It’s Not Poor Customer Service, It’s Silence that Costs You


I used to share a poem at the beginning of some of my speeches. I won’t tell you what it was out of respect for its author. I loved the poem. I felt that my recitation of it was a big hit. I thought it was clever, funny, and relevant to my topic. Apparently, I was alone in my opinion. After sharing it in over one hundred speeches, someone finally corrected my thinking. In that short, crucial conversation, my colleague suggested I leave poetry to poets. I did, but cringed for weeks as I reflected on dozens of experiences when I had been filled with glee while thousands of others were exercising tolerance.

My feeling of embarrassment around this poem—mixed with gratitude for the colleague who finally leveled with me—could be compared to the emotions felt by a service industry employee. An employee who, maybe even absentmindedly, is giving less-than-ideal customer service and has no idea how he or she is coming across to the customer. Until his or her coworker speaks up.

Our VitalSmarts research team just finished a study about customer service that suggests far more of us ought to be feeling embarrassed for our organizations. We asked participants how often incidents occur when someone witnesses an employee underserving, or even abusing, a customer. Then we asked, “What happens?” In your organization, does the employee go on delivering their terrible poem? Or does someone speak up?

I thought of this study as I boarded a discount airline flight. I paid an extra $50 for a “premium” seat, selected palatial 11C with four inches of extra legroom, and pulled the lever, anticipating being lavished with five degrees of recline. Instead, I dropped fully backward into the lap of the man behind me. As the flight attendant passed me she said, “Oh yeah, that seat’s been busted for a long time.” No apology. No offer to find me another seat or make up for it in some other way. Rather, I suffered the torture of zero recline for the next two hours.

How many broken seats and bad poets undermine service in your organization? And how long do the problems persist because those who witness them say or do nothing?

Our study showed that each employee who witnesses bad customer service, but fails to speak up, costs the company an average of $54,511 per year. We also found that organizations can recoup those costs by creating a culture where employees feel empowered to speak up and confront incidents of poor service—even if it’s up the chain of command!

Shockingly, only seven percent of employees can be counted on to speak up when witnessing an incident of poor customer service—despite the fact that 66 percent of us say we are capable of solving the customer’s problem.

Additionally, we found that:

• A typical employee witnesses 19 poor customer-service incidents per year.
• Together, those incidents result in a 17 percent drop in revenue annually per customer.
• Poor service negatively affects the business a customer does with a company by 50 percent or more! This is the case for 75 percent of business-to-consumer (B2C) customers and 42 percent of business-to-business (B2B) customers.

We’re facing a ‘crisis of silence’ in the corporate world; people simply don’t hold others accountable for their actions. Our research over the years shows how silence affects costs, quality, engagement, productivity, safety, and now customer service. The key to creating distinguishing customer service is to create a culture where anyone can speak up to anyone about our ability to serve the customer.

Leaders must set the example. They must make it safe for people to hold these uncomfortable conversations. Otherwise employees tend to assume leaders’ egos are of higher value than the company mission.

I got my dose of feedback seconds after soliciting it. The colleague and I were at lunch. I said—almost offhandedly—“So, is there anything I can do to improve my presentations?” After an awkward pause she said, “Well, there is this one thing you do . . .”

It’s hard to calculate how much customer goodwill VitalSmarts gained because of that one conversation. Sure, I felt a bit of embarrassment. But what I received in return was well worth those few minutes of discomfort.

Join my friend and coauthor David Maxfield to learn some powerful tactics and skills that will help you create a culture that truly puts the customer first and ends the crisis of silence.