Jeff Toister is the author of Service Failure: The Real Reasons Employees Struggle with Customer Service and What You Can Do About It. His company, Toister Performance Solutions, Inc. helps clients identify the obstacles keeping them from achieving customer service success.
The double agent looked around nervously to see if anyone was watching. The coast was clear. He saw his two contacts seated in the back of the restaurant and quietly approached.
“Don’t order the profiteroles. The beignets are much better.”
No, this double agent wasn’t a spy engaged in international espionage. He was a waiter in a restaurant. He served as an agent for his boss, the restaurant manager, who wanted him to push the profiterole dessert special.
He also served as an agent for his two guests who he knew would be much happier with the beignets. The profiteroles weren’t very good.
Employees in double agent situations risk making someone unhappy no matter what they do. They can align themselves with their employer, but their customer will get upset. They can align themselves with their customer, but then they risk getting into trouble for violating a company policy.
How do you avoid having your employees become double agents? Find ways to align the company’s interests with customers’ interests whenever possible. Make it easy to say “Yes” to customers.
Here are some common double agent examples along with some suggested solutions.
A call center agent is listening to a customer vent about a problem. Should the agent hurry up the call to meet the talk time standard? If she does, she’ll avoid possible sanctions from her boss but might risk alienating the upset customer. If she ignores the standard and patiently helps the customer, she may earn the customer’s gratitude but risk getting in trouble with her boss.
The Solution: Prioritize customer satisfaction
Efficiency is an important aspect of every profitable business but over-emphasizing short-term efficiency can be dangerous. Alienated customers are much more likely to take their business elsewhere and share negative word of mouth about the company. The resulting loss of business is often much larger than any short-term efficiency gains.
The call center manager could avoid the double agent problem by emphasizing first contact resolution rather than talk time. The customer will appreciate a resolution, and the employee won’t feel pressured to end the call prematurely.
A salesperson needs to offer a big discount to close a sale. Should he violate the company’s discounting policy to get the deal? If he does, he’ll put some extra money in his pocket and earn a new customer, but it may get him into trouble with his sales manager. If he doesn’t, he might lose a commission, but he’ll help preserve the company’s profit margins.
The Solution: Re-focus on value
A strong sales manager would show the salesperson how to demonstrate better value to the customer so he wouldn’t be tempted to offer a rock bottom price to close the deal.
I’m reminded of a lesson learned from my insurance agent. I had called to complain that the renewal rate for my auto insurance was a few hundred dollars higher than a quote I had gotten from a competitor.
My agent, a seasoned pro, calmly suggested we compare the two quotes side by side. It turned out that the competitor’s quote offered much less coverage than my existing policy. The competitor’s price for my current level of coverage was actually much higher!
A retail employee is assisting a customer with a large purchase when she reaches the end of her shift. Should she stay late? If she does, she might create a memorable experience for the customer, but she’ll risk getting into trouble for not clocking out on time. If she opts to leave at the end of her shift, she’ll maintain compliance with her schedule but will risk making her customer feel unimportant.
The Solution: Empower employees to do what’s right
Customer service legends such as Nordstrom, The Ritz-Carlton, and Zappos have all made a name for themselves by trusting employees to make judgment calls. They’ve proven that employees will usually make good decisions when they are explicitly trusted to do the right thing for their customers.
An empowered retail employee might stay late if that’s what is necessary to help a customer seamlessly make a large purchase. She might also politely introduce the customer to another co-worker if the situation doesn’t warrant her personal attention. Allowing her to use her judgment rather than blindly following a rigid policy increases the chances that she’ll make a decision that the customer and the company are both happy with.
Many double agent problems occur when leaders become isolated from their customers and don’t fully understand their needs. When this happens, it becomes easier for leaders to unthinkingly implement a policy that creates double agents.
You can prevent this by staying connected to your customers and frontline employees.
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