When the boss doesn't defend you

By Anne Fisher, contributor

(Fortune) -- Dear Annie: I'm the supervisor of a customer service team. Most of our transactions are with long-term clients who depend on our products and our advice to run their businesses, so that our connection with them is almost a consulting relationship. About 99% of our interactions are friendly and professional, but occasionally my team members suffer verbal abuse from irate and unreasonable people at a client company. When this happens, I usually go to a manager one level above me and ask him to call the customer and sort out the problem.

But time and time again, when he makes this call, he apologizes on behalf of my team and promises that we will improve. The end result is that the customer gets rewarded for his or her bad behavior, and my team's morale takes a beating. I usually agree with the adage "The customer is always right," but there are times when I think my higher-ups should defend us, and they seem to lack the guts to do it. Do you have any suggestions for fixing this situation? --Caught in the Middle

Dear Caught: Your bosses' devotion to customers is admirable of course, but it's clearly having unforeseen consequences that aren't so great.

"There is only one way to maximize revenues and profits, and that is through the employees who deal directly with customers," says Vineet Nayar, author of a forthcoming book called Employees First, Customers Second (Harvard Business Press, $24.95). "By insisting that the customer is always right, no matter the circumstances, top management is de-motivating those valuable front-line employees. Is that really what they mean to do?"

It's a question Nayar pondered at some length as CEO of HCL Technologies, India's biggest provider of IT services and a business like yours where long-term relationships are key. When Nayar got the top job in 2005, the company's sales and profits were ho-hum and the ferociously competitive industry was evolving quickly.

Nayar realized at the outset that senior management is usually too far removed from the trenches to know where the problems are -- until it's too late and customers have fled to a rival. So Nayar turned his whole organization upside down and made management accountable to front-line employees, instead of the other way around.

"Companies need to shift their focus to empowering employees to solve problems," says Nayar. It sounds paradoxical, but "the customer ultimately gains the greatest benefit" when employees come first, he says.

Talkback: How do you handle difficult customers? Who comes first at your company, customers or employees?

So how do you put this idea to work at your shop? "This is an excellent leadership opportunity for you," says Nayar. "It's your chance to show your skill at reconciling three conflicting points of view."

The next time an irate client chews out one of your team members, instead of taking the problem to your boss, take charge of the situation yourself -- assuming this approach won't get you in hot water with higher-ups.

"As the supervisor, you can earn your team's loyalty by having team members transfer the worst calls to you," says Nayar. Then, if a client screams about a mistake someone allegedly made, calmly and politely ask for details, write them down, and promise to look into it immediately.

Then, without resorting to the kind of groveling you think your bosses do, say something like: "Of course we value our relationship with you, and we'd like to make it better. Can you tell us exactly what it is we could do to make sure this problem doesn't crop up again in the future?"

That should help your obstreperous caller to cool off and be specific. You may even learn something useful about how to improve your operations.

Also, "try to get input from everyone on the team about the best ways to deal with unreasonable customers," says Nayar. "Ask them to suggest fixes. It's important for everyone to feel a part of the solution."

Meanwhile, help your team maintain a sense of perspective.

"Naturally it's upsetting to have to try and reason with someone who is shouting at you," he says. "But since 99% of your interactions with clients are pleasant and positive, try to set an example by not letting the other 1% get under your skin." After all, what job is 100% perfect?

You might also think about slipping a copy of Nayar's book to your boss. Putting employees first may sound radical, but it's hard to argue with the results: In the four years since Nayar took the helm -- and despite the recession -- HCL has tripled its revenues, grown profits substantially, and encouraged more customers to boost their spending with the outfit. At the same time, costly employee turnover has fallen nearly 50%.

Who knows, your higher-ups may come to the conclusion that, if Nayar is crazy, he's crazy like a fox.

Talkback: How do you handle difficult customers? Who comes first at your company, customers or employees? As a customer, what has been your best or worst customer-service experience ever? Tell us on Facebook, below. To top of page

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