Customer Service Mistake #5

This is the fifth in a series of five posts in response to a client's question; "From your observations and consulting work, what do you think are the top customer service mistakes companies make?"

Mistake #5 - Tolerating poor service performance from employees at any level within the organization.

Companies allow poor performers to stay on the job for many reasons. First of all, if you fire them, you have to go through the hassle of hiring someone else. It's easier to just ignore the problem. Second, some managers just don't know about the poor performance. They're not out there interacting with customers or their employees. They're busy with other "important" things. Third (and this excuse is most prevalent), many managers think service performance is subjective, that it's hard to accurately measure.

World-class service organizations don't accept these excuses for letting poor (or even mediocre) service continue. They see the hassle of having to fill the slot vacated by the poor performer as preferable to the hassle of losing customers because of poor service. World-class organizations expect managers to know what's going on and to coach employees who may not be living up to the company's service standards. And world-class organizations recognize that while there is certainly some subjectivity in judging service performance, that's not a valid excuse for ignoring problems. I often ask leaders if there is someone in their organization they would love to clone, and if there is someone they would be thrilled to have turn in his or her resignation. The answer is always an immediate "yes." We know how to measure performance. We just need to be willing to address problems immediately, document outcomes, and hold people accountable for improvement.

Holding on to poor performers hurts our credibility as leaders. When I had to let somebody go as a manager at Disney World, I would lose sleep and agonize over it. Not only was I thinking about the person I was going to fire, but I also worried about the morale of the other employees. But, most of the time, when I finally did fire that employee, the others thanked me and asked why I had hung onto to the person for so long. Tolerating poor performance is good for no one.

There are five areas of accountability that have the greatest impact on service performance:


Whenever you see opportunities for improvement for an employee, take the time to coach. Word will spread faster than you can imagine if you do this consistently. If, for example, you notice an employee displaying negative physical posture or using a bored tone of voice on the telephone, taking a moment to correct the behavior and stressing why it is important to present a welcoming image is more effective in changing behavior than any training program. The immediacy of the feedback is the key (while remembering the old adage, "praise in public, coach in private).

When I was a relatively new supervisor at Walt Disney World, I received a call to meet then Walt Disney World Vice President Bob Matheison at a specific location on Main Street USA (such a call was rarely good news). As I walked up to Bob I saw him staring at one of the merchandise shops. "What do you see?" he asked.  I saw that a small pane of glass had been replaced, and that the installer had neglected to take the protective paper backing off of the glass. Although I did not install the glass, it was my job as supervisor to make sure that Main Street USA was "show ready" by the time the guests arrived. I missed this particular item. Bob talked about all of the effort Disney goes through to theme the show and that the "visual intrusion" I had missed compromised the show. It was a powerful coaching moment for me.

Peformance Appraisals

Preparing and delivering employee performance appraisals can be challenging, and the process is not usually a favorite leadership responsibility. But when done well, the employee performance appraisal can be a key tool in raising the bar of customer service. The problem I see most often is that the appraisal forms used in many organizations contain little or no reference to customer service.

Take a look at the performance appraisal forms used in your organization. Is service excellence merely a single rating point amongst thirty items, or is it clear that service is a priority? Do your forms for leadership appraisals require leaders to set specific service objectives for their areas of responsibility?

The forms, of course, are just pieces of paper. Leaders must be trained on how to conduct an effective performance appraisal in order for them to have the powerful impact they should have. It's not easy to deliver an effective appraisal, but it's vitally important.

Job Descriptions

Like the performance appraisal process, all job descriptions must evolve to significantly reflect the critical elements of the service improvement effort. Management job descriptions must reflect expectations regarding leading a service-driven organization. I'm not talking about a casual mention of service. It must be clear from reading your organization's job descriptions that service excellence is a core expectation. Reviewing and changing job descriptions is mind-numbing work. Few organizations are willing to do it. Only those organizations willing to make a long-term commitment to service excellence will take on such an effort.


Who is moving ahead in your organization? There is probably no single decision that more clearly communicates what an organization values than deciding who gets promoted. It is one thing to say that those employees who live the values of the company are the ones who will move ahead. It is something else to ensure that "living the values" is truly a part of the promotion decision.

There are, of course, many factors that go into a promotion decision. If, however, being a customer service role model isn't ingrained in the process, you are leaving to chance a powerful factor in developing and sustaining a culture of service excellence. In your company, what is the process for selecting individuals for promotion? Is it a carefully orchestrated process that ensures that those with the right mix of talents and skills are promoted, or is it a process that relies on contacts and connections? Instituting a rigorous system for succession planning is difficult, but it is another action that separates those companies that are truly committed to service excellence from those that simply want a quick fix.


Although this post is about not tolerating poor service performance, I would be remiss not to mention the importance of acknowledging excellent service performance by employees.

Organizations are always on the lookout for the reward/recognition program that will maximize employee performance. While these programs can be effective, it is important to know that a program can never take the place of a sincere thank you from the boss. If you want employees to exceed the expectations of your customers, it is vital that you recognize them when they perform in a manner that exceeds expectations. If you want employees to perform in a manner consistent with your service standards, it is vital that you notice when they do so and recognize their performance. There is a very real behavioral phenomenon called "extinction." This occurs when we ignore performance of a desired behavior. If you desire responsiveness from employees, yet ignore them when they demonstrate excellent responsiveness, the behavior will eventually become extinct and performance will revert to previous levels (not necessarily bad, but not at the desired, higher level).

Studies have demonstrated that recognition has its greatest impact when it takes place immediately after the behavior. When employees do something special for a customer (external or internal), their emotions are elevated because they know they did something good. If the leader recognizes the employee while the emotion is still high, it dramatically increases the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated. The more time that passes, the less impact the recognition will have (although it may still be appreciated). The point is, don't lose the magic of the moment when it comes to recognizing performance.

Concluding Comments

In previous blog posts I've mentioned my favorite leadership quote; but I think it bears repeating:

"Intolerable service exists when intolerable service is tolerated."

If I had to pinpoint the number one reason many service improvement initiatives fail to achieve the desired objectives, it's due to a lack of accountability. While the whole subject of holding people accountable has kind of a "controlling" ring to it, in reality a culture of accountability is liberating. When I know exactly what I'm held accountable for, I can focus my attention on what really matters and know how I'm doing. When accountability is unclear or non-existent, I'll either make it up as I go along or do everything I can to stay off the radar screen. And both of those options are uncomfortable and limiting.

To avoid Customer Service Mistake #5, make sure that poor service performance is not tolerated.