Blue Angels at Rochester International Air Show. July 16, 2011. Photo by Ken Mist.
Picture this. You’re at a dinner party. Interesting people are there, the food is good, the drinks are good, and the conversation is going well. As a matter of fact, smart people are looking at you intently as you speak, seemingly hanging on your every word as you tell this really clever story. When you excuse yourself to get another drink, one of your business partners tells you you have spinach in your teeth. UUGGGHHH! How long has it been there? You had interesting things to say! You were witty, and clever, and had the best intentions, and… oh man, that crowd won’t remember any of that. They’re only going to remember that chick with the spinach in her teeth.
So, that happened to me yesterday. Well, kind of. See, I have all these lofty customer care aspirations. I want all customers to know that, even if we mess something up, we are complete professionals and will work tirelessly and put in that extra effort to ensure that our customers receive the best service possible. It will be real, and it will be honest. I have this amazing team working with me. I wonder sometimes if I could do what they do as well as they do, day in and day out, and honestly I’m not sure. I just remember to tell them every time I talk to them how great they are. But, even the best of us are just going to make mistakes. And we did. Our mistake? We told an upset customer that corporate (aka “They“) set the policies. ugggghhh. Spinach in teeth. Big time.
Some of you might be wondering why I’m all worried about this small thing. Well, it’s not really a small thing. And I’ll tell you why. The customer doesn’t know They. The customer only knows You, and You are the brand to the customer. Your voice, your image, your words in print, whatever. The infamous They doesn’t exist. It doesn’t matter if You, awesome customer service rep, knows that someone in supply chain messed this up, or someone over in accounting, or whatever. The customer does not need to see (nor does the customer want to see, quite frankly) the company’s dirty laundry. Know what they want? A real person to take ownership and answer them. Know what the answer is? The answer is always WE. WE here at (X company) made a mistake. Or, WE here at (X company) stand by our policy, and here’s why. It is not our intention to cause grief, but we do stand by it.
Let me be clear that my team is awesome. Your team is probably awesome too. Anybody at any time can make this mistake. It’s common. As a person on the planet, it feels unnatural to take responsibility for something that we did not personally do. But if you think back to the last time you heard “it’s not my fault,” “I can’t help you,” “It’s a corporate policy over which I have no control,” or “I agree with you, I think the policy is dumb, but nothing can be done,” think about the way you felt when you heard it. Did you have faith in the company? Did you feel like the person with whom you were speaking was useful to you? I’m pretty blunt about customer experiences, and I’ll tell you the last time that happened to me (see Update: Chase Ambushes My Twitter IPO Trade with Poor Customer Service). You can tell that to this day I’m still thinking about how little faith I have in that company, and still make a point to tell at least 5 people a week all about it.
So, how does the WE factor in for me? That one team member didn’t make the mistake. WE did. I did. I own that and am 100% responsible for it. Nobody’s throwing anybody under the bus. As far as I’m concerned, Frankie did it. And we will practice together and get better. We’re in it together, and I’m proud of that.
As a takeaway, I recommend we all make a point of reminding our teams to take ownership and be a WE with our companies. If the policies should change, by all means, change them. But we can do the customer (and ourselves) a favor by resisting the urge to separate ourselves from the company. You can also check out People Love You by Jeb Blount. I just finished it, and I think it’s a great resource on WE and many other customer service tips for both B2B and B2C.