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As a business keynote speaker, I spend a lot of time speaking about the need for employee autonomy in customer service and business operations in general. And a lot of time talking about the need to set and maintain service and brand standards.

The bottom line? You need to balance both.

Business works best when you provide your employees with well-defined standards, accompanied by the reasoning behind them and autonomy in how they’re carried out.

Define your standards using a three-part summary statement format:

1. Why the service is of value (why we’re doing this in the first place)

2. The emotional response we’re aiming to have the customer feel

3. The expected way to accomplish the service

Point three should be formulated in a manner that allows judgment and discretion to be used in all but mission-critical situations.

Formulated this way, standards help ensure that every part of your service reflects the best way your company knows to perform it—a prescription that your autonomously performing employees can then feel free to adapt to suit the needs and wishes, expressed or unexpressed, of the customers they’re actually facing at the moment.

What follows is a practical example of how a company might summarize a single standard:

  • We answer all web-form queries in a speedy, personable, non-automated fashion that assists and reassures, binding the customer or prospective customer to our company on the first response.
  • The response time will be within thirty-five minutes.
  • The initial answer provided will either be complete or, if that’s not possible, will couple a partial, brief answer with a promise of a comprehensive future answer within a specified time frame. In that case, expert assistance will be requested internally, but the initial respondent will own the follow-up until completed to the customer’s satisfaction.

Then, take the time necessary to more fully explain your reasoning to employees:

"We need to answer customer inquiries faster than anyone else, because our studies, last undertaken fourteen months ago, demonstrate this as one of the top five controllable factors in making a sale. The response needs to be friendly and professional for that reason as well."

And define any unclear terminology:

  • "Faster than anyone else" means within two hours for an initial query, and within fifteen minutes for a follow-up query related to the initial query.
  • "Friendly and professional" means to "use your best judgment" but also to "avoid the following list of phrases and consider the substitutes listed below instead."

Finally, you need to measure and, as needed, reinforce the standards.

Standards and autonomy: Why the hybrid path is the best path.

“All autonomy, all the time!” is by and large a bust. It doesn’t work so well (using the example of answering incoming Web queries) to tell an employee to "answer customer queries any time you want," because answering customer queries promptly is a crucial part of giving great customer service; it can’t be left to this level of potential variability.

And mindless, unexplained bossiness about standards is equally unworkable. It doesn’t work to say to an employee, "You have to hurry and check this function off your list, or you’re in trouble." You’ll end up with cursory replies, as the employee misapprehends the reason he’s responding, which now becomes not to take care of the customer, but because he’s checking something off a list to avoid angering his boss.

The hybrid path, straddling the line between employee autonomy and definition of standards, is the only path to business success, consistent, sustainable business success.

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User Comments – Give us your opinion!
  • Dan Roden
    Thanks Micah, some good thoughts there. Let's face it, mainstream businesses will always consider customer service a cost center. A department that always needs to become "more efficient" and could use more "process"; these are just buzzwords for making customer service "cheaper".

    Even in the case companies that rely solely on recurring revenue, like online retail or SaaS, the service department are consistently under valued and frankly, under estimated. I don't believe you need to hire a bunch of $100K service reps, but if you make the right hires, they should all be candidates for internal positions in that bracket. Here's why: Show me someone who truly cares about your customer, regardless of compensation and I will show you the foundation of a great future manager or sales person.

    Of course, Zappos is the king of this theory. In a world when their competitors were worried about support time averages and how to get their staff to spend less time on the phone, Tony Hsieh was encouraging longer, more personal conversations. Zappos hires people who love to serve other people, people that share their company values. And what has the investment yielded? How about one of the best know service companies in the world. Now that is value.

    So I guess I would say that if you really want to provide excellent experience, be prepared to invest in it with the right people.
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