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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Every businessperson is a service agent first.

Through a strange set of circumstances, a junior colleague was scrambled on short notice last week to be the lead contact for our company at an industry tradeshow.

As he was getting ready for his first major solo customer-side contact, someone in our group asked him if he was prepared to answer customer questions onsite. He rattled off corporate positioning detail and product knowledge like the most heavily-trained sale professional, gaining confidence as he did. As he was about to leave, we threw him one more question.

“What if someone asks you for service?”


“We’re a service business that runs 24/7. How do you handle a customer who approaches and would like you to help with a service issue?”

Blank stare.

“Do you know how to get him / her to someone locally who can help?”

We spent some needed time giving our friend some critical detail on how to resolve a few service issues without reaching out, and hooked him up with someone that would know most local customers and could step in to provide assistance.

This story is unfortunate, but not unusual. Every time you see a company’s social media expert ask a customer with a complaint if they have called customer care, it is this dynamic at work. We’re a culture of corporate specialists. If you are unlucky enough to work in a corporate headquarters, picture all the people that could serve a customer immediately, if one approached them in a crowded airport and asked for help. Probably not many. (As an aside, are any of the faces C-level executives?)

It’s flawed logic to say that because serving a customer is not a role that everyone in an organization plays, not everyone needs to know it is done. Anyone in a support role ultimately plays a part in serving customers. Consequently, we should know how that job is done and be able to do it. Support organizations (that army of staffers most of us are part of) provide better internal service and customer support when we know the details of the customer experience.

The Army gets this. The idea that “every soldier is a rifleman first”, doesn't mean that infantry is everyone’s primary responsibility. It means that everyone should know how to help the organization achieve its most basic objective, because that knowledge helps the organization better support those that play that critical role.

Zappos knows it too. I hear experts claim that the Zappos culture can’t be replicated – that their culture is specific to their business model and doesn’t translate to other organizations. That may be. One aspect of their business that is transferable to any company is their core understanding of each function’s role in supporting the overall mission.

My new colleague did spectacularly well in his impromptu field assignment, because he carries a service orientation and had the willingness to learn a role others might feel was beneath his level.

Organizations that aren’t top performers are the ones that don’t stress to all employees the importance of understanding the service role.

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