3 Ways to Avoid Check-the-Box Customer Service

February 25, 2014

role of customer service

What’s the primary role of a customer service employee?

For many people, the “right” answer is delighting customers. There’s also a difference between what is said and what is done. In practice, customer service often takes a back seat to the tasks that define an employee’s job.

The result is check-the-box service. Here are a few examples:

  • A technical support rep asks you to reboot your computer even though you’ve told him you’ve already done that.
  • A bank teller uses the same scripted greeting even though you’ve been banking there for years.
  • A retail associate ignores you while she focuses intently on arranging a merchandise display.

Strangely, check-the-box service is usually not the employee’s fault. They’re simply executing their assigned duties based on what they’re told to do and what management will notice.

As I noted in a recent post on the Zendesk blog service standards are often to blame. Many companies monitor employee performance with a checklist of required behaviors. Supervisors, quality assurance departments, and mystery shoppers use these checklists to evaluate employee performance.

Here are some real examples:

  • A restaurant had 17 standards servers must follow with every guest
  • A credit union had 21 standards tellers must follow on every transaction
  •   A call center had 35 standards agents must follow on every call

Employees in these environments are literally more concerned with checking the box than they are with delighting the customer. Indifferent service won’t cost them their job, but consistently failing to check the box might.

Most customer service environments have some service standards. Those won’t go away completely. However, there are a few things you can do to avoid check-the-box service:

Define Outstanding Service

Start by creating a clear definition of outstanding service that all employees understand. A 2013 survey found that 38 percent of companies hadn’t done this. It’s easy to check-the-box service when outstanding service is unclear.

Prioritize Outstanding Service

Make it clear that serving customers really is the top priority. The Home Depot offers a great case study here. When they hit their low point on the American Customer Satisfaction Index in 2007, serving customers wasn’t the top priority in their daily retail operations. They decided to simplify their retail associates’ jobs so they could spend more time helping customers. The result is they are now rated 10 points higher on the American Customer Satisfaction Index

Focus on Outcomes

Check-the-box service comes as a result of focusing on tasks rather than making customers happy. Spend less time worrying about compliance and more time trying to ensure customers are happy.

A customer once taught me this lesson when I was an account manager for a uniform company. I had just given him a list of excuses as to why I couldn’t get his order shipped out when he wanted it. It wasn’t that it couldn’t be done — my company’s policies just didn’t allow it. His simple reply was, “Isn’t that what they pay you for? Sometimes you have to bend the rules a little.”

I decided to skip checking a few boxes that day and just make sure my customer got his order.

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About The Author

Jeff Toister is the author of Service Failure: The Real Reasons Employees Struggle with Customer Service and What You Can Do About It (, a book that reveals hidden obstacles to outstanding service. His company, Toister Performance Solutions, Inc. helps clients identify these obstacles so they can improve customer service. Jeff is a nationally recognized employee training expert and one of the first people to receive the Certified Professional in Learning and Performance (CPLP) credential from the American Society for Training and Development. In 2013, he joined the #CustomerService100, a list of the Top 100 customer service thought leaders on Twitter.

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    […] As technology alters the customer experience—through messaging apps, chatbots, and more—what place does empathy have in improving customer service? People who are new to management, or to the workforce itself, will find this very human attribute to be a key component of excellent customer service. […]

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