Are Your Employees Serving You or Your Customers?

I had an unfortunate service experience recently involving Boston Coach, or more specifically, a Boston Coach affiliate.  Boston Coach is a car service known for its national network of premium taxi services.  I get tremendous value out of the service when I travel for work, as I often end up in unfamiliar cities at unfortunate hours.  Knowing that there’s someone responsible for me on the other end, someone who’s accountable for my safety and knows exactly where I’m going, reduces my anxiety (and my family’s) in dramatic ways.

But things can go wrong, as they can in any service, and as they did for me with a recent Boston Coach airport pick-up.  As I stood waiting for my driver, watching the clock tick by and watching every other traveler trickle out of the building, I had plenty of time to reflect on the service failure.  The question I asked myself was whether this was bad design or bad execution, was the employee delivering ineffectively on a good service model or was the model itself broken? By the end of the encounter, more than an hour later, I concluded that it was service failure by design.  This is usually the answer.

Boston Coach has trained me to expect a driver holding a sign with my name on it when I arrive at the location they designate (typically baggage claim or a specified waiting area for car services).  When I arrived exhausted in the Corpus Christi airport, there was no sign of a driver.  I called the company, who put me on hold for ten minutes as they tried to track down the affiliate.  Another thirty minutes later someone pulled up, unconcerned about my experience and defensive about my frustration, which made the subsequent ride painful.  It turns out the driver had followed her company’s instructions to the letter, and the fact that those policies delayed, agitated and disoriented me was not her problem.  I don’t blame the driver for the poor service.  She was clearly motivated by doing her job right, but somehow her managers had made it clear that she serves the company before its customers.

This is a choice that all service organizations must make.  Who is first on your employees’ list of priorities?  You or you customers?  In the absence of a clear choice, most employees will put the company first.  It’s just human nature.  The company signs their checks every month and doles out status and other rewards most directly. An exception is models such as high-end restaurant or concierge services where customers pay a large percentage of employees’ compensation.

If you’re not running a five-star restaurant and you really want your team to put customers first (not every company does or should), then it requires very deliberate operational choice-making and alignment.  This includes creating a culture of service that puts customers at the center of organizational life.  If service excellence is part of your strategy, then your employees must observe no meaningful difference between doing their job right and serving customers well.  And they must have the tools to deliver on that observation.  Your average employee must have the training, support, flexibility and incentives to deliver an outstanding service experience.

If you’ve designed a model like that and are still delivering bad service, then go ahead, blame your people.  But they’re typically the last place I look when diagnosing service failures.  Most employees are like my driver in Corpus Christi, earnestly doing the right thing and making your customers miserable along the way.


Below is the correspondence I received after the incident from Boston Coach headquarters.  In another post I’ll discuss what we’ve learned about responding to customer complaints.  For now, here is an illustration of what not to do:

I apologize for this inconvenience. I would like to offer you a voucher which would be good for $50 off of your next trip with BostonCoach. Please let me know if this is acceptable and I will email you the voucher as soon as possible.

2 Responses to Are Your Employees Serving You or Your Customers?

  1. Ken Bowen says:

    Your post reminded me of an encounter that occurred between a customer and a 19 year old Radio Shack Manager. The customer would not give the required “address and zip code” in order to complete the transaction but was more than willing to turn over his hard earned cash to purchase the product. The standstill continued until the customer reminded the manager that the manager was always going to be “expense” and the customer was always going to be “revenue”. At that point the manager input in his own zip code and completed the customer’s transaction. That was 8-10 years ago and neither I nor my staff has ever forgotten which side of the ledger we fall on during a service encounter (no matter what the policies happen to be at the time).

  2. Ric Waller says:

    The event you’ve described holds parallels to a recent situation we faced while servicing a national commercial account at Advance Auto Parts. In this case the shoe was on the other foot.

    As with most Sears Automotive centers, the store manager is assigned a corporate credit card which is in turn put in the POS system at Advance. Should something change with the strore manager (in this case the manager was placed on extended medical leave) the stores card is cancelled and a new card issued to the person substituting for the manager.

    We were called to send parts to Sears on Friday. The sale was declined. The Asst. manager contacted corporate and found out that the card had been cancelled. Why Sears cancelled the card before they got a replacement to the store is a good question but not germaine to the issue. The situation existed and needed to be handled. The Asst. Manager at the Sear’s store told us that he had an email from corporate telling him that the card would be at the store within 3 to 5 business days.

    The situation was presented to the store’s general manager, he was told the expected time frame to resolution and it was suggested that we “suspend” each transaction, make a hard copy print out showing the Sears purchase order number and get a signed hard copy returned to the store for each transaction. Yes, outside of company S.O.P. but offering a temporary solution to the problem until the situtation could be corrected. The store manager agreed and both the District Manager and Commercial Account Manager for our district were notified. Neither had a better solutuion to offer and agreed, reluctantly. The expectation was that the new card would be in hand by Tuesday.

    As it turned out, shipping delays found us going into Thursday afternoon working with the temporary fix. At this point, the district manager arrived at our store, quite incensed and informing both myself and the stores manager that our jobs were on the line and added that “every person in this store could be fired for this.” We were instructed to contact Sears and inform them that any further transactions were to be on a cash basis until the card situation was remedied. I made the call.

    Ironically, five minutes after the call to Sears, the Asst. Manager contacted me at the store and told me that he had been in touch with his corporate offices and they had gotten the earlier card re-instated. Within 20 minutes the previous four days transations had been run through and finalized. It seems that the Sears Asst. manager had been on the phone and making waves to get his suppliers paid the whole time and had finally been successful.

    The fact that we had been the only supplier to Sears that hadn’t pulled the “corporate policy” card and been the ones to offer a temporary solution ended up being a near doubling of sales for the period in question. Furthermore, as some may be aware. Sears corporate policy is to have Auto Zone as the stores “first call.” The Sears District Manager informed his store’s management that until further notice, Advance should be that store’s first call.

    Here’s the upshot to the story and the final analysis on the part of the people on the front lines.

    1.) Our actions helped to solidify and improve the relationship between Advance and our customer.

    2.) The customer needs were put first (at very slight risk to Advance) and increased sales became the final measure

    On the down side the whole thing could have un-wound had the store management not held fast and followed through, without questioning, the time frame as it was stated. While Sears had said they expected the card to be delivered on Tuesday, things happened. They were still within the agreed “3 to 5” working days. As it turned out the call to tell them that further transactions would be on a cash basis was the only mistake in the entire process.

    The lesson to be taught here is that company’s can and do set up situations whereby staying entirely within guidelines can cause lost sales. It certainly caused problems for our competition. Sales to this Sears have remained strong since this incident.

    Of course every corporation’s employees must adhere to policies and procedures. It is just as important that the same employees be listened to and occasionally offer deference to their judgement. There are exceptions to every rule, like it or not. The question that has to be asked is not only as the article states, “Do your employees serve you or your customers?” but moreover, when they, the employees are representing your customers, are you listening?

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