Teams are overworked and on the edge. How to combat the slide.

One of my favorite bosses pointed out that a contract is only as good as the intent of the parties who sign it. Yes, you can haul a party in breach of contract into court or arbitration, but the resolution rarely completely fixes the issue, and in many cases parties breach agreements with no consequences. Nowhere is that more evident than in today’s semiconductor industry. You’ll get parts when they arrive even when there was a commitment for an earlier date; they may cost more than the agreed-upon price; and the order is noncancellable regardless of how many previously agreed-upon terms change. In short, one party has no intent to adhere to the terms of its agreements, and market conditions will likely enable that behavior to continue indefinitely with no consequences.

This type of environment can be as contagious as the most recent Covid variant. Customer service and honoring commitments are sliding across the board. Last month, I listened to a gate agent lecture a 6 a.m. flyer who foolishly thought she could get to her destination in a single day, saying the airline wasn’t obligated to put her on a different airline until she had been stuck in transit for 48 hours. Separately, three contractors I called for glass cutting informed me that they couldn’t commit to a time for quoting or delivery but would a call an hour before they arrived. One finally did call back a week later and got the job. The other two still haven’t called back. When all competitors in a market are getting away with behaving badly, mediocrity thrives.

The converse is also true. When all competitors in a given market behave badly, average customer service stands out. Companies can distinguish themselves simply by returning phone calls, working through issues as rapidly as possible and doing their best to honor commitments even when market pressures make follow-through more difficult. In short, noticeable customer service in this environment really means meeting normal expectations.

Like Covid, however, mediocrity spreads easily through overworked teams who see examples of poor customer service everywhere. The airline gate agent I saw last month was taking joy in schooling this unhappy traveler in the new rules, most likely because she had been yelled at by passengers so often she now saw reschedules as an adversarial relationship rather than a customer service opportunity.

How do you stop the spread of mediocrity in your organization? To start, acknowledge the drivers of mediocrity. In the EMS industry, market factors are creating an environment where customers are regularly disappointed. Those factors are outside the control of the EMS staff members interacting with customers. That said, those representatives can control some issues, including:

  • Speed of returned phone calls or emails (even when the reply is “I’m still working on getting an answer.”)
  • Mistake-free execution of internal processes
  • A commitment to transparency and fast delivery of bad news
  • Attention to detail in communications among team members and customers
  • Creativity in development of options in situations where customer requirements can’t be met
  • Empathy in situations where customer requirements can’t be met
  • Best efforts to honor commitments where possible.

It’s also important to establish a top-down vision of what customer service should look like within the organization, with metrics for problem resolution cycle time, definitions of what extraordinary measures staff can take to resolve a bad situation, and clear expectations on appropriate behavior in dealing with customers.

Training is helpful as well. The issue I observed at the airport escalated because of the gate agent’s attitude. While transactional analysis is no longer in vogue as a management training technique, its simple lessons are very relevant today. The attitude we exhibit when we address people drives the quality of the transaction, and most people interact in parent, child or peer (adult) states. When someone exhibits the attitude of a parent talking to a child, it will drive a rebellious child response. When the attitude conveys a peer-to-peer discussion of a business case, the response will convey a similar peer-to-peer calm approach. And when the response is a frustrated child ranting about out-of-control situations, it will drive a parent response. Helping employees understand their individual role in delivering good customer service, even when suppliers are not, helps inoculate against the spread of mediocrity and pays dividends in customer tenure when markets return to normal operations. •

Susan Mucha  is president of Powell-Mucha Consulting Inc. (, a consulting firm providing strategic planning, training and market positioning support to EMS companies, and author of Find It. Book It. Grow It. A Robust Process for Account Acquisition in Electronics Manufacturing Services;

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