I’ve got a pet peeve when it comes to customer service policies. It annoys me to no end when front-line employees have to get a manager’s approval for even the simplest, low-dollar merchandise return.
I recently had to return an item to an office supply store (a national chain) where I encountered this very situation. The item had not been opened from its original packaging, cost less than $20, and I had the receipt of purchase from the same store just a few days prior. The cashier was as helpful and polite as he could be but he couldn’t process the return on his own. He had to call his manager over for approval and get him to unlock the register with his “magic” key so he could take back the item and refund my money.
Really? For a $20 item that hadn’t even been opened? Are you telling me you can’t trust your employees to make that decision on their own? Do you distrust your customers so much that you’re afraid they’ll sneak one over on your unsuspecting cashiers?
Contrast that return policy with those of Nordstrom’s or Costco. You can return virtually anything, without a receipt, purchased from who knows how long ago, and they’ll accept it with little or no questioning. Their employees don’t have to call over a manager to make the decision and customers are rarely inconvenienced by the organization’s return policy. I purposely choose to go out of my way to do business with these companies and others with similar customer service policies because I know I’ll be treated well. If I change my mind about my purchase or something goes wrong with the product, I know I’ll be able to bring it back with no questions asked. They trust their employees to make smart decisions and they trust me, as the customer, that I’m not trying to take advantage of the situation.
If you’re interested in developing customer service policies that demonstrate trust in your employees and customers, consider these five strategies:
1. Operate from the mindset that people are generally trustworthy – Unfortunately, most organizational policies are developed from the opposite mindset: people are not to be trusted and the organization must protect itself from being taken advantage of. That’s operating from a distrusting, fear-based mindset. Undoubtedly there is a small percentage of people who look to take advantage of any given situation. Is it better to tailor your policies to the minority who want to abuse the system or design the policy to support the vast majority of trustworthy people? I advocate for the latter. When operating from a trustworthy mindset, the worse case scenario is you can monitor your policies over time and adjust as necessary given your particular business conditions. But don’t just assume your employees or customers aren’t trustworthy, because the vast majority of us are.
2. Define the boundaries – Let your employees clearly know the boundaries of your policies. Make sure they are clear on the decisions they can make within the purview of their role and which ones require input from leadership. I encourage you to make the boundaries as wide as possible and hire and train your people to take the lead within that space. That means you as the manager lets go and lets the employee operate freely within their boundaries.
3. Foster autonomy – In conjunction with establishing boundaries, foster an environment of autonomy with your employees within those boundaries. Give them the freedom to make decisions that are in the best interest of the customer and the organization. Will they make mistakes? Yes, they will. But they’ll learn from them and that’s one of the benefits and responsibilities of having autonomy. Autonomy fosters responsibility and you want employees who are responsible and personally invested in their work.
4. Share information liberally – When armed with information about the business, it’s strategies, goals, and performance, employees are compelled to act responsibly. Employees operating without the information they need to make good decisions are working with one hand tied behind their backs. Leaders often withhold sharing important information because they are afraid of what employees may do with it. Once again, that’s operating from a fear-based mindset and it reflects a desire to control, not empower people. Make sure your team has all the information they need to make good decisions on behalf of the organization and the customer and then trust them to do their job well (and manage the results if they don’t).
5. Reward appropriate risk taking – The previous four strategies create an environment where employees are empowered to lead on their own and take appropriate risks. When they do that, celebrate their successes. If the risk backfires, then treat it as a learning moment by analyzing what went wrong and what can be learned from it. Don’t treat mistakes as the apocalypse. Coming down hard on people for mistakes will only make them reticent to step out and take a risk in the future. I’m not suggesting you turn a blind eye to failures, because repeated mistakes shows the employee isn’t learning from his/her experience and using proper judgment. Those situations need to be managed appropriately. But for the occasional, honest mistake, celebrate the individual for taking initiative, help them learn the needed lessons, and encourage them to keep leading confidently.
So how does your organization rate? Do your customer service policies show you trust your employees and customers?
Randy Conley is the V.P. of Client Services and Trust Practice Leader at The Ken Blanchard Companies and his LeaderChat posts normally appear the fourth or last Thursday of every month. For more insights on trust and leadership, visit Randy at his Leading with Trust blog or follow him on Twitter @RandyConley.