How much autonomy should your customer service staff have?


Customer service staff feel empowered when they can make independent decisions on behalf of their customers. But is there such a thing as too much autonomy?

21st Jun 2021

In July 2020, Nadia Begum was fired from her role as a bank manager at an Oxford branch of Lloyds, after she had been found to be in breach of the organisation’s “colleague code of responsibility”.

Begum had repeatedly helped an elderly, visually impaired man, Clifford Weedon, open his mail, read his letters and pay his bills whenever he came into the branch. His eyesight was poor and worsening and Begum had wanted to be supportive, striking up a friendship with him as a result of his visits.

Despite Weedon calling Begum a "godsend" and an “angel in disguise”, Lloyds cited Begum’s actions as improper, stating in their justification for dismissal:

"Supporting and protecting our customers is our absolute priority, to ensure this happens we have a colleague code of responsibility in place to safeguard both our colleagues and customers.”

However, Begum’s argument was that, “with Covid, everyone's trying to go above and beyond for people, and that's all I was doing".

Indeed, she was soon headhunted by an energy company boss for her "above and beyond customer service".  

"Nadia's warmth and humanity was the perfect fit,” explained Greg Jackson, the chief executive of Octopus, when asked about her hiring.

Breaking the rules

Whilst Begum’s story is primarily one of redemption, it also raises an important question around the autonomy of staff – especially for those working in customer service roles.

Recent years have seen many big brands, including, Tesco Mobile and the Co-op place much greater value on employee engagement and employee experience programmes within their main customer service hubs – the contact centre – and with it a greater emphasis on autonomy; specifically when it comes to resolving customer queries and issues.

But how can autonomy be fostered, what measures should customer leaders put in place to ensure their staff feel empowered to make autonomous decisions, and is there such a thing as too much autonomy?

Applying all-encompassing policies for every customer simply doesn’t make sense

Author and founder of CS Solutions, Bryan Horn, says too many internal rules stifle customer experience, and that examples such as Begum’s highlight that if it benefits the customer, rules are there to be broken.

“Applying all-encompassing policies for every customer simply doesn’t make sense. I am in no way advocating a company should let customers manipulate and take advantage of them. But many policies don’t apply in most instances, and thus should be broken to create a moment of 'wow'.

“Companies have this internal fear that if they bend the rules for one customer, they must for everybody. Or, they will somehow justify that the cost of producing the experience outweighs the positive experience itself. It actually costs far less to produce these great experiences than your annual marketing/advertising budget.

“Employees should be empowered to take care of any negative customer situation right then and there. More rules leads to less passionate team members. Less passion leads to less engagement. