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We Are Working – Really!

Techniques for Managing the Perception That Workers Are Not Serving Customers

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New York City Mayor Eric Adams late last month roundly criticized members of the New York City Police Department who were spotted by civilians standing around and looking at their phones. The former NYC transit officer asked commuters to take pictures of cops looking at their phones, and then send them to him directly.

According to news reports, Adams promised a change in policing strategy and policy. “We are going to start taking very aggressive actions to make sure police are patrolling our subway system and not patrolling their iPhones,” Adams said. “You are going to see a visual difference in policing in the next couple of weeks.”

However, officers were not just scrolling through their Twitter feeds, or checking out Instagram feeds. According to Police Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch, police officers were ordered to carry and use the phones, to help them document the work they do during each day’s tour.

“Every form we are required to fill out and every alert we receive comes through the phone,” Lynch said. “If there’s a problem with cops using the phone on duty, NYPD management should change the policies and go back to pen and paper.”

Ideally, the NYPD should have proactively announced to the public that its officers were being required to use their phones to handle official police business, instead of opening themselves up to unfair criticism from the mayor. However, this type of scenario, where workers appear to be “not working” when needed often crops up in other businesses, particularly in retail, hospitality, and restaurants. Customers may see workers who do not appear to be taking on tasks that are directly related to their specific needs, and they become frustrated. Consider the following example:

A long line of customers begins to form in a retail store, and a single associate seems to be available to work the register to process transactions. Other workers are seen in the store, but do not appear to be rushing to open additional registers, or otherwise assist the customers, thereby appearing to be dismissive of the customers’ needs to complete their transactions and leave the store.

Several steps can be taken to ensure this scenario does not occur, as well as other similar ones, where customers may get the impression that workers are not focused solely on their immediate needs:

  • Ensure that all qualified and available workers quickly monitor changing conditions in the store, and are properly trained on how to respond to increases in customer volume.
  • Encourage off-duty workers to stay out of sight if they are “off-the-clock.” In a perfect world, employees would simply pitch in during periods of high volume. The reality of front-line work is that employees are paid hourly, and are unlikely to want to work for free. If your business does not want to authorize ad hoc overtime pay to account for customer surges, it is best to keep these employees out of the line of sight of customers who may not be sympathetic to the situation.
  • In situations where some workers are qualified to handle certain tasks, but not others, encourage employees to explain their roles to customers, along with the reason they cannot assist. One example of this scenario would be in the restaurant and bar industry; generally only trained mixologists are permitted to take and fill bar orders; barbacks are simply deployed to manage the other non-customer facing tasks. Similarly, medical assistants are generally not permitted to perform certain medical procedures (such as administering injections or providing diagnoses). And in some retail stores, stock workers are not permitted to conduct transactions and ring up customers. In these cases, train these workers to calmly explain why they are not able to assist and offer to alert the person that can help them, instead of just saying “no, I cannot help you.”

While these examples have largely been in the B2C sector, B2B environments can also encounter situations where workers may not appear to be assisting customers. Key examples can be found within the trades, where workers generally have been trained in a special skill, and it would be unsafe for them to take on other pieces of work. These situations may also occur in technical fields, particularly with respect to providing support for specific technologies or tools (some tech support teams have expertise with one or two product types, as opposed to being generalists).

In a perfect world, everyone within an organization would be able to address and service every customer’s need, but the reality is that some segmentation of skills and responsibility is needed to ensure operational efficiency. Workers should aid customers when they are able, and if they are not, they need to explain why they are unable to help, and should then quickly alert others who can be of assistance.

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