Take These Two Steps To Create A Nordstrom-Quality Customer Service Experience

Mar 15 2014, 12:00pm CDT | by

You hear people speaking about this all the time, as if it were gospel: Nordstrom,  the Seattle-based retailer renowned as the expert in customer service and building a great customer experience, has an employee handbook that consists only of the following: “Use your best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.”

Is this actually the entire Nordstrom employee handbook?  Nah. (In spite of what you’ve heard, and in spite of the ill-sourced Wikipedia entry on the subject.)

But the statement does tidily sum up the first element of the highly successful Nordstrom customer service ethos:  the power of hiring nice, capable people and inspiring them to use their judgment.

The two elements you need for great customer service

But there’s a second element of almost equal importance: Standards.  Additional guidelines and internal, codified knowledge that support these employees and multiply the power of their “best judgment.”

You can recognize both elements immediately if you venture into one of their stores.  Employee empowerment is rampant, but they also run a really tight — maybe the tightest there is — retail ship.

And although I’ve written here emphatically before about the need to empower customer service employees, the truth is, you don’t create a Nordstrom-level customer experience solely by empowering employees.  You also need customer service standards to support those employees, and, ultimately, your customers.

This is the two-part combination — autonomy and standards — that creates customer experience magic.

You need to empower employees, need to give them autonomy, in order to get the best results in customer service and the customer experience.  But that’s never the entire story.  The next time you see reports about a company that’s “all autonomy, all of the time,” look closer. Nordstrom is a company supported by rigorously maintained standards and training, not just a one sentence “employee handbook.” Or look at Zappos’ reported social media policy of “be real and use your best judgment.”  This is indeed its policy–to an extent. But only to an extent: After all, Zappos (well, Amazon) is a publicly traded company and would be at significant risk without the standards it has implemented to protect against the untoward release of information.

Empowerment: It’s what happens when someone leaves your Nordstrom shoes out in the rain 

Employee autonomy — “using your best judgment” — is extremely important to delivering Nordstrom-quality customer service.  And it crucially comes into play on the more complex and unpredictable tasks, of which there are many: selecting items for a customer’s wardrobe makeover, walking the line between honesty and not insulting a customer when she’s trying on clothes, finding ways to go the extra mile for a customer.  Complex and unpredictable tasks in customer service require an enormous amount of autonomy and a properly hired and trained staff to make use of that autonomy.

For example, do you know who’s legally responsible if a common carrier (UPS, DHL, FedEx) leaves your Nordstrom delivery in the rain and your $200 shoes are ruined? Well, the responsibly party might be you or it might be the trucking company, but it’s absolutely not Nordstrom.  Yet, when this happened to me, not for an instant did my salesperson (Joanne Hassis at the King Of Prussia Nordstrom, by the way) consider saying “You need to file a claim with the trucking company.”  She said, instead, the following:

“I’m so incredibly sorry that happened, and I’m bringing over a brand new pair of shoes–will you be home in forty-five minutes?”

Standards: Don’t leave home without them.

At the same time, many things at Nordstrom and other great companies depend on standards. For example, the way an employee is paged over the Nordstrom loudspeaker is superior to the way it’s done elsewhere.  Not because employees autonomously, spontaneously decide to do it better each time they page, but because someone at Nordstrom thought through what a paging system should sound like from a customer’s perspective and then standardized it.  Reworking the idea of a paging system to put what a customer would want to experience (less auditory clutter in the store’s soundscape) at the center, Nordstrom eliminated all mention of the department and employee that its paged employee is to call.  All you hear is a single statement of the person being paged: “Jamie Johnson.”  [How can this work?  The employee calls in to a central number, states her name, and is directed to the appropriate extension by a professional operator.]

Here’s a refresher on standards:  Standards help you ensure that each aspect of your service at your company reflects the best way your company knows to deliver it.  The summary of each standard should include three points:

1.  Why the service is of value (why we’re doing this in the first place)

2. The emotional response the customer should feel

3. The expected method for accomplishing the service in question./>/>

It’s important to use this exact formulation so that your employees — your empowered employees — know when and why it may be appropriate to deviate from the service delivery method you have recommended.

Most of all, it’s important to realize that standards and employee autonomy aren’t conflicting forces.  You need autonomy and you need standards, and the two need to work in harmony. Like salt and pepper. Penn and Teller. Sherlock Holmes (minus the passive aggression, drug abuse, and random discharge of firearms) and Dr. Watson. Or something like that.

Source: Forbes Business


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