The Business Case for Keeping Your Customer Service Employees Happy

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There are many benefits to looking after your support team. Here are the biggest ones.

It’s easy to slap “we love our customers” on your website.

It’s easy to squeeze “we appreciate your business” into your email footers.

It’s easy to say “we care about great customer service.”

But it’s a lot less easy to actually deliver on those promises.

That takes smart customer service strategy, effective training, the right tools, and yes, employees who are excited to go to work and who *want *to deliver great support.

And that means that if you want to keep your customers happy, you should start by keeping your team happy.

Happier Employees Deliver Better Customer Service

Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.

Sure, quotes like Richard Branson’s sound nice, but are they actually grounded in fact, or just crafted to be quotable?

Well, as it turns out, there is research to back them up.

One study published in the Journal of Service Research asked employees from more than 300 locations of a large retailer, each with between 40 and 60 employees, to rate their job satisfaction across elements like general workplace atmosphere, working conditions, team cohesion, and their bosses’ behavior.

When looking at those numbers in the context of data from customers and franchise owners, the researchers found that improving employee happiness doesn’t just increase customer satisfaction, but it also nearly doubles the customer’s plans to purchase again at that store.

Now, of course it makes sense in hindsight: we all remember the stores and business’ where we’ve had particularly positive experiences with happy employees.

But it’s also easy to forget in our own businesses, which is why it’s so important to keep employee experience front and center.

How to Keep Your Employees Happy and Make Customer Service Fun

You can’t expect your employees to exceed the expectations of your customers if you don’t exceed the employee’s expectations of management.

Keeping your support team happy isn’t as simple as installing ping pong tables or shorter summer hours.

It takes real commitment from the top down.

You need, on the highest possible level at your company, to make it very, very clear how much you value excellent customer service.

A killer customer support team starts with the top-down organizational belief that what they do is absolutely vital to the survival and success of the business.

If that’s not the case right now, don’t worry. Culture change is hard (which is why 81% of culture change initiatives fail), but not impossible, and by using the steps below, you can make culture changes that stick.

1) It Starts With Why

If a manager sent this email to her team, how would the employees feel?

Confused about how this actually helps the company?

Annoyed at the extra work they now need to do?

Demoralized at having changes mandated without their input?

Yes, yes and yes.

If you want a culture change to fail — either because it doesn’t get adhered to or because it makes your employees unhappy — then simply mandate it and do nothing else. Click To Tweet

But if you want to build lasting change, everyone involved must understand why it’s in their best interest.

There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.

What’s more inspiring, the manager’s mandate at the beginning of this section, or a call to action that starts with why?

Longer explanation why people need to take part in customer service provides more background and makes it easier to understand the context

Getting your team eagerly bought into culture shift is the first step to lasting change.

2) Engage Your Team

In The Lenovo Way, authors Gina Qiao and Yolanda Conyers describe how Lenovo needed to make a big culture change in the late 90s.

The Chinese company had big plans to turn itself into a massive global business. One of the things standing in its way, executives believed, was the company’s strict Chinese corporate culture.

Employees at Lenovo’s headquarters referred to CEO Yang Yuanqing as “Chief Executive Officer Yang.”

Formalities like that simply wouldn’t work if the company wanted to open offices in places like Europe and North America (the “why” for a culture change), and Yang knew that.

But instead of just creating a policy to try and relax the company’s culture — a move that would’ve been sure to fail — Yang dove in and engaged his team.

For two weeks, Yang and other top executives stood in the lobby of Lenovo’s HQ, holding signs with their first names written on them.

They shook hands with employees and casually introduced themselves.

At first, many employees were afraid to address the execs without using their formal titles, fearing that it might sound disrespectful.

But sure enough, after a short time — once Yang began jokingly threatening to fire employees who called him “Chief Executive Officer” — the change took.

Since then, Lenovo has become the world’s biggest PC maker, and Yang — or “YY,” as his employees now call him — has been hailed as one of the most impressive turnaround CEO’s in the industry.

YY isn’t the only proof that employee engagement makes culture change possible. When Gallup studied change management, they found that managers in the top quartile — those most successful in managing organizational change — engaged 77% of their employees, on average. On the other end of the spectrum, managers in the bottom quartile engaged only 1% of their employees on average, and 54% of their employees were actively disengaged.

No matter how hard an organization’s leaders advocate for change when more than half of the employees on a given team refuse to participate, it’s unlikely that change will happen.

If you want to make change happen, your team has to see it happen from the top down.

