The cure for excessive task orientation is aligning employee responsibilities with a clearly defined customer service culture. Employees should be focused on helping customers achieve their goals rather than following a set of rote procedures. Companies can take their service levels to new heights once their employees understand and embrace their role in delivering customer delight. 

How This Focus Works

The Apple Store provides an excellent example of what can happen when employees focus intently on their customers. Unlike many other retailers where employees concentrate on pushing products, stocking shelves, or ringing up transactions, Apple Store employees are there to create a positive experience for their customers. They conduct product demonstrations, resolve technical problems, and help people get the most out of their MacBook, iPad, or other Apple product. According to Ron Johnson, the former Apple executive who created the Apple Store, every employee has one primary responsibility: “Their job is to figure out what you need and help you get it, even if it’s a product Apple doesn’t carry.”

The results of Apple’s customer focus have been impressive. The Apple Store has become widely recognized for a high level of customer service, making Bloomberg Businessweek’s annual list of Customer Service Champs every year from 2007 to 2010. This approach also translated into outstanding financial results, with retail analyst RetailSails reporting in 2011 that the Apple Store had the best sales per square foot of any U.S. retailer. (Sales per square foot is a common measure of retail sales efficiency and is obtained by dividing a store’s gross revenue by its square footage.)

How to Train Employees

Employees sometimes struggle to transition from being task-focused to becoming customer-focused, so I’ve developed a couple of exercises that can be used to change an employee’s perspective. The first exercise requires members of a department or team to describe their role from their customer’s point of view. In other words, what would you like your customers to say you do for them? Here are a few examples from some of my clients:

  • Sales reps at a flower and plant wholesaler decided their role was helping florists (their primary customer) grow their businesses by helping them select flowers and plants that will sell well in their shops.
  • Information technology employees working on a college campus determined that their role was helping faculty and staff minimize downtime from malfunctioning computers.
  • Call center agents at a medical device manufacturer realized their role was helping to save lives by making sure the right products got to the right doctor in time to help the patients who need them.

The second exercise helps employees integrate this customer focus into their daily activities. Employees start by writing a thank-you letter from an imaginary customer addressing it to themselves. The letter should describe what the employee did and how it helped the customer. Here’s an example from when I did the exercise myself:

Dear Jeff,

Thank you for being our trusted partner. Your commitment to helping us achieve our goals is the reason you are the first and only phone call when we need help improving customer service.

Thank you!

A. Client

Next, ask employees to read their thank-you letter at the start of each day for three weeks. They should think about what they would need to do for their customers to feel that way.

Finally, ask employees to try to get feedback from a customer that matches their letter. The feedback can be in the form of an actual letter, an e-mail, a response to a survey, or even a verbal compliment. When I did this exercise, I e-mailed a client and asked her if she would write a short testimonial for my website. I made no mention of my thank-you letter exercise, but her response was very close to what I had written in my fictitious letter. Here is what she wrote: 

If I had to choose only one outside company to help with some training initiatives this year, that would be Toister Performance Solutions; Jeff is reliable, dependable, and flexible to incorporate the organizational culture in whatever he presents.

About the author:

JeffJeff 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.