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Service Failure: The Real Reasons Employees Struggle With Customer Service and What You Can Do About It


“Remove the obstacles that get in the way of providing excellent customer service. With multiple strategies supported by real-life examples, Jeff Toister teaches how to avoid service failure and provide service success.”

Shep Hyken, New York Times bestselling author of The Amazement Revolution

Service Failure offers a very personal and deeply felt discourse on an important topic: improving (and avoiding failure in) customer service and the ...

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Service Failure: The Real Reasons Employees Struggle With Customer Service and What You Can Do About It

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“Remove the obstacles that get in the way of providing excellent customer service. With multiple strategies supported by real-life examples, Jeff Toister teaches how to avoid service failure and provide service success.”

Shep Hyken, New York Times bestselling author of The Amazement Revolution

Service Failure offers a very personal and deeply felt discourse on an important topic: improving (and avoiding failure in) customer service and the customer experience.”

Micah Solomon, author of High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service and business keynote speaker

Are you endlessly trying to improve your organization’s customer service efforts, but getting so-so results? There may be a culprit in your organization that you’ve never considered.

Service Failure reveals ten hidden obstacles that prevent employees from delivering great customer service, including:

• Overly strict standards that make it hard for employees to adapt to customers’ needs

• Corporate cultures that unwittingly encourage deficient service

• Ineffective procedures that routinely anger customers and frustrate employees

• And supervisors who unknowingly encourage employees to focus on tasks at the expense of serving customers

These unseen problems are frequently overlooked in the rush to launch another quick fix that inevitably fails to improve customer service.

Using examples from well-known companies, real stories from frontline employees, and the latest scientific research to highlight the challenges customer service employees experience every day, Service Failure delivers straightforward solutions for overcoming these obstacles. From redirecting coaching efforts to revisiting policies and procedures to clarifying roles and responsibilities, the book’s powerful, sometimes counterintuitive insights can be applied at the organizational, departmental, or even the individual level to help the entire team deliver outstanding customer service.

JEFF TOISTER is president of the consulting firm Toister Performance Solutions, Inc., and has worked as a customer service trainer, manager, and frontline employee for over 20 years. He lives in San Diego.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814431993
  • Publisher: AMACOM
  • Publication date: 11/15/2012
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 527,507
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

JEFF TOISTER is president of the consulting firm Toister Performance Solutions, Inc., and has worked as a customer service trainer, manager, and frontline employee for over 20 years.

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Read an Excerpt


The man walked into a clothing store and spent a few minutes searching

for khaki pants, without any luck. He finally spotted an employee and

approached him to ask for assistance. “Excuse me,” he said. “Do you carry


The sales associate, looking like a deer caught in the headlights, gazed

around the immediate area and then stammered, “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know, huh?” the customer responded, walking out of the

store without waiting for a reply.

Does this story sound familiar? We all experience poor customer

service far too often. Many employees don’t seem to care about helping

their customers. Even those who do make an effort frequently miss obvious

opportunities to provide better service.

It’s easy to think of customer service as being a matter of common sense.

The sales associate clearly should have known more about the products the

store was selling. And if he encountered a question he couldn’t answer, he

should have found another employee who could provide a knowledgeable

response. Instead, he did neither, and the customer walked out the door,

the store having lost out on whatever money the customer had intended

to spend.

This leads to an important question: Why didn’t the sales associate

provide better customer service? To learn the answer, you would need to

know the employee’s version of the story.

It was the sales associate’s first day on the job. He was sixteen and had

never worked before, so he was nervous. His supervisor had given him

a brief tour of the men’s department, where he would be working that

day, before leaving him alone as she went on her fifteen-minute break. The

sales associate had no training, no experience, and hadn’t even met his

coworkers. He felt totally unprepared and desperately hoped he wouldn’t

encounter any customers until his supervisor returned from her break and

continued his training.

A moment later, the customer approached and asked whether the store

carried Dockers.

The sales associate had no idea whether the store carried this product

line. He looked around the department in hopes of finding the appropriate

section, but had no luck. He also thought about asking someone for

help, but he had no idea which of the people milling around the store

actually worked there, too. As the customer impatiently stared at him,

he unconsciously stammered, “I don’t know.” The response had been the

customer’s angry retreat.

You may have guessed by now that the sixteen-year-old sales associate

was me. Even I knew what I should have done in that moment, but there

were stronger forces at play that inhibited my performance. My lack of

training made it impossible to answer the customer’s question on the

spot. Fear and embarrassment robbed me of the confidence I needed to

act decisively to find the right answer by either searching the department

for Dockers or trying to find a coworker. With no experience to guide me,

my instincts weren’t sharp enough to prevent me from stammering, “I

don’t know,” when that was exactly what I was thinking. The customer’s

impatience ensured that I didn’t get a second chance.

My story is far from unique. We all know that offering outstanding

customer service can mean the difference between growing your business

and watching potential sales quite literally walk out your door. Yet many

organizations consistently find it a challenge to get employees to serve their

customers at the highest level.

There have been plenty of books written about what employees

ought to do to provide exceptional service. Service Failure examines the

real reasons employees struggle to deliver outstanding service, and offers

plenty of insights and guidance on overcoming these obstacles, drawing on

real stories, scientific research, and my own experiences from more than

twenty years as a customer service representative, trainer, manager, and


Here are just a few things you’ll learn:

• How customers are to blame for nearly a third of poor service


• Why your employees might be motivated to deliver bad service

• Why employees may not think customer service is their primary


• How natural instincts can cause an employee to stop listening to a


• What situations can cause employees to give up on serving

customers entirely

The benefits of overcoming these challenges are enormous. Companies

can develop a reputation for outstanding customer service that translates

into better customer retention, increased business through referrals, and

improved profitability. Service quality can easily serve as a differentiator in

today’s highly competitive markets.

