Over the past month, I have heard from several people about their experiences with customer service. One lamented the lackluster response he received from his car dealership; another complained about the slow service she got at a hair salon; another mentioned the exceptionally long wait for his physical therapy appointment.
What was striking about these examples was that the customers all had established relationships with their service providers. In every case, they noted how they had received great service at the start, but once they became regulars, the service became slower and less efficient. It was as if the service provider knew they had the customer and didn’t have to prove anything any more, so they became complacent.
Complacency with regular customers is more commonplace that we think. It occurs when employees feel really comfortable with the way things are or have always been, and no longer bring a sense of energy to their work. They forget that every time a customer comes in, it is a new chance to wow him or her.
A firm’s incentive system might actually reinforce complacency if it rewards employees for bringing in new clients instead of also rewarding them for customer retention. Companies can avoid this by collecting feedback from regular customers and really trying to understand the service they are receiving. Lexus continually solicits feedback via phone and surveys from its customers in an effort to understand the quality of the customer’s experience. But not every firm does this. In fact, most don’t.
Some of the consequences of complacency include safety accidents, few new ideas or innovations being proposed, or loss of current customers and future customers (as they spread the word to others about the bad service they received). This can have a tremendous detrimental effect on the future of the business.
How can leaders curb complacency in the workplace?
Stay on guard. Some firms work hard to make sure that they have energized and engaged employees who really treat all customers well. Leaders inspire the people around them to work harder, to be positive to all customers, to treat everyone with respect (as they would want to be treated). The leaders are passionate about the business and are positive role models for dealing with customers.
Share the mission. Remind employees of the company’s purpose and goals so they feel connected to the larger mission and see how their behaviors can have an impact on customers.
Recognize exceptional service. This doesn’t have to be large monetary awards — a simple “thank you” or notes of appreciation or gift certificates can be meaningful to employees.
Correct poor performance. Often, leaders make the mistake of ignoring problems in hopes they go away. This just sends a message that the boss condones the poor behavior. Providing mentoring or coaching may, instead, be needed to help the person correct the problem.
Avoid routines. Repetition can be related to complacency. If possible, change up some of the tasks required to add some variety to a person’s job.
Ask for feedback. Encourage customers to tell you how they were treated.
Reward employees. Set up awards for taking risks or providing creative suggestions at work.
Strike a balance. Leaders should strive to find a middle ground between being laissez-faire managers (letting employees do everything on their own) and being micromanagers. This is often tough, but very important if they are to understand how employees are reaching their goals and working on projects.
Manage work loads. If employees have too much on their plate, they can become fatigued and stressed, taking this out on customers. Make sure to encourage employees’ ideas and suggestions for how to improve their work. They are often in the best position to know how to improve their jobs.
Match staff to jobs. Check to make sure staff members are suited to their positions. If not, they won’t be able to perform to their fullest potential.
Provide training. Encourage a learning culture at work, starting with the top leaders. Offer development opportunities for employees to keep them continually learning and growing.
Complacency is a danger to many organizations. It can destroy a firm’s success. Leaders need to keep employees energized so that they can provide the best possible service to their customers, whether they are coming to you for the first time or the 10th.
Joyce E. A. Russell is the vice dean and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.