Empowering employees to deliver customer service

Bill Hogg tells how Home Depot impressed him because an employee was empowered. An employee offered to discount an item to match a sale price. When asked why he did this, the employee responded, “I am empowered to make our customers happy”.

This may seem like a simple thing, and in many ways it is. But are your employees empowered to make customers happy? Certainly, we don’t want employees arbitrarily discounting prices or caving to every demand made by a customer, but there are many other ways to make a customer happy. And we must empower our employees to do so.

While systems and procedures can provide structure and guidelines, they are not enough. Systems and procedures cannot address every possible situation that might arise, particularly when dealing with customers. In an unusual situation, it can become easy for an employee to “go by the book” and fail to make the customer happy. We must do more than tell our employees what we want them to do. We must also explain why—the result that we desire.

When an employee understands the desired result he is better equipped to deal with these situations. He is empowered to exercise his own judgment when the situation calls for it.

Imposing our values on customers

In working with small business owners, I am often amazed at how frequently they seek to impose their values upon their customers. Sometimes this occurs is small, subtle ways. And other times it occurs in a huge way.

One of the most common ways small business owners do this is by declaring that customer’s won’t pay higher prices. Many believe that customers only buy on the basis of price, and so they seek to do anything reasonable (and sometimes unreasonable) to keep their prices low.

Certainly, in some industries competing on price is simply the business model. Commodities are a prime example. But even when one is selling a commodity, one doesn’t have to compete solely on the basis of price. The success of brand names is one example.

When an owner refuses to offer his customer options he is imposing his values on the customer. The owner believes something to be true, and acts accordingly. He never bothers to find out if it is true of this particular customer. Rather than offer the customer options–and let the customer decide–the owner offers one option and the customer must take it or leave it.

Over the years I have had many customers buy from me when I would have bet the farm that they wouldn’t. Often, the reason they have bought from me is because I gave them options. I spent the time to learn what they want and why, and then offered a number of solutions to meet their needs.

I don’t like others making assumptions about what I want. They may or may not be correct, but it is my money and I will decide how to spend it. We should do the same with our customers.

When the rules should be broken

Developing systems for your small business is an important part of long-term success. Having specific steps for performing the myriad tasks within a business helps to insure consistent and desirable results. But sometimes, following those steps too rigidly can create problems. Sometimes the rules may need to be broken.

Bill Hogg provides an example. He submitted an article, which was promptly rejected because it did not meet certain guidelines. After considerable explaining on Hogg’s part, the publisher finally relented and published the article.

In this instance, the publisher had a perfectly valid rule in place. But in this particular instance, that rule was defeating the purpose for which it was implemented. In other words, the rule was not achieving the desired results.

There are times when we must break the rules. Of course, if we do this too often the rules become meaningless. But if we drop the context and follow the rules, no matter the outcome, the rules are equally meaningless. Rules are not intended to be commandments to be followed no matter what. They are established to be applied in a specific context.

When we establish procedures we must do more than just state what we want done. We must explain why we want it done–what results we are seeking. Not only does this provide clarity to the procedure, it also helps us identify when the rules should be broken.

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