CustomerThinkOn a trip to Orlando two years ago, I arrived quite late to a Hilton hotel and visited the restaurant a few minutes before closing. The server took my order, disappeared, and didn’t come back for a few minutes. It was just a touch too long, and I was beginning to wonder if my order was forgotten.

Then the server came back, apologized for the delay and gave me a free drink on the spot. I still remember that experience because it wasn’t expected. I had not complained and the delay really wasn’t a big deal. So far as I know, I didn’t send any signals via my body language that I was unhappy.

It impressed me that my server was empathetic enough to realize that their service was not quite up to par, without a complaint. And furthermore, he didn’t have to go ask permission to give me the drink.

That’s a simple but powerful example of an empowered employee. My server obviously had some latitude to make a decision on the spot in the interest of creating a memorable experience. The fact that I’ve told this story many times in speeches the past two years, and now write about it here, speaks volumes for the real impact of that simple gesture.

Empowerment is one of those fuzzy words that can mean many different things. Here’s my take on three ways to put the idea to work in customer service.

1.  Authority to make decisions on their own.

If employees can only do what they’re told, they’re not empowered, they might as well be robots. In a customer-centric research study a few years ago, we learned that customers really want to deal with empowered employees. Meaning they can get the job done without going to the “boss” for approval.

Ritz Carlton is famous for giving employees latitude to spend up to $2,000 to satisfy a guest. Zappos doesn’t put any limits on how long an agent can stay on a call. Nordstrom’s legendary story of a shopper returning a tire for a refund (the retailer doesn’t sell tires) has been retold countless times.

What is the cost of these decisions? Not zero, that’s for sure. But studies have shown employees make service recovery decisions as well as managers. And when they don’t, so what? Think how much publicity you’ll get when customers rave about an employee going the extra mile.

One tip, however. Don’t reserve these acts of “lagniappe” — a creole word for doing a little something extra — for service recovery. Why not give agents the latitude to do favors for valuable customers when they aren’t complaining?

2. Insights to get the job done quickly, on one call.

Yes, when customers call for help, speed does matter. When I contacted my DSL provider for help, I started with the web site and found it too confusing. So I posted a plea for help on Twitter and eventually connected with an agent. I don’t know exactly what was going on, but I waited for some time with lots of keys clicking in the background interspersed with “we’re working on your problem” updates.

It’s hard to say exactly what the agent was doing, but my guess is some version of Alt-Tab Hell. Manually transitioning between 5+ applications is a fact of life for most service reps, as they navigate different systems. Providing a single integrated view to these systems would speed things up. So would providing an integrated knowledgebase that the agent could search quickly.

Another annoyance is what I’ve dubbed “touchpoint amnesia” — where the company forgets information the customer has already provided. Starting over in a multi-touch service experience is the No. 1 consumer complaint, and a CustomerThink study found it cut customer loyalty by 50%. The solution, once again, requires taking an integrated view of interactions across channels, and making this information available to reps.

3. Motivation to delight customers

To paraphrase Einstein, insanity is expecting employees to do one thing while rewarding them to do something else. A classic example of this: Executive proclamations to delight customers, while continuing to measure and reward agents that get customers off the phone as quickly as possible.

A “rewards system” is absolutely essential to reinforce the right behaviors. And for most companies, it’s not as simple as paying bonuses based on NPS scores, because there needs to be a clear connection between achieving an operational metric that the employee can control (e.g. First Call Resolution) and customer loyalty.

At AMEX, for example, agents are measured on RTF — would the customer they served Recommend To a Friend. Employees are rewarded for RTF excellence with recognition and monetary awards, which creates an ingrained habit.

One last point – don’t overlook culture. I remember interviewing an Amica Insurance employee many years ago, and asking how management rewarded them for providing great customer service. The answer: nothing. The agent told me that the company’s culture expected great service. Doing so made employees feel good about their jobs, which was reward enough.

So that’s it. Three practical ways to empower agents. Give them the Authority, Insights and Motivation to take care of your customers.

Bob ThompsonBob Thompson is CEO of CustomerThink Corp., an independent research and publishing firm focused on customer-centric business management, and Founder/Editor-in-Chief of, the world’s largest community dedicated to customer-centric business. Thompson is a popular keynote speaker, blogger and author of numerous reports, articles and papers, including CrowdService: Harnessing the Wisdom of Crowds in Customer Service and Support.