HBR: Let Your Frontline Workers Be Creative

“The researchers found that the creativity of front-line service employees directly affected customer services ratings.” Are you facilitating creativity in your employees? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by David Burkus,

Let Your Frontline Workers Be Creative

We know that creativity and innovation fuel new products, services, even strategies. But too many executives make the mistake of assuming creativity is just reserved for a certain department or just the white-collar knowledge-workers in their firms. New research shows how important it is for all employees to be creative, even if they’re not high up on the org chart.

One new research paper looked at how creativity, or the lack thereof, affected customers’ perception of customer service. The researchers found that the creativity of front-line service employees (which they called “service creativity”) directly affected customer services ratings. “Service creativity allows employees to delight customers in unusual ways or solve problems that existing protocol falls short of addressing,” said Jing Zhou, a co-author on the study and professor of management at Rice University. “The findings suggest that service creativity is a powerful avenue through which customer satisfaction can be achieved.”

The collaborators collected data from 3,550 customers and 380 hairstylists across 118 hair salons as part of a large chain in Taiwan. While that may sound like an odd source for customer research, it is actually a perfect setting for studying service creativity. The researchers chose it because generating novel yet practical hairstyles for a diverse set of customers is a fundamental skill needed by stylists. In addition, the interaction between stylists and customers lasts long enough to study the interaction between employee and customer and observe the employee’s creative performance. The data were collected through observations by the researchers and surveys completed by both the employee and the customer. (The researchers limited themselves to two interactions per stylist per day in order to avoid response fatigue.)

They found that the service employees were rated both more positively and more creatively when they showed customers they were responsive to feedback. But it wasn’t just about making the customer feel good by being approachable – it was about gaining actual insights and ideas from customers, which in turn allowed the employee to promote new options and solutions tailored to the customer. “Because front-line employees engage in contact with customers on a daily basis they may have a better sense of the issues that customers are concerned about and how to solve these problems in a novel and practical way,” said Zhou.

Managers can play a key role in facilitating the creativity of front-line staff by expressing confidence in their service employees and seeking out employees’ opinions on resolving customer issues or providing service.

This stands in contrast to how many customer service departments operate, especially call centers where employees follow standardized flow charts and are encouraged to close customer support tickets and end phone calls as quickly as possible. “Empowering employees — rather than closely monitoring and controlling them – may be a more effective way to enable employees to provide satisfying service,” said Zhou.

The exemplar here is Zappos. Unlike most online retailers, Zappos actively drives customers to contact them via phone, displaying their customer service number prominently throughout their website. Employees receive seven weeks of customer service training. Instead of giving employees scripts, managers encourage call center employees to go to whatever lengths are reasonable and necessary to please customers, including browsing competitor websites if a customer is looking for a specific item that Zappos doesn’t have. One time, when Zappos was out of stock, a customer service representative even visited a brick and mortar retailer to buy the specific shoes and hand-deliver them to a customer.

Especially notable from a service creativity standpoint, Zappos is one of the few call centers that measures average call time but doesn’t reward employees with the lowest averages. Instead, they praise the employees who set length records. That’s important given that creative ideas often take time to develop and that productivity and creativity are often at odds with one another.

While stories about Zappos and extreme tales of customer service aren’t new, this new research helps strengthen the case that it’s not just about doing it differently … service creativity helps companies do it better. Today, creativity is everyone’s job.

 

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