By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
'Crisis of silence' leads to bad customer service, survey says
Customer service is important, but it isn't part of every company's culture. A new survey indicates that this lack of focus could be costing businesses a significant chunk of money every year. - photo by Greg Kratz
When it comes to personal pet peeves, poor customer service ranks near the top of my list.

I'm sure it's the same for many of you. There's nothing more irritating than receiving bad service from someone who is apparently too lazy or unmotivated to do his job and help a customer.

I've thought about this even more since changing jobs about five months ago. My current company sells a high-end service, so client communication and satisfaction are vital to our success.

The people on my team do a great job of working with our customers. We've also tried hard to establish a company culture that makes serving clients a priority. While that will always be a work in progress, I believe our operation is moving in the right direction.

As in any line of business, though, problems will occur. When they do, one of my duties as an operations manager is to handle "escalated" customer service issues.

I take this responsibility seriously as I know the importance of positive word-of-mouth to our growth and success. And I appreciate the fact that my team members are willing to let me know when a problem has moved beyond their control and they need to bring me in.

Unfortunately, this dedication to customer service isn't part of every company's culture. A new survey indicates that this lack of focus could be costing businesses a significant chunk of money every year.

The study by VitalSmarts, a company that focuses on leadership training, found that each employee who witnesses bad customer service and fails to speak up costs his or her company an average of $54,511 per year.

That seemed like a lot to me when I first read it, but as I thought more about it, it made sense. And I think the VitalSmarts survey of 991 people does a good job of explaining how this happens.

The study's co-authors are Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, who wrote the New York Times best-seller "Crucial Accountability." According to a news release about the survey, they said only 7 percent of employees could be counted on to speak up when they saw an incident of poor customer service, even though 66 percent of them said they could help solve the customer's problem.

This problem is amplified when you consider other statistics from the survey, including:

The average employee sees 19 incidents of poor customer service each year.

Those incidents together result in a 17 percent drop in revenue per customer per year.

Seventy-five percent of business-to-consumer customers said that poor service negatively affects the business they do with that company by 50 percent or more.

Were facing a crisis of silence in the corporate world people simply dont hold others accountable for their actions, Grenny said in the news release. Whether its because it makes me look bad, as our study suggests, or whatever the excuse may be, the business world is suffering from a serious case of Im-not-my-brothers-keeper. Its an accountability issue. And its having a devastating effect on organizations.

I've seen this from the disgruntled customer's point of view. I've been going back and forth with a company that has provided poor service to my family, and every time I hear the business name, I feel rage growing inside me. (This can be dangerous; I've remarked before about my Hulk-ish tendencies.)

We're actively pursuing options to break our ties with this company, and we will do so in the near future. When we do, it will cost them about $200 in revenue each month not to mention the thorough badmouthing my wife and I give this company when talking to family and friends. That $200 might not seem like much, but if the corporate culture supports bad customer service, it will add up.

So why does a company allow service problems to continue? According to the survey, the answer may surprise you.

We scratch our heads and wonder why people dont speak up, Maxfield said in the press release. And looking deeper, a critic might question, Even if you do speak up, how can you know youll be able to satisfy the customer?

"And the answer from our study is: two-thirds say they can solve the customers problem well enough to avoid any loss of business. Clearly, this crisis of silence is not so much a lack of ability. Its more a lack of motivation.

Grenny and Maxfield suggested leaders should talk to their employees about the "crisis of silence," share examples of not speaking up and highlight positive anecdotes.

And while they acknowledged that poor customer service would always be a problem at some level, they also offered tips to help people who see an incident to speak up respectfully and effectively. Those suggestions include:

"Talk face-to-face" and in private if possible.

"Assume the best of others." Start the conversation as a "curious friend," they recommend, as its possible the person is unaware of what theyre doing.

"Talk tentatively." Use a phrase such as, "I'm not sure you intended this, but "

"Start with facts." Don't jump to conclusions and put the other person on the defensive.

"Ask for others views." Perhaps they saw the issue differently.

"Use equal treatment." Treat people with respect regardless of their titles or positions.

It's important that all of us take this positive, practical advice to heart. I'd want someone to let me know if they noticed a customer service failure by me or one of my team members. The only way we can improve is to talk about an error and figure out how not to repeat it.

What do you think of this survey? Have you witnessed poor customer service by colleagues? Did you talk to them about it? Why or why not? If you did, how did you approach the conversation, and what was the result?
Sign up for our E-Newsletters