ed his flight, he allowed himself an hour to reach his connecting flight home. It was a flawless plan. Except it didn’t work. When his plane touched down, it was delayed on the tarmac for 45 minutes. David missed his connection.

Tired and frustrated, he approached a gate attendant to book the next flight to his home city, but there were no seats available until the next day. When he asked about the possibility of flying standby, the gate attendant rolled his eyes and said, “No seats available means no seats are available. You’re stuck here tonight,” then walked away. Three airline employees witnessed the exchange. None offered to help David or report the incident. David has not flown on that airline since.

In a recent study, my colleagues and I found that the real problem in David’s disaster was not the unresponsive gate attendant but the three silent witnesses. The study showed that each employee who sits silently after witnessing bad customer service costs the company an average of € 47.817 per year. You read that right — € 47.817 per year!

But our study also revealed some good news: If you create a culture of candor you regain the € 44.000 —and possibly more.
On average, only 7 percent of employees can be counted on to speak up when they witness an incident of poor customer service. And yet, 66 percent of employees say they are capable of helping solve the customer’s problem.

In addition, our study also found:

  • A typical employee witnesses 19 poor customer-service incidents per year.
  • Those incidents together result in a 17 percent drop in revenue annually per affected customer.
  • 75 percent of business-to-consumer (B2C) customers said poor service negatively affects the business they do with that company by 50 percent or more—vs. 42 percent of business-to-business (B2B) customers.

It turns out, that while it’s essential that you train employees to take good care of customers, you’ll never reach a level of excellence unless, in addition to that training, you build a culture where employees who see something say something. The move from good to great happens when employees are willing and able to coach and assist each other when a colleague is falling short of your service standards. The real barrier to improvement is often not the poor service but the pervasive silence. People simply don’t hold others accountable for their actions—or step in to help when a colleague is overwhelmed. Whether it’s because it ‘makes me look bad,’ or whatever the excuse may be, the business world is suffering from a serious case of ‘I’m-not-my-brother’s-keeper.’ It’s an issue of silence–and it has a substantial effect on organizations.

The first step to creating a culture of candor is to be candid about the silence. Leaders should talk to their employees about the crisis of silence and share examples of missed opportunities to intervene. Be quick to spotlight positive anecdotes as well—make heroes of those who take a risk to protect customer interests. Finally, leaders need to invest in skill building. Those of us who are practiced in silence struggle for tactful ways to point out deficiencies or get involved when it might ruffle some feathers. We don’t need more motivation, we need more ability.

Poor customer service, unfortunately, will continue at some level. And when someone does observe an incident with his or her colleague or subordinate, here are a few tips for respectfully and effectively speaking up:

  1. Talk face-to-face. If possible, speak to the colleague in person and privately.
  2. Assume the best of others. It’s possible the person is unaware of what he or she is doing. Begin the conversation as a curious friend.
  3. Talk tentatively. Begin to describe the problem with, “I’m not sure you intended this . . .” or “I’m not sure you’re aware of this . . .”
  4. Start with facts. Not only are conclusions possibly wrong, but they also create defensiveness. Share the facts first. Say something like, “When that customer said they disagreed with you, you said . . .”
  5. Ask for others’ views. Ask if they saw the issue differently. “Is that what you intended to say?”
  6. Use equal treatment. This applies to everyone, regardless of title or position. People deserve to be treated with respect.

What if David’s encounter with the airline had a happier ending? Say one of the three employees who witnessed his exchange with the gate attendant decided to act. She quickly pulled her co-worker aside and said, “Hey seems like you’re under a lot of pressure, mind if I take another shot at that customer?” The new attendant approaches David and says, “Sir, I am so sorry your plans have been so frustrated. I have booked you on the first open flight in the morning. I know it’s not the one you wanted, but I was able to get you a seat in business class.” David’s resentment begins to melt. “And here are vouchers for your hotel and meals. I added a second meal voucher, be sure to have dessert.” David offers a tired smile and walks away a loyal customer rather than a resentful defector.

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