An interesting dynamic occurs with certain customer service roles. Those charged with providing service to customers also have responsibilities that require they control the customer.
The customer-facing professional has authority and is expected to exercise it to maintain order, to maintain safety, and, in general, to maintain the smooth execution of operational processes.
Sometimes, however, those who have authority over customers forget that service is still their number one job.
I had an experience recently at a dog training class. I was walking with my dog to return something to one of the other dog owners, part of a muzzle that came off when their Doberman lunged at my dog.
When I approached the dog owners, they were speaking with one of the trainers. The trainer immediately barked at me, “I need you to move.”
I was trying to show her I had something in my hand. “I need you to move,” she yelled louder.
“I just want—”
“I need you to move,” she yelled, trying to sound even more commanding.
Now, I’m not sure if she wanted me to move because I was near the end of an obstacle the class was working on or because she didn’t want me to approach the dog that had just lunged at mine.
All I do know is that she confused how she talks to customers with how she talks to canines.
My wife usually attends these classes, so this was my first time, and it certainly did not leave a good impression of the company we’re spending our hard earned money with. Fortunately, there were a lot of trainers that I interacted with that day, and everyone else was really nice.
Does this type of experience sound familiar to you? I bet it does.
You’ve probably experienced something similar, if not at a dog training class, then on an airplane, with a security guard, or in any other environment where a team member not only has to serve customers but to direct customers as well.
There have been numerous famous experiments (though not all have been scientific) concerning how people respond when having authority or when subject to authority, from The Stanford Prison Experiment to the less known but infinitely more revealing The Third Wave, While generalizations in this area are tricky, it is safe to say that there are certain people who are heavily influenced by having authority.
We know that having power or authority makes people less empathethic; for a portion of the population, it makes them downright dictatorial.
In my own experience, I’ve observed that those who approach things in very absolute terms, those who see black and white and very little grey, are more prone to getting carried away with their authority.
They have a harder time understanding when people don’t follow the rules or their commands and tend to get more rigid when they think their authority is being challenged. Again, this is a personal observation, not established research.
When we look at many of the viral news stories about airplane passengers and airline staff members in the past 12 months, we can see this dynamic at play. We see it happen with police officers, security guards, and, of course, organizational leaders.
A certain percentage of people in roles of authority will default to directives over cooperation.
Of course, in many of these cases, an exercise of authority is needed. Blunt directives must be given; noncompliance must be addressed.
The challenge is when those with authority default to these positions early in interactions, who begin interactions or counter even the most mild forms of noncompliance with directives instead of courtesy.Sometimes those with authority over customers default to exercising power instead of serving customers. Click To Tweet
There’s a way to use authority. There’s way to use people skills to give directives. And there’s even a professional way to move past soft approaches when needed.
When customer experience can really be degraded is when directives and orders are the first thing out of the toolbox, when they are the default position. Like my experience at the dog park, I approached, and I had an order barked at me right out of the gate. No buildup. No escalation.
It is crucial to remember we will never create Hero-Class® experiences by ordering or directing our customers to do anything. Even when it is necessary to use a firm hand, because safety or some other priority needs to take precedent over the customer’s feelings, the exercise of power should always be a last resort and should be done as professionally and calmly as possible.
One of the big lessons we teach frontline teams in our customer service training is to let customers feel in control. Even when you need to maintain control, it should always be your goal when working with customers to let them feel as if they are in control. If things escalate, do what you have to do. But don’t start there.
If you’re customer-facing and have an “authority job”, beware of any tendency to be directive or to “give orders” to customers.
If you’re a leader and are in an industry where your teams have directive power over customers, get them the training they need to know how to treat customers both in everyday interactions and on the rare occasions when they need to exert some authority.
More importantly, keep an eye out for those on your team who have strong authoritarian approaches with customers; they may need to start being the alpha dog at some other dog park.
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.