Customer Service Management: the Importance of Empowerment

Introduction

According to Gibson (2011, p. 46), empowering employees with the resources and trust to solve customer concerns is a critical component to making a great first impression. Defined as giving somebody power or authority, empowerment must follow a top-down model that conveys authority through the ranks to front-line service professionals. It enables employees to make administrative decisions based on corporate guidelines.

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Empowerment is also regarded as the authority given to individuals by others to do things on their own (Silva 2005, p. 76). In general, organizations, where employees are empowered and take ownership of service quality, are more likely to deliver excellent service to their customers. Simply put, empowerment is when employees can do whatever they have to do on the spot to take care of a customer to his or her satisfaction. According to Saxena (2009, p. 631), empowerment is developed by creating an empowering environment in which employees are given goals, information, and feedback. Ultimately, the target is to ensure that the customer wins and the organization profits. If the customer does not win, then the company loses.

At a basic level, empowerment is a power-sharing strategy. It is the process of decentralized decision-making whereby managers give more discretion and autonomy to front-line employees. Empowerment within a service environment like tourism, for example, demands that employees have responsibility and authority that allows them to tailor service production, as service complications and opportunities arise. Organizations, where staff members have the directive, responsibility, and authority to provide superior customer service, are more likely to provide high levels of quality service. Empowered employees are able to make important decisions and move the organization forward. In other words, important decisions can be made on the spot instead of employees having to obtain management permission up the ladder.

As a rule, empowerment calls for employees with certain attitudes and behaviors. They should be able to exercise initiative, take risks, embrace innovation, and deal comfortably with uncertainty. Saxena (2009, p. 629) argued that for empowerment to work, employees should be given information about the business and how their work fits into the whole organization.

Importance of Empowerment

One significant benefit of empowerment is the elimination of nearly all multi-level problem-solving approaches that involve management. Apparently, scores of managers talk about empowerment, but many have difficulty putting it into practice. Too often, managers do not really understand what empowerment is. For example, many managers believe that empowerment is all about giving employees the authority to make a decision to take care of a customer, as long as the action the employee takes follows the rules, policies, and procedures of the organization. True empowerment, however, implies that employees are free to bend the rules to do whatever they have to do, within legal bounds, to take care of the customer.

Another major benefit of empowerment has to do with the fact that employee involvement does make a difference to the bottom line. Apparently, organizations that adopt an empowerment approach find it to be a powerful means of providing excellent customer friendly and less bureaucratic services to customers (Cook 2010, p. 146).

The customer benefits from empowerment since an empowered organization is less bureaucratic, more flexible, more responsive, more considerate of the needs of customers, and easier to do business with. In some organizations, empowerment has been encouraged so that both front-line and support employees know the right thing to do. Employees are encouraged by giving them authority to satisfy the customer and making them competent enough in their job so that they can exercise empowerment in confidence. They are also encouraged by creating mutual trust between employees and the company and by giving them opportunities to exercise their empowerment as well as the responsibility to ensure that this takes place with the support of senior management and departmental heads. In some cases, organizations provide extensive training and development programs to empower employees.

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For many organizations, empowerment is an important aspect of legendary customer service. In certain organizations, employees are allowed to spend up to an agreed amount of money without consulting with a supervisor in order to resolve a customer problem. Having a team of empowered employees who are afraid to make a decision is as bad, if not worse, than not having an empowerment program at all. When employees make a customer related decision, the greatest concern for many of them is the fear of being reprimanded or even being fired, for making what management sees as a bad decision.

Employee empowerment is also said to offer those concerned about greater employee commitment to the organization’s goals a technique that provides a win-win situation. Employees gain greater job satisfaction through the use of a wider range of skills and abilities together with an increased sense of worth, while employers gain a more committed, better informed and more focused workforce. In addition, employees gain a greater sense of ownership through the added responsibility and authority while employers also gain by increased productivity, better quality, and reduced labor turnover. For employees, satisfaction comes from being more involved and participating in decision-making, because empowerment meets power needs and develops a sense of personal efficacy.