3) Take Baby Steps

Just like a couch potato probably won’t succeed by committing to exercise every single day, a company that tries to make humongous culture shifts at once is setting itself up for disappointment.

As author and business consultant Robert H. Schaffer suggests in the Harvard Business Review, start small.

We’ve found that managers get better results when they start with a few smaller successes, which then provide a basis for expanding. Start with one problem — or a few. Get some people to plan a couple of modest experiments to make progress on that issue, with guidance on the kinds of innovation you’d like to see. Build in some learning on the cultural issues that need to change. Try it out. Pay careful attention to what works and how. Incorporate the successful ideas into subsequent steps.

By starting small, your team can get a taste of the benefits of the culture change you’re trying to make with minimal effort.

Once you’re reaping the rewards of your small change, your team will be more motivated to work towards larger changes.

In the case of building a culture of support, here are a few examples of baby steps that you can start with:

Five baby steps that can help you build a culture of customer service

    1. Everyone responds to a single customer support ticket each day… or even each week. If your company is larger, then reduce this to one person from each department.
    2. Add this simple question to your project planning sessions: “How does this help our customers succeed?”
    3. Commit to doing a single Net Promoter Score survey. Once you see the results, you’ll be inspired to act on them.
    4. Wow just one customer each week. Send a handwritten note, treat or other small customer gift.
    5. Try incorporating one of the essential customer service phrases that you’re not already using into your support vocabulary. Gradually add the others.

4) Empower Your Employees

Your customer support team only has as much power as you give them.

At Ritz-Carlton Hotels, each employee is given a $2,000 budget to make any single guest happy. Let me repeat: that budget is PER GUEST.

How’s that for empowerment?

Now, a $2,000 allowance to make things right for a guest sounds like a lot.

And it is.

Piles of cash

But here’s the thing: the average Ritz-Carlton customer will spend nearly $250,000 with the business over their lifetime.

In that context, $2,000 is actually not that significant.

Relating this to your own business, that’s why it’s so, so important to know what your customers are worth to you, and to always be thinking about ways you can add more value to drive customer lifetime value higher.

The higher your CLV gets, the bigger the meaningful commitment you can make to making them happy when things go wrong.

But let’s dig even deeper into the Ritz-Carlton example, and what it can teach us about empowering our support teams.

That $2,000 number isn’t just a budget. In fact, that entire amount is rarely used.

But the freedom that a number so large signifies to the support team shows that the brand trusts them to make the right decision; and that the right decision is to do whatever it takes to make the guest happy.

We entrust every single Ritz-Carlton staff member, without approval from their general manager, to spend up to $2,000 on a guest. And that’s not per year. It’s per incident. When you say up to $2,000, suddenly somebody says, wow, this isn’t just about rebating a movie because your room was late, this is a really meaningful amount. It doesn’t get used much, but it displays a deep trust in our staff’s judgment. Frankly, they could go over that amount, with the general manager’s permission.

The concept is to do something, to create an absolutely wonderful stay for a guest. Significantly, there is no assumption that it’s because there is a problem. It could be that someone finds out it’s a guest’s birthday, and the next thing you know there’s champagne and cake in the room. A lot of the stuff that crosses my desk is not that they overcame a problem but that they used their $2,000 to create an outstanding experience.

There are stories about hiring a carpenter to build a shoe tree for a guest; a laundry manager who couldn’t get the stain out of a dress after trying twice flying up from Puerto Rico to New York to return the dress personally; or when in Dubai a waiter overheard a gentleman musing with his wife, who was in a wheelchair, that it was a shame he couldn’t get her down to the beach. The waiter told maintenance, who passed word, and the next afternoon there was a wooden walkway down the beach to a tent that was set up for them to have dinner in. That’s not out of the ordinary, and the general manager didn’t know about it until it was built.

Simon Cooper, Former President of the Ritz-Carlton Company

5) Invest In Improvement

Look, it’s no secret anymore that even small improvements in your business’ customer service can lead to big gains in growth.

For example, a 2011 Oracle survey found that 86% of customers would pay more for better customer experience.

A 2011 Oracle survey found that 86% of customers would pay more for better customer experience.

And similarly, a Bain & Company study suggests that businesses that grow their customer retention rates (which great customer service can absolutely do) by as little as 5% typically see profit increases ranging from 25% to 95%.

With those kinds of potential returns, why wouldn’t you invest in your customer service assets?

The three best ways to invest in your support teams’ growth?

