Building a strong service team

Features - Business Operations

Practical advice for developing a strong service team — and happier customers.

October 30, 2015

A recent American Express Service Study found that 63 percent of its 1,620 respondents said they felt an increased heart rate when they simply thought about great service. For 53 percent of those studied, great service caused them to have the same cerebral response that results from feeling loved. The trick, of course, says Ron Kaufman, is developing a customer service team that has the skills to produce such an overwhelming reaction among your company’s customers.

“The truth is, in many of today’s industries and many of the world’s biggest companies, service can be downright disappointing,” says Kaufman, author of the New York Times best-seller Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues and Everyone Else You Meet. “We spend hours on hold when we just need an answer to a simple question. Store clerks seem angry with us when we tell them a mistake was made. And the list could go on and on.

“If you want to combat this at your business, you have to make providing great service a point of pride for your employees. Service is taking action to create value for someone else—and when that is the driving force for your staff and your organization, everyone will be happier,” Kaufman continues.

What can you do right now to strengthen your company’s service team? Kaufman offers a number of tips.

Give them the leeway to make in-the-moment decisions. “Empowerment” is a buzzword in business, and, in theory, we all understand that improved service is unlikely to happen inside an organization without it. Yet many leaders and employees seem to fear it. If a leader is not confident in her people, she doesn’t want to empower them with greater authority or a larger budget. And if an employee is not confident in his abilities and decisions, he often does not want the responsibility of being empowered.

“Don’t overcomplicate service,” Kaufman says. “Work with your employees to switch their focus from ‘What should I do?’ to ‘Who am I serving and what do they value?’”

Have mistake meet-ups. Another key to empowerment is demystifying the fear that accompanies making a mistake, Kaufman says.

“Have a meeting and say, ‘We want learning from mistakes to be part of our culture,’” he advises. “Have your leaders kick off the meeting by saying, ‘I’ll go first. Here’s the biggest mistake I made last week. Here’s what I learned from it. What can I learn from you?’ Then, everyone shares in that way, and, boy, does that make them feel safer. It gives them the freedom to try new ideas and to take new actions.”

Eradicate cumbersome policies and procedures. In Uplifting Service, Kaufman writes about an experience he had while dining at a luxury resort in California. The waiter explained that there was a special menu that night, spotlighting the chef’s signature dishes. But Kaufman’s guests were vegetarians and had nothing to choose from on the menu, and Kaufman himself had been craving a particular salmon salad. So, they asked to order from the regular menu. Obviously uncomfortable, the waiter whispered, “If you go back to your room and order room service, then you can order the salmon salad or anything else on the [room service] menu, but I can’t serve you those choices here tonight.”

Kaufman says, “In trying to spotlight the chef’s menu, the restaurant had created a major roadblock for the people who worked there—the waiter wasn’t given permission to serve. Like this waiter, most frontline staff members are taught to follow policies and procedures and are hesitant to ‘break the rules.’ Yet some rules should be broken, changed or at least seriously bent from time to time.”

Acknowledge achievements. Compliments are motivating and inspire employees to keep coming up with newer and better service ideas. That’s why you should actively solicit feedback from customers and regularly share positive comments with employees.

The great thing about acknowledging achievements among your staff is that you can get a big impact out of simple actions. For example, simply thanking an employee who handled a customer well or tweeting a message on Twitter about the employee of the week can go a long way.

Educate and inspire them to serve each other. When most companies set out to fix their service issues, they start with customer-facing employees. The fact is, frontline service people cannot give better service when they aren’t being served internally.

When Kaufman worked with Air Mauritius to kick off its service revolution, they company started by addressing the communication problems in its dysfunctional culture, which manifested as bickering, finger-pointing, withholding information, etc.

“First they had to realize that everyone on staff either directly serves the customer or serves those who serve the customer,” he says. “Everyone had to embrace the service improvement mindset—engineering, ground staff, the technical crew, registration and sales, people at the counters, people at the gate area, people on the aircraft. That meant they had to serve each other as well as the customer.”