According to Cook (2010, p. 156), empowerment plays an important part in helping an organization to strengthen a weakened service delivery process. Through service recovery, organizations are able to reassure customers that they are unwilling to compromise the quality of services offered to them. To guarantee improved service delivery to clients, a number of organizations are moving towards devolving responsibility and decision-making powers to front-line staff members who are responsible for dealing with customer complaints. In some organizations, for example, staff members are empowered to commit the organization to pay a customer up to a certain amount of money where service delivery is poor and a customer is dissatisfied.

In case a customer has been made to wait for a very long period before being attended to, he or she can be paid money in compensation and this can then be reclaimed from the company. Furthermore, staff members can also be empowered to refund money where service delivery is poor. A key measure of success at Hilton Hotels is the number of complaints received and dealt with within a given unit. Only 2 percent of complaints are escalated to Hilton Hotel central complaints unit (Cook 2010, p. 156). On various occasions, airlines have provided accommodation and meals to customers who miss their flights due to negligence from the airline operator.

Empowerment and Accountability

According to Hosford-Dunn et al. (2008, p. 36), excellent organizations accomplish good customer service by allowing and encouraging all levels of staff to meet or exceed customer needs and expectations. It applies not only to direct customer interactions but also to the day to day operations of processes. Successful empowerment of staff requires an understanding that they know what they can and that their actions will be valued by their colleagues and supported by all levels of leadership within the organization. Empowerment allows employees the freedom to act and imposes on them the accountability for results.

Accountability, in this case, refers to defining and communicating customer service expectations to employees and ensuring that expectations are met through the establishment of customer service performance standards. Whenever a customer confronts an employee with a question or issue, the employee’s reaction at that moment determines whether the company keeps the customer or loses the customer forever. World-class customer service and retaining customers often comes down to good judgment on the part of each employee, because they are the first line of contact for the customer.

According to Silva (2005, p. 80), quality organizations foster empowerment in their employees in a number of ways including creating a non-threatening environment, letting employees resolve problems, allowing employees to make mistakes, never ignoring suggestions and ideas from employees, creating opportunities for development and advancement, recognizing excellent performance, creating a competitive team environment, and decentralizing the process of decision making. Other than simply setting service standards, it is equally important for organizations to develop a feedback mechanism (Saxena 2009, p. 633). This feedback mechanism could help front-line customer service attendants to understand how well a service was delivered and whether the customer was satisfied.

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Limitations of Empowerment

Empowerment may, however, not be appropriate for all organizations. Businesses that have a need for strict regulatory control may not benefit greatly from empowerment programs. Others, whose management style and culture tend towards command and control, will also find empowerment inappropriate. In addition, the degree of empowerment different organizations wish to achieve will vary according to the prevailing conditions.

Conclusion

The need for empowerment cannot be over-emphasized, as it is one of the building blocks of a quality organization. Organizations need to allow their employees at the lowest levels to tap into their creative potential, and this is exactly what quality organizations empower employees to do. The days of top-down organizations are long gone, and today’s quality organizations are bottom-up oriented, with a strong focus on customer needs and expectations.

Typically, attracting new customers is a very expensive process as it costs many times more to generate new customers than it does to keep existing ones. An effective empowerment program is thus a vital part of any forward-looking organization. Unfortunately, few companies bother to track the rate of customer retention, much less inquire about what might be driving their customers away. Consequently, there is a need for managers to develop an interest in empowering employees.

For empowerment to work, however, employees should know that they will not be fired if they make an error and that it is okay to make mistakes in the process of working to win customer satisfaction. Once empowered, customer service professionals have the responsibility to exercise that authority when the need arises. Generally, an authorized employee has far-reaching effects in keeping a customer who would consider going elsewhere for a product or a service. It is of little value to talk service unless employees are also empowered to deliver exceptional service and rewarded for doing so.

Reference List

Cook, S 2010, Customer Care Excellence: How to Create an Effective Customer Focus, Kogan Page Publishers, Philadelphia, PA. Web.

Gibson, P 2011, The World of Customer Service, Cengage Learning, Mason, OH. Web.

Hosford-Dunn, H, Roeser, RJ & Valente, M 2008, Audiology: Practice Management, Thieme Medical Publishers, New York, NY. Web.

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Saxena, R 2009, Marketing Management, Tata McGraw-Hill Education, New Delhi, India. Web.

Silva, A 2005, The Ten Commandments of Quality Management: Best Practices to Develop New Leaders and Create a Quality Environment, iUniverse, Lincoln, NE. Web.

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