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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.

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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.

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.

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.

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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.

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