Teach them to solicit customer feedback at various points of contact. Asking, “Is there anything we can do better for you the next time?” accomplishes two important objectives. First, you gather valuable ideas. Second, you get the customer thinking about doing repeat business.

“Even if a customer doesn’t have a recommendation, trust that they’ll be glad your employee cared enough to ask,” Kaufman continues. “When an employee engages a customer in this way, it’s yet another way to say, ‘We value you. We want to provide you with the best possible service, and we would be delighted to serve you again.’ It also shows your customers that you aren’t afraid of improvement. It shows just how dedicated you are to delivering on your promise of uplifting service.”

Help them find ways to “up” service. Imagine you are going up a ski lift and accidentally drop one of your gloves or ski poles into the woods below. At Deer Valley Ski Resort in Utah, the staff helps you find the missing item and then gives you a coupon for a free hot chocolate.

A new Italian restaurant announced its grand opening with great fanfare in the press. Every table was reserved weeks in advance. On opening night, the ovens broke down and could not be restarted. The restaurant served an elegant buffet of cold dishes and plenty of wine. All free!

“These are great examples of businesses going the extra mile for their customers, and it’s important that you help your employees develop this kind of thinking,” he adds. “In your next staff meeting, review a few customer service recovery interactions, even those that went well. Then, have your staff brainstorm ways the recovery could have been improved.”

Train them to tell customers what they will do. When there is a mistake or mishap, explain what steps you will take and when you will get back in touch with the results. Thank them for giving you the opportunity to set things right.

“Of course, the first step when a mistake has been made, or even just when a customer perceives that a mistake was made, is to apologize,” Kaufman says. “Once you’ve apologized, provide any useful information you can about what will happen next. Ask them if they have any questions and answer them to the best of your ability. If you don’t have an answer, let them know what steps you’re going to take to find it.

“And finally, show you are sincere about your commitment to do well in the areas the customer values,” he adds. “At the very least, you can say, ‘I’m going to make sure everyone in the company hears your story. We don’t want this to happen again.’ When you express the company’s desire to improve, you start on the path to rebuilding its credibility with the customer.”

Encourage them to develop their own signature service touch. Sometimes small service touches can have a big impact. Here’s a fundamental truth of service: Small changes can lead to big leaps in customer perception—and they don’t have to be costly at all.

“For example, Air Mauritius had captains to start greeting passengers as they board the plane,” Kaufman says. “This small gesture creates a huge impression of welcome and respect for passengers. It also asked captains to provide memorable information as they fly over certain areas—like descriptions of cities, landmarks, volcanoes and so forth. This literally turned flights into uniquely guided tours. Passengers loved these changes.”

Provide a weekly service thought. Post or email a message about the importance of service or how to improve service each week. It can be as simple as an inspiring quote or a link to an article with an example of great service.

Emphasize service with new hires. Unfortunately, many company orientation programs are far from uplifting. Often they are little more than robotic introductions: This is your desk; this is your password; those are your colleagues; these are the tools, systems and processes we use; I am your boss; and if you have any questions, ask. Welcome to the organization. Now get to work.

These basic introductions and inductions are important, but they don’t connect new employees to the company or the service culture in a welcoming and motivating way, Kaufman says.

He adds, “Developing service-minded, service-driven employees will be worth every ounce of energy you put into it. When you take steps to build a strong service team, everyone is fully engaged, encouraging each other, improving the customer experience and making the company more successful.”


Ron Kaufman, UP! Your Service founder and chairman, is the author of the New York Times best-seller Uplifting Service and 14 other books on service, business and inspiration. UP! Your Service helps organizations upgrade service performance and secure a sustainable advantage by building an uplifting service culture. To learn more about UP! Your Service, visit To learn more about Kaufman, visit