Customer Service Training: Principles Over Procedures | Food Sign with Seagulls

Customer Service Training: Principles Trump Procedures

Last week, I went to a national “market” restaurant to grab a quick lunch. I do not go to this chain often but have been an infrequent customer since I discovered it back in 1993. So, I have a bit of a long term perspective on its business and its customer service.

In the past year or so, the chain has impressed me with their customer experience initiatives. Here are some of the initiatives “The Market” seems to have adopted.

  • Real plates and silverware have replaced paper and plastic.
  • Trash cans have been removed from the dining area; employees bus your plates at the end of the meal.
  • Employees make eye contact and welcome you when you walk through the door.
  • An employee walks your plates to your table for you after you checkout.

This last initiative is in some ways the most impressive — but it is also the one that inspired this post.

Customer Service Procedures Are Not Enough

As I was checking out with my food, a gentleman wearing a headset picked up my plate and asked me where I would like to sit. I was still early in my transaction with the cashier and told him not to worry about it.

He held onto the plate.

Upon opening my wallet, I noticed I had a few things to organize. There was a lull in the line behind me and the cashier was still processing my transaction, so I told the gentleman a second time that I could get the plate myself. He replied with, “I have it sir,” and then the cashier chimed in with “we take your plates to the table” — as if she was helping him win an argument.

At this point, I just smiled, left the wallet as it was, and walked with the gentleman to find a table. The exchange was a bit annoying, but I was not going to get upset with them for trying to do their jobs. They work on the front lines of fast casual — they undoubtedly deal with plenty of grief from customers every day.

That being said, both of them gave relatively poor service in attempting to follow The Market’s enhanced customer service procedures. It seems that they had neither been trained nor empowered to understand the principle of customer experience that underlies their new procedures.

Customer Service Training: Principles Over Procedures | Food Sign with SeagullsI think walking the plates to the table is a great touch, but on that day, I just wanted them to leave the plate on the counter and quit hovering over me.

Was it a big deal? No.

Did I consider it a “bad” experience? No.

But they negated the “WOW” they were trying to achieve by being robotic in execution. Procedure overrode principle, and the service suffered as a result.

Principle Comes From Culture First, Training Second

My experience with The Market that day started out rough before I even entered the building.

The parking lot was so full when I arrived at lunch that I almost turned around and went somewhere else. It’s a fairly isolated lot — if it’s full, the closest alternate parking spaces are a bit of a hike.

Of course, The Market cannot do much about the parking, except to make sure that its employees do not take up prime spaces. As I ate my meal, I noticed someone who was either the manager or the assistant manager run out to her car. She was parked close to the front, in what I would consider “customer spaces” if I managed that location.

Perhaps the “employee” spots were all taken when she arrived for her shift, but somehow I doubted it. The fact that she was walking from her car to the front of the building, in uniform, on shift, and typing on her phone in the middle of the lunch rush gave me an indication of her customer focus.

Is it possible that this manager executes the corporate procedures without a feeling for the big picture? Without understanding the why behind those procedures?

Why was her team so insistent on taking my plate? Why did the cashier so quickly get defensive and jump in to defend him?

My guess: Because when someone does not take a plate to a table the manager lets them know about it. Because that’s what they are supposed to do.

Like call centers that focus on average handle time without any care for customer satisfaction or experience ratings, organizations that focus on procedures in a vacuum lose sight of the very customer focus the procedures were designed to support.

Customer service procedures are important but understanding the principles underlying those procedures and giving staff the flexibility to know when to make exceptions is just as important.

In some industries, like fast casual, we cannot expect every person on the team to have highly developed service judgment. Yet, we can do our best to empower them and to make sure that the rule of pleasing the customer is the most important customer service rule of all.

About 

By Adam Toporek. Adam Toporek is an internationally recognized customer service expert, keynote speaker, and workshop leader. He is the author of Be Your Customer's Hero: Real-World Tips & Techniques for the Service Front Lines (2015), as well as the founder of the popular Customers That Stick® blog and co-host of the Crack the Customer Code podcast.

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17 replies
  1. Michelle Quillin
    Michelle Quillin says:

    “…both of them gave relatively poor service in attempting to follow The Market’s enhanced customer service procedures. It seems that they had neither been trained nor empowered to understand the principle of customer experience that underlies their new procedures.”

    I’m so glad you wrote this post, Adam. You’ve put into words what I’ve experienced, yet couldn’t put my finger on. Your experience is why I go to self-checkout registers at the grocery store. I hate the feeling of being rushed as a cashier is holding out my change and receipt while I’m trying to put away unused coupons, my debit card, and find my keys in my purse. And there she is, with her hand outstretched, instead of waiting patiently for me to finish.

    Another pet peeve: the cashier who starts ringing the person behind me before I’ve left the register area, while I’m putting the change in my wallet and then putting my wallet away.

