“Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” — Maya Angelou
Courage is an essential prerequisite for outstanding customer service. I’m not talking about employees having the courage to go against company policy and do the right thing for customers—which is worth celebrating. There are plenty of horror stories about employees doing the right thing according to company policy while infuriating clients in the process. We all have stories to tell about receiving poor customer service.
One of my moments of truth was with JetBlue several years ago when I was trying to get home from New York to the Bay Area late on a Friday night. I flew cross country on JetBlue two or three times a month and knew all the crew members on the red-eye by name. They’d always treated me well. I had a reservation for a Saturday morning return flight and had made it out to JFK through a heavy snowfall to try to get on the last evening flight back. There were dozens of empty seats on the plane because many travelers had been stuck in Manhattan by the snow. JetBlue wouldn’t put me on the Friday night plane without me paying an extra $100 because I wasn’t flying on the same day. I went up their customer service hierarchy in person and over the phone as far as I could go and no one was willing to authorize putting me on the flight without the surcharge, despite the fact that the Saturday morning flight was likely to be overbooked because of all the passengers who couldn’t catch the last Friday night flight. I’ve never flown JetBlue again and haven’t hesitated to share my customer service horror story. My frustration was not with JetBlue following company policy—it was with them applying their policy in a way that didn’t make business sense.
We also all have stories to share about employees doing the right thing and helping clients even if it is against company policy. Those individual acts of courage are like points of light in a dark sky. They’re more frequent than we might admit and many front line employees are willing to contravene company policy, follow common sense and practice outstanding customer service.
However, the true act of courage should be practiced by members of senior management who need to have the courage to empower their employees to do the right thing. Too many executives are unwilling to trust front line employees and allow customer-facing team members to be fenced in by layers of bureaucracy and inflexible systems. If you treat employees like mushrooms you’re more likely to get toadstools than truffles. Treating front line employees with dignity, trusting their judgment and empowering them to do the right thing for customers is more likely to lead to employees living up to high expectations—and to delighted customers.
It’s not enough to pay lip service to such a policy of empowerment from the top. It takes a diligent executive effort to counteract bureaucratic inertia and cut through red tape. The economics of customer retention make it clear that a customer first policy trumps typical corporate CYA.
As a Chief Information Officer evaluating complex business software packages I always ask about how exceptions are processed. No system can cover every contingency and if it’s not easy to handle exceptions then the systems will be our masters rather than our servants.
As senior executives we need to have the courage to trust our employees and provide them with the freedom to do the right thing for customers. Our customers—and our employees—will thank us.