurement system that encourages and rewards this kind of hurried behavior. Such was the case with a client whose organization suffered the effects of time-driven service standards.
In this particular company, all of the service standards focused on delivery times. In other words, the company policies spelled out that the sales rep should return a customer’s call within x hours. Services should be delivered within y days. These standards were proudly posted in public view. The result was a mess.
Employees rushed through as many customer contacts as they could manage. When I interviewed their customers and reviewed complaint letters, it was clear that customers perceived the staff as arrogant and insensitive. Those customers who couldn’t find any other reason to complain were quick to point out that many employees weren’t living up to the company’s own posted standards of speed. Employees got fed-up, became demoralized and productivity dropped - exactly the opposite effect the company expected when they set the standards. In this case, the adage is true - speed kills. All of this needs to be balanced with the fact that at some point speed of delivery is an issue.
The Good News
Service standards can and should play a role in guiding the decisions of frontline employees, but only when those standards include the other deliverables that help create customer loyalty. I’m referring to quality, courtesy, safety, innovation, and so on. Of course, each of these factors are important, but where the real impact happens is when you prioritize these standards so that frontline employees can make more appropriate decisions without having to talk to their manager. The good news is that prioritizing your service standards is relatively easy. And it’s the topic of another discussion. Meanwhile, I encourage you as a manager to review whether or not your service standards – formal or implied – are primarily focused on speed. If so, forget theory – ask yourself what the real impact is on your employees and your customers.
This article is based on the critically acclaimed book, Becoming a Service Icon in 90 Minutes a Month by business strategist and international speaker Jeff Mowatt.