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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.


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16 thoughts on “It’s Not Poor Customer Service, It’s Silence that Costs You”

  1. Carole Evans

    I am a Supervisor in a Contact Center where we file insurance claims for cell phones. As Supervisors, we strive to make sure our team is giving the best customer service possible. There are times that we struggle when addressing the same behavior repeatedly. This was a great reminder of the cost that we live with, when behaviors are ignored or the accountability piece that was set in place was never followed up on. Thank you!

    1. josephgrenny

      Glad it was of use to you, Carole!

  2. Melanie Gao

    I think a lot of can relate to that thing we do that we think is brilliant, and it turns out the people around us have a very different opinion. But here’s the thing. Asking for feedback was a brilliant move. It’s those types of behaviors that shape people’s perceptions of us, much more than the stories we tell or the poems we share. So kudos for asking and for being open to feedback.

  3. Dawn Baker

    Now I want to hear the poem!

    1. josephgrenny

      You asked for it!


      “What does Reincarnation mean?”
      A cowpoke asked his friend.
      His pal replied, “It happens when
      Yer life has reached its end.
      They comb yer hair, and warsh yer neck,
      And clean yer fingernails,
      And lay you in a padded box
      Away from life’s travails.”

      “The box and you goes in a hole,
      That’s been dug into the ground.
      Reincarnation starts in when
      Yore planted ‘neath a mound.
      Them clods melt down, just like yer box,
      And you who is inside.
      And then yore just beginnin’ on
      Yer transformation ride.”

      “In a while, the grass’ll grow
      Upon yer rendered mound.
      Till some day on yer moldered grave
      A lonely flower is found.
      And say a hoss should wander by
      And graze upon this flower
      That once wuz you, but now’s become
      Yer vegetative bower.”

      “The posy that the hoss done ate
      Up, with his other feed,
      Makes bone, and fat, and muscle
      Essential to the steed,
      But some is left that he can’t use
      And so it passes through,
      And finally lays upon the ground
      This thing, that once wuz you.”

      “Then say, by chance, I wanders by
      And sees this upon the ground,
      And I ponders, and I wonders at,
      This object that I found.
      I thinks of reincarnation,
      Of life and death, and such,
      And come away concludin’: ‘Slim,
      You ain’t changed, all that much.'”

  4. Get it Right

    Good subject, but a few of the background stories were too trite. Maybe the humor didn’t catch me right: “suffered the torture of zero recline”? Really. And how does one get to an exact number of $54,511 across a broad swath of industries (or was this one study for company – didn’t say)? While the general message was helpful, the delivery discouraged taking it seriously – sort of like the poem thing repeating itself.

    1. josephgrenny

      Fair questions – the number is admittedly soft as it was the estimate of those who witnessed the service failures. From my perspective the reliable message is: “There is a cost to this silence.”

  5. SAS

    I value companies that provide good customer service. Unfortunately, I think their profits drive poor customer service. Discount airlines are taking off for a reason – people still use them despite the poor service / extra fees. Look at the electronics we buy (routers, PC, etc) where the customer service is so poor. People still support them. So I try to support companies (e.g. Minitab) that still provide good customer service, but there aren’t many left.

  6. K.C.

    Good article, but as someone who has worked in customer service I would like to address another side of the issue. When the seat fell back and the attendant said it had been broken “for quite a while” that means that a problem existed without being taken care of. If you work in the front lines and have to deal with problems that never get fixed you begin to feel that management doesn’t care. I have worked with service employees for years and have found the majority to be friendly, helpful, and courteous. I have seen the best workers slowly sour from a lack of support. Did you stop to ask her if the seat had been reported to maintenance? I’m sure she could have told you about the instances where nothing gets taken care of. I’m not saying that she is right in projecting that attitude but there are certainly more issues involved to look at.

  7. quinbert

    I appreciate good customer service as much as the next guy but working as a project manager where I have to interact with people affected by the projects I handle, I wonder – a lot actually! – if we’re creating the customer service nightmares (i.e., entitled customers) by focusing (almost obsessively!) on customer service! Having managed hundreds of projects over the past 14 years, I can – without hesitation – tell you that the customer is NOT always right! I have fielded countless outrageous “customer service” complaints from people who feel they have been cheated or wronged in the slightest degree. Then, if I don’t handle their complaints the way they think I should, it goes up the ladder to those who still believe that the customer is always right. I’m so thin from being thrown under the bus that I’m becoming transparent!

  8. David Maxfield

    These are great comments. As a co-author of this study, I can shine some light on some of the issues raised. First, I’ll suggest that not every co-worker is as interested in getting “helpful feedback” as Joseph is. Some of what we’re seeing in the data is a need to hold co-workers accountable when we see them deliver substandard customer service.
    We work a lot in the workplace safety arena, where a common phrase is, “It was an accident waiting to happen.” This phrase implies that people saw the unsafe situation, and either didn’t speak up or didn’t get others to listen and act.
    I think of these customer-service issues as “Antagonists Waiting to Happen”–people see poor customer service, and either fail to speak up or fail to get others to listen and act.
    David Maxfield

  9. Gladys

    I keyed in on the managers making it safe to have the crucial converstations with peers and with managers about customer service. I have worked with a few companies that encouraged this and a lot that actively punished the person who reported issues. Unfortunately when the job market is flush with people looking for jobs, it becomes harder for upper level managers to make it safe when middle level managers make veiled threats to employees who report issues like poor customer service.

  10. GG

    I think several have missed the point….it’s about taking personal responsibility for delivering the service – not blaming someone else. And very good thing you don’t use that poem anymore!

  11. David Bigelow

    We are seeing the fallout of a no absolutes, anything goes indoctrination in our schools. Most people today have the concept that everyone’s rules of conduct are okay for himself, but not to be imposed on anyone else. Hence, people keep silent.

  12. Irene K.

    You didn’t ask for another seat or contact the airline for a refund? I would have been livid, and after apologizing to the man whose knees I bruised, would have taken it several levels up if necessary.

    One of the reasons, I’m sure, that the seat had been “busted for quite a long time” is because no one was held accountable.

    A very important part of customer service is the customer himself. If the customer does not follow through and expect the company to be held accountable for issues that go unaddressed, then it’s the customer who must take the blame for the company maintaining the status quo.

    PS – Dude. The poem was, um, *tedious* at best!

  13. From the Desk of Brady – January 2016 – A Bad Experience and No Response! | BeMobile Blog

    […] can be worse than the bad experience itself (the article by Joseph Granny of Vital Smarts is linked here if you would like to read it).  The article resonated with me as I recently had one of the worst […]

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