  1. Training: Check this post out for 5 great support training exercises your team can do today
  2. Tools: The right tools can help your team work faster and have more fun doing it. Here are our favorite customer service tools.
  3. Culture: Make sure you’re putting in the time and resources to build your company’s culture and make your team feel aligned and excited about the bigger mission that they’re a part of. This is how we’ve built our culture at Groove.

6) Know How To Motivate

Nurturing your team’s motivation is tremendously important, especially when their job means daily encounters with difficult situations.

Here are three tested and proven ways to keep your support team happy (and happy to work hard):

a) Appreciation

Glassdoor, a career site, asked more than 2,000 people about what motivates them to work harder.

The leading answer?

Appreciation. In fact, appreciation was cited more than twice as often as the second most common response.

81 percent of employees said that they’re motivated to work harder when their boss shows appreciation for their work.

What motivates people to work harder: 81% say appreciation, 38% a demanding boss, 37% fear of losing job

And while we might think we’d work harder if we were more appreciated, is it actually true?

Another study suggests that the answer is absolutely.

In 2010, researchers from the Universities of Pennsylvania and North Carolina set out to study the impact of gratitude on people’s behavior.

Participants were asked to give feedback on a fictional student’s (“Eric”) cover letter.

After the feedback was received, the participants got a reply asking for feedback on a second cover letter.

Half of the participants got a straight, to-the-point email with the second request, while the other half got an email expressing gratitude for completing the first review.

The results?

32% of the “No Gratitude” group provided feedback on the second cover letter, while 66% of the “Gratitude” group sent more feedback.

Gratitude more than doubled the response rate.

Gratitude and appreciation don’t just feel good; they can motivate your employees to perform.

b) Foster (Friendly) Competition

When used properly, competition can deliver tremendous results for a team’s performance.

To see what I mean, check out this story about steel magnate Charles Schwab motivated his employees (excerpted from Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People).

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

Charles Schwab had a mill manager whose people weren’t producing their quota of work.

“How is it,” Schwab asked him, “that a manager as capable as you can’t make this mill turn out what it should?”

“I don’t know,” the manager replied. “I’ve coaxed the men, I’ve pushed them, I’ve sworn and cussed, I’ve threatened them with damnation and being fired. But nothing works. They just won’t produce.”

This conversation took place at the end of the day, just before the night shift came on.

Schwab asked the manager for a piece of chalk, then, turning to the nearest man, asked: “How many heats did your shift make today?”


Without another word, Schwab chalked a big figure six on the floor and walked away.

When the night shift came in, they saw the “6” and asked what it meant.

“The big boss was in here today,” the day people said. “He asked us how many heats we made, and we told him six. He chalked it down on the floor.”

The next morning Schwab walked through the mill again. The night shift had rubbed out “6” and replaced it with a big “7.”

When the day shift reported for work the next morning, they saw a big “7” chalked on the floor. So the night shift thought they were better than the day shift did they? Well, they would show the night shift a thing or two. The crew pitched in with enthusiasm, and when they quit that night, they left behind them an enormous, swaggering “10.” Things were stepping up.

Shortly this mill, which had been lagging way behind in production, was turning out more work than any other mill in the plant.

One important takeaway for managers that’s not to be missed: note Schwab’s tact. He didn’t set a new production quota (which can actually demotivate employees), or tell the team that their jobs depended on how they performed compared to their peers.

He simply set the stage for some friendly competition, and let human nature take over and do the rest.

c) Get Your Hands Dirty

Customer service is not an easy job.

But it’s an absolutely essential part of your business and one that can make or break the way your customers feel about you.

Want to motivate your support team and get deep insights about your customer experience?

Get your hands dirty and spend time on the front lines.

Many companies, including Zappos, Amazon, Craigslist and Rackspace practice “everyone does support,” a model that calls on all employees to spend time responding to support tickets and engaging with customers.

You’ll not only get a better appreciation for what your customer service team does — and build a better relationship with your support employees — but you’ll get potentially business-changing insights about your product that you’d never get from hearing customer concerns second-hand.

We all benefit from being in touch with customers. For example, as an engineer, it can be very powerful to see first-hand a customer struggling with a bug.

Keeping Your Team Happy Is a Long-Term Effort

Creating a great employee experience isn’t an action that you do once; it’s an approach to running your business that seeps into every decision that you make.

But I hope that today’s post has convinced you that it’s an important thing to do.

Start with one or two of the steps above, and begin to make small changes. You’ll be amazed at the big difference it makes over time.

Your team and your customers will appreciate it.

Len Markidan
Len Markidan Len used to head up marketing at Groove. Though he has now moved on to other adventures, he still likes popping in and saying hi every now and then.