Tips to Keep Employee Silence from Driving Away Customers

A recent study by VitalSmarts found that silence is killing customer service. We asked subjects how often they witness a fellow employee underserving, or even abusing, a customer. Then we asked: What happens next? Does someone in your organization speak up and address the problem with that employee?

I was thinking of this study as I boarded a discount airline flight. I paid an extra $50 for a “premium” seat, selected palatial 11C with four inches of extra legroom, and pulled the seat lever, anticipating the lavish five degrees of recline I’d enjoy for the next two hours. Instead, I dropped fully backward into the lap of the man behind me. Neither of us were very happy.

As the flight attendant passed me in my precarious position she said, “Oh yeah, that seat’s been busted for a long time.” No apology. No offer to find me another seat or make up for it in some other way. Rather, I suffered the torture of zero recline for my entire flight and resolved to never fly that airline again.

How many broken seats undermine customer service in your organization? And how long do the problems persist because those who witness them say or do nothing? The answer will shock you.

According to our study, each employee who witnesses bad customer service but fails to speak up costs the company an average of $54,511 per year. Now, to a billion-dollar organization, $50K might seem like a drop in the bucket. One silent employee can’t do that much damage. But calculate the enormous costs to the organization when you consider that only 7 percent of employees can be counted on to speak up when they’ve witnessed an incident of poor customer service. The vast majority of your employees are not only contributing to your poor service reputation, but their silence is also literally draining your bottom line.

If the data isn’t shocking enough, we also found that these silent employees aren’t biting their tongue because they don’t have the skills or authority to fix the problem—quite the opposite. Sixty-six percent admit to actually being capable of solving the customer’s problem, but they still choose to say NOTHING.

So, the prognosis is bad. Your culture of silence is killing brand perception and customer loyalty as well as eating away at your profits. But awareness is the first step to finding a solution. The good news is your organization can recoup costs by creating a culture where employees feel empowered to speak up and confront incidents of poor service—even if it’s up the chain of command!

Leaders must set the example. They must make it safe for people to hold these uncomfortable conversations with their colleagues—no matter the other person’s power, position, or authority. Unless and until this happens, employees will assume leaders’ egos are of higher value than the company mission.

Here are a few tips you can use immediately to build a foundation of a culture of dialogue—the kind of culture where people can be both 100 percent honest and 100 percent respectful in the way they address poor customer service interactions:

  • Talk face-to-face. When you observe your colleague treating a customer poorly, speak to him or her in-person and privately. Assume the best of your colleague. It’s possible he or she is unaware of what he or she did or how it was perceived by the customer. Begin the conversation as a curious friend.
  • Talk tentatively. Begin to describe the problem with, “I’m not sure you intended this . . .” or “I’m not sure you’re aware of this . . .”
  • Start with facts. Realize that not only are your conclusions possibly wrong, but they also will create defensiveness in your colleague. Defensiveness will shut down communication immediately and therefore any possibility of developing a solution.
  • Share the facts first. Say something like, “When that customer said they disagreed with you, you said . . .” Be careful not to postulate his or her intent or exaggerate the delivery. Be factual and direct in describing what you observed.
  • Ask for others’ views. Ask if he or she saw the interaction differently or was aware of how it was perceived by the customer. Say something like, “Is that what you intended to say?”
  • Use equal treatment. This tentative approach applies to everyone, regardless of title or position. Regardless of their actions, everyone deserves to be treated with respect. The more respected employees feel, the more respectfully they will treat customers.

We’re facing a “crisis of silence” in the corporate world; people simply don’t hold others accountable for their actions. Our research over the years shows how silence affects costs, quality, engagement, productivity, safety, and now customer service. The key to creating distinguishing customer service is to create a culture where anyone can speak up to anyone about their ability to serve the customer.

Joseph Grenny is a bestselling author, speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. He is also the cofounder of VitalSmarts. His work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune 500.