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Guest Commentary: Have You Ever Asked, ‘Who Is In Authority Here?’

If two or more employees, when questioned, point to the same person above them as the arbiter of all things customer-related, you’ve probably identified a flawed organization.

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There’s a riveting and entertaining scene in the original
"Terminator” movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger where one of the lead characters,
Kyle Reese, has had just about enough of a psychologist while he’s being held
at a police station. Reese has come back from the future to save the future
leaders of a resistance movement that aims to save humans from obliteration by
Terminator robots and Skynet, a giant computer system that decides humans
should die.

Reese repeatedly tells the psychologist about the
nasty war in the future and how a robot was sent to the then present to kill
the resistance leaders (I mean, come on, that sounds totally plausible.) At one
point, Reese blows his stack when the psychologist says he can’t release him
from police custody. “Then why am I talking to you? Get out. Who is in
authority here?” he yells.

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Have any of you ever felt like this? Wanting to
yell, “Who is in authority here?” you know, at the customer service person
you’re speaking to who has no apparent authority to do anything other than converse
with you and tell you they’re “sorry” about your experience? At the salesperson
who can make no decisions without consulting their supervisor? At the checkout
person who needs a twist from his or her supervisor’s special little “key” to
do something about your transaction?

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When anyone who represents a company or
organization reaches for the “I need to speak to my supervisor” line while
discussing any customer service issue, it’s the kiss of death. It means,
basically, “I’m just paid to answer the phone or stand here. I can’t really
help you.” It means the organization is seriously flawed. It means the
customer-facing employees, often the most important in any company or organization,
have no authority. If Kyle Reese was a customer, he would be seriously disappointed.

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Companies may think that by directing their
employees to refer matters to supervisors they’re playing it safe. But customer
service reps are sometimes the only face of a company because they actually
interact with customers on a daily basis. Once customers have had one-too-many
poor interactions with a customer service rep, that’s it. People are not willing
to hang on for the long-haul to see if things will improve. They’ve got other
places to do business.

It’s easy to spot these types of organizations.
If two or more employees, when questioned, point to the same person above them
as the arbiter of all things customer-related, you’ve probably identified a flawed
organization. If those employees offer zero solutions on their own, you’ve
identified a flawed organization. Why do some organizations operate this way?
It’s probably due to a combination of things. Maybe they don’t trust their
employees to do the right thing (in this case, why hire people?) Maybe they’re
led by control freaks. Maybe they have a command structure that’s more hierarchical
than flat, where the top decides everything and nothing from the bottom —
including ideas on how to improve things — is allowed to trickle up.

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Whatever the reason, organizations whose
employees can’t or aren’t allowed to make decisions are going to get pummeled
by those that allow and encourage it.      

Editor’s
Note: This article was originally published in Counterman
magazine.        

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