What Customer Service And Prostitution Have In Common

On one spring morning, I had 2 very upset employees in my office, they were both in tears, one was a great frontline customer service rep and the other was her manager. I couldn’t make out much of what she was saying but I heard enough to understand a customer called her an F'ing B*$%! I did my best to console them and assured them I was on the case. Within minutes I was listening to the recordings from the interactions - there was no polishing this turd. This was a really bad call, she was a saint but the customer was relentless. Let's just say my already expansive profanity dictionary expanded by a few words. Apparently there were also a  half dozen similar unreported calls from this customer that were just as inflammatory sitting on our servers. I quickly reached out to my bosses wanting a rubber-stamp to end this customer relationship. They wanted the customer profile, and turns out he was a pretty big account. With the almighty dollar guiding our thinking, we took a left turn on rationalization street. We had come to the cowardly conclusion that the occasional customer abuse was par for the course, and a little dusting of yelling, sprinkled with mild profanity is fine for all customer service employees.  We did however decide there was a line though, and like in prostitution we used financial compensation to draw that line. So we concluded we definitely don’t pay our frontline employees enough to be called an F$%&ing B&$#! So we established that those calls should be immediately sent on to the supervisors and managers (they were paid more) - we rationalized that since we paid them more they should handle it.  So just like that we had a new policy for handling abusive customers that effectively said “everyone in customer service is a prostitute, the higher you earn the more smacking around you should be able to tolerate."  

It is very common for senior leaders to patronize people in customer service by saying they have hard jobs that are invaluable but do little to make their overall experience. I, for one, was a terrible advocate for those ladies.  I folded like a cheap lawn chair as soon as I got push back. I chose to not buck the system - I was worried about myself interests instead of standing up for them.

The truth is, you can not be customer centric without being employee centric. This is not semantic, the formula is employees first, customer second. Companies like Amex, Southwest Airlines, Virgin and Disney have been utilizing this guiding principle to delight customers for years. The firing of abusive or otherwise bad customers is table stakes and simply good business.  The bar should be to put your employees first, even before customers. Here are three reasons why you should commit to putting employees first:

1. Increase employee loyalty. Customer facing teams are notorious for their high turnover. In fact, many call centers have annualized attrition rates of over 100%! There are many factors at play but it certainly doesn’t help when employees do not feel treated well, supported and advocated for by their leaders.  More often than not, they will flee after they are burned out or in search of greener pastures.

2. Increase employee engagement. It goes without saying that engaged employees deliver better outcomes for companies. One of the biggest drivers of disengagement is employees feeling that they are not supported and advocated for by their leaders. Changing your culture so that every leader is hyper focused on taking care of your people will do wonders for engagement.

3. Improve customer loyalty. Companies like Costco & Southwest Airlines have embraced this line of thinking for years and for their efforts Costco employees generate twice the sales of Sam's Club.  Southwest Airlines continues to reign as the number one domestic airline in the country.

In one of my favorite scenes from Mad Men, an employee asks her manager  (Don Draper) for recognition and praise, he responds with "that's what the money is for." Commoditizing your employees or treating them like prostitutes is an obvious loser, but I will go a step further by saying prioritizing profits over your customer experience is also a mistake. Long term Profits are a by product of delivering a great experience for your most important customer -  your employees.

Join the conversation by following me on twitter: @amastenumah #experiencefirst

Sign up for my Monthly Newsletter