Customer service leaders can become more effective at guiding their

team’s performance. In many cases, you may find the suggestions in this

book are counterintuitive or the opposite of commonly accepted wisdom.

Knowing what really causes employees to deliver good or bad service is a

key insight to apply to developing policies, writing procedures, training

employees, or even making hiring decisions that will ultimately lead to

better results.

Customer service employees can also gain from learning what motivates

their own actions. I still recall how terrible I felt when my first customer

left the store on account of my poor service. Examining the reasons why I

acted the way I did helped me learn how to do a much better job the next


Service Failure is organized into three parts. In Part I, the focus is

on understanding the obstacles that prevent companies from offering

outstanding customer service. We examine why customer service doesn’t

always come naturally for employees and how this situation can lead to poor

service and ultimately hurt a company’s bottom line. In Part II, the focus

shifts to overcoming those obstacles. We identify and explore ten obstacles

that stand in the way of outstanding service, reveal insight into why each

one is an issue, and share strategies to surmount them. Then, in Part III,

we work through practical steps for implementing these lessons in your own

organization. Throughout the book, you’ll find real-life examples from

well-known companies, frontline employees, and my own experiences.

Common service failures are dissected to understand why they happen

and, more important, what can be done to prevent them. Best practices

from companies famous for their exceptional service are also analyzed to

provide insight into how they’ve overcome some of these challenges.

One last word of caution as you read on. As you read some of the

examples of particularly poor customer service, you may find yourself

thinking, “There’s no excuse for that behavior!” Of course you’d be right,

but keep in mind these stories are nonetheless true. As you’ll learn in

Chapter 1, even inexplicably rude service may have an explanation after

all. And, once you have the explanation, you have the insight necessary

to ensure it doesn’t continue to happen. Judging by the state of customer

service today, that will put you several steps ahead of the competition.

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Table of Contents


Introduction 1



Chapter 1: Customer Service Doesn’t Come Naturally: 7

Hidden Obstacles to Serving Customers

The Service Consistency Challenge 10

The Customer Service Disconnect 12

Natural Obstacles to Service Greatness 16



Chapter 2: The Customer Is NOT Always Right: 19

Equipping Employees to Handle Challenging Customers

The Customer Is Often Wrong 21

Customers Have Varied Expectations 26

The Self-Sabotaging Customer 29

The Abusive Customer 31

Solution Summary: Overcoming Challenging Customers 33

Chapter 3: They’re Your Customers, Not Mine: 35

Aligning Employees’ Interests with Those of the Company

The Principal-Agent Problem 36

The Problem with Financial Incentives 41

The Unexpected Side of Employee Recognition 43

Customer Service Standards That Backfire 45

Solution Summary: Getting Employee Buy-in 48

Chapter 4: Your Employees Are Double Agents: 51

Bridging the Gap Between Doing the Right Thing for the

Customer and Following Company Policy

The Double Agent Problem 53

Weighing Risk vs. Reward 57

Getting Employees to Do the Dirty Work 60

Solution Summary: Avoiding the Creation of Double Agents 64

Chapter 5: Mutually Assured Dissatisfaction: Getting Beyond Broken 67

Systems That Cause Employee Disengagement

Broken Systems Lead to Disengaged Employees 68

Learned Helplessness Arises from Broken Systems 72

The Dangers of Employee Disengagement 75

Leaders Blind to Reality 78

Solution Summary: Avoiding Mutually Assured Dissatisfaction 82

Chapter 6: Conformity Is Contagious: Creating a Company Culture 85

That Encourages Outstanding Customer Service

Social Pressure Influences Behavior 87

Culture Is What We Do 93

Solution Summary: Creating a Customer-Focused Culture 99

Chapter 7: Attention Is in Short Supply: Getting Employees to 103

Notice What Customers Really Need

The Curse of Multitasking 104

Paying TOO Much Attention Isn’t a Good Idea, Either 110

Listening to Customers Can Be Difficult 113

Solution Summary: Helping Employees Pay Better Attention 116

Chapter 8: What Role Will You Play Today? Emphasizing the 119

Primary Responsibility to Delight Customers

When Tasks Define Our Roles 120

Extreme Role-Playing 126

Blind Obedience 130

Solution Summary: Helping Employees Establish the Right Roles 134

Chapter 9: The Problem with Empathy: Encouraging Employees to 137

Empathize with Their Customers

The Source of Empathy 139

Communicating on Different Levels 142

Self-Centered Behavior That Leads to Poor Service 148

Solution Summary: Helping Employees Demonstrate Empathy 151

with Customers

Chapter 10: Emotional Roadblocks: Helping Employees Overcome 153

Their Own Emotions

“Don’t Take It Personally” Is Bad Advice 155

Emotions Are Contagious 160

The High Cost of Emotional Labor 163

Solution Summary: Helping Employees Overcome 167

Emotional Roadblocks

Chapter 11: Casualties of Cost Consciousness: Seeing Customer 169

Service as a Profit Generator Rather Than a Cost Center

Fuzzy Math 171

Less Is Often Less 175

Short-Term Gains That Spread Customer Ill Will 179

Solution Summary: Positioning Customer Service as a 183

Profit Generator


Chapter 12: Getting Started 187

What to Know Before You Get Started 188

The First Three Steps in the Journey to Outstanding Service 191

A Final Note: Your Worst Employee Might Be Your Best 194

Index 198

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