Article | 5 min read

Service standards don’t serve anyone

Last updated November 6, 2013

Many companies have customer service standards. There’s a standard way to say hello, a standard way to say goodbye, and a list of standard behaviors that must happen in between. All of this must take place within a standard amount of time.

The goal is to make service more consistent. The result is often the opposite.

Customer service standards have the potential to cause three problems. Employees can become inflexible, robotic, and even error-prone. Small adjustments must be made to avoid each type of problem.

Inflexible Service
Service standards that prescribe a one-size-fits-all approach can cause employees to become inflexible.

My local grocery store used to require cashiers to ask every customer if they’d like assistance carrying out their purchases. I once purchased a single pack of gum and the cashier dutifully asked, “Would you like help out with that today?” It turned out that the cashier was required to ask everyone if they needed assistance. She could get into trouble if her supervisor or a mystery shopper caught her failing to offer assistance, even in a situation like mine where the standard was clearly ridiculous.

Some inflexible standards waste time and make customers angry. It’s annoying when a technical support rep asks a customer to reboot their computer after the customer insists they’ve already done that. Most technical support representatives recognize this, but they also know they could get into trouble if they don’t explicitly follow the service standards.

If inflexibility causes the problem, flexibility can fix it. Broad guidelines can capture the spirit of what you’re asking employees to do while allowing them to adapt to each unique situation. For example, instead of prescribing a scripted greeting that must be used with every customer, companies can simply insist that employees provide each customer with a warm welcome.

An employee at my local hardware store once greeted me by saying, “What are you doing in here?!”

In this situation, the greeting was perfect. The employee had been helping me with a home project that had required several unexpected trips to the store. Each time he helped me, he wished me luck in completing the project. Upon seeing me yet again, he knew that I had hit another snag. His greeting let me know that he empathized with my situation.

Robotic Service
Service standards can cause employees to become robotic when there are so many that employees focus on checking all the boxes rather than delighting customers.

Here are a few real examples:

  • A restaurant has 17 standards servers must follow with every guest.
  • A credit union has 21 standards tellers must follow on every interaction.
  • A call center has 35 standards agents must adhere to on every call.

A list this long naturally causes problems. For instance, call center reps can nail every item on the call quality monitoring checklist while sounding like robots. They become so focused on meeting every requirement that they lose sight of important skills like communicating with a warm and enthusiastic tone.

The solution to this problem is to make the list of standards much shorter. The restaurant with 17 service standards studied their list to see which ones had the biggest impact on guest satisfaction. They cut the list in half by keeping the standards that really mattered while eliminating less important ones. The new list of standards made it much easier for servers to focus on making sure their guests had a wonderful experience.

Error-prone Service
Service standards can make employees error-prone when they emphasize speed over quality.

Last May, I presented a Zendesk webinar called Three Reasons Why Good People Provide Bad Service. The webinar detailed an email exchange with a customer service rep who responded very rapidly to my messages. Over three emails, the responses came in 14 minutes, 2 minutes, and 8 minutes respectively. The rep was so focused on responding quickly that they didn’t actually answer my question. My question should have been answered with one email, but it took three due to an excessive focus on speed.

Speed-based standards can even cause employees to intentionally provide bad service. Technical support teams often have standards that govern how quickly they must close support tickets. It’s not uncommon for employees to close tickets before a problem is resolved to ensure the standard is met. If the customer complains that they’re still experiencing the same issue, a new ticket is opened so the clock restarts.

Companies can overcome this challenge by setting standards based on outcomes rather than speed. One telecommunications provider recently eliminated its call center standard for average handle time; the average length of time that customer service reps should spend on each call. They re-focused their reps on solving customer problems on the first contact. The result was that first contact resolution improved while average handle time surprisingly stayed the same! That’s because reps still worked quickly, but now their focus was on quickly solving problems rather than quickly ending calls.

Two Simple Questions to Get Started
Setting service standards can be a mixture of both art and science. Here are two questions that can help you spot any potential problems:

  1. Does this standard encourage poor performance?
  2. Does this standard discourage good performance?

Ultimately, you want standards that are simple, clear, and help employees consistently deliver outstanding customer service without all the negative side-effects.

Watch Jeff’s webinar: Three hidden reasons why good people provide bad service

Our latest guest post was written by Jeff Toister author of Service Failure: The Real Reasons Employees Struggle with Customer Service and What You Can Do About It