    Total disconnect. I’ll check myself out and take my time. 😉

    Reply
    • Adam Toporek
      Adam Toporek says:

      Hey Michelle, I think self checkout lines, in most retail situations, are great options. The reality is that customers are so beset by everything nowadays that sometimes they just want to be left alone. Sometimes, they do not want to be hurried through the shopping process — even when the pressure is self-imposed. Most fundamentally decent people feel pressured if they are holding up someone, even someone who is being paid to assist them. I did not want the guy sitting there holding my plate while I took my time; yet, he insisted, so I felt rushed.

      Having customer facing reps who are well-trained and can read body language and tone goes a long way in these situations.

      Reply
      • Michelle Quillin
        Michelle Quillin says:

        “Having customer facing reps who are well-trained and can read body language and tone goes a long way in these situations.”

        I hadn’t considered the importance of customer-facing reps being able to read body language and tone, Adam! You should come up with a video training and testing program for businesses hiring customer-facing employees, unless they already exist.

        Reply
        • Adam Toporek
          Adam Toporek says:

          It’s always a tricky thing Michelle because some people come by those skills naturally. Others can be trained to be better, and more aware. Some, however, just do not have the basic people skills to be able to read customers.

          Actually, you touched on a great point — most thorough interview processes can expose strengths and weaknesses in this area pretty well.

          Thanks for the great discussion Michelle!

          Reply
  2. Davina K. Brewer
    Davina K. Brewer says:

    Sometimes it’s natural, personality. Training is of course a big part of it; I held a number of customer-facing service jobs once upon my youth, and that’s always been lacking right along w/ any kind of empowerment. And not just the training – but also the WHY behind it, what you’re trying to accomplish as a brand; plus TPTB never get the WIIFM for the employee to pay attention, to take the training seriously and see how it helps them.

    Another part which sadly I’ve come to realize is a lack of work ethics across the board – and managers aren’t empowered to teach/enforce it. The example you gave; back in the day I know of places pay would be docked, hours cut or something else for that whole parking scenario but doubt that’d happen now, except maybe a local place. And don’t get me started on the cell phones .. just don’t get me going. FWIW.

    Reply
    • Adam Toporek
      Adam Toporek says:

      Hiring the smile comes first, then training. It can be tough in retail and food service, because often these are first or second jobs. The staff is less experienced and less career focused. The key…

      You nailed it: “Not just the training — but also the WHY behind it.” There is not enough boldface in WordPress to do that comment justice.

      And yes, the cell phone thing… well, no comment.

      Reply
      • Davina K. Brewer
        Davina K. Brewer says:

        You know those places that have been around forever? The kinds w/ career bartenders, servers, reps who have been there for decades? Sometimes it’s the high-end but not always. These places (and the staff) get the WHY, what keeps people coming back. In customer service positions at all levels, brands need to focus on the Why, the WIIFM so they can recruit, train people who treat it as a profession, not just a job. FWIW.

        Reply
  3. Jens P. Berget
    Jens P. Berget says:

    This is a very interesting observation Adam. I had a similar experience in a Norwegian bakery a few weeks ago. The woman behind the counter did what she was told to do by the manager, but because she didn’t “think” and because she wasn’t flexible, the line was full of people and my experience with this bakery wasn’t a good one.

    To me, customer service shouldn’t always be about being told what to do, but we need to hire people who understands people and how different situations should be handled.

    Reply
  4. Jodi Riolo
    Jodi Riolo says:

    I had a similar experience as well. I stopped at a grocery store to pick up a few items. At the checkout, I was told a clerk would take the cart of groceries out to my car. For whatever reason, I always prefer to do this myself.

    When I stated that I wanted to take out my own groceries, the employee became adamant about doing this for me, almost to the point of being ridiculous.

    It’s a shame that the store’s policies and procedures outweigh common sense by not allowing employees to exercise empowerment in making judgement calls based on simply listening to their customers.

    I don’t know if it is because management doesn’t trust their employees in making sound decisions and allowing them to step outside the box or if it’s a serious control issue. Either way, not a quality customer experience.

    Reply
    • Adam Toporek
      Adam Toporek says:

      I think you nailed it Jodi; it’s really about empowerment (within limits) that allows employees to feel like they can make decisions that are in the best interest of the customers — and as we know, that is not always following procedure perfectly every time. I think the reasons vary why it happens — managerial control issues, like you mentioned, or an organizational culture of strict adherence to procedure. Either way, it is bad for the customer and bad for the business.

      Thank you for sharing your story!

      Reply
  5. Pamela
    Pamela says:

    When training for a phone customer service position the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, one of the most valuable things they taught us is to always smile when you are talking to a client. Your voice carries your emotions, and if you are indifferent or have an attitude, clients can hear it.

    Reply

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