Empowerment: The Key to Great Customer Service

John Tschohl Headshot

The backbone of great customer service is empowerment. My definition is for any employee to make a fast-empowered decision on the spot in favor of the customer. No asking for approvals. No delays. No moving the request up the chain of command.

But the description of empowerment for most companies is the following: You are empowered to take care of the customer as long as it fits into the rules and policies we have. But for empowerment to work, the employee must be willing to bend or break the rules.

Empowerment is by far the hardest skill to get employees to use. I have always said it takes two miracles at one time to get an employee to spend $20 of your money.

There are four reasons why an employee is reluctant to use empowerment:

1. They know they will be fired.
2. They believe they will be forced to pay for the product or service they gave away.
3. Many managers do not like empowerment because they feel they are not needed. They lose their power.
4. No one likes to be screamed at or put down. Rarely is an employee recognized for making a fast-empowered decision in favor of the customer.

Front line employees are the most powerful when it comes to empowerment. What they do is magic. As the request moves up the chain of command, the final decision has less value. Most customers are not willing to push. My wife would never push a problem up the ladder. She will just never tell you and for sure will not come back. On the other hand, I am very assertive and will push until I get what I want or expect.

On my 45th wedding anniversary, my wife wanted me to take her to one of the most expensive restaurants in the Twin Cities. I forgot my mask in the car, so when approaching the host I asked if she had a mask I could have. She said it would cost $1. Every other place I know they give free masks. Their cost is probably about $.10.  I told her I was not paying $1, and she said you cannot enter without a mask. My wife found an extra mask in her purse. The two employees would have let me walk when the average cost of a dinner for two exceeds $100.

With Tripadvisor, that restaurant has a 4-star rating. I rated them 1 star a day later, which is now on the top of the reviews.  Service was bad. My wife never told me until two days later that her food was cold. We will never be back. It started with a $1 decision the employees were not empowered to make or were afraid to make. We’re talking $1.

Most empowered decisions are under $50, and I think the vast majority under $25. Often there is no cost. Not enough pool and spa companies and employees understand the power of word-of-mouth advertising. Your single goal each day is to have over-happy customers. This way you have them for life. They are resistant to advertising by your competitors. You want them to fall in love with you and your business.

Here are some ways to get your employees to make empowered decisions:

1. Train everyone on empowerment. It is up to your business to train your entire staff. Remember that 99% of your customer contact is with front line employees who are often the least paid, least valued and least trained.
2. Recognition. You must make a celebration out of each time you hear or see an employee making an empowered decision. The wilder the empowered decision, the bigger the deal you want to make out of it. Other employees will see the employee was not fired and got lots of recognition.

Empowered employees have the power to make decisions without a supervisor. They are entitled to go off-script, bend the rules and do what they see fit if they believe it is the right thing to do for the customer. If you're concerned they might give away the store, set a limit. Maybe start with $100. The Ritz Carlton has a $2,000 limit.

Empowered employees take pride and ownership in their jobs when they know that they can exercise independent judgment when necessary. The result is over-happy customers who fall in love with you and become customers for life.

John Tschohl is a professional speaker, trainer, and consultant. He is the president and founder of Service Quality Institute with operations in over 40 countries. John is a self-made millionaire and the author of eight books on customer service. John’s monthly strategic newsletter is available online at no charge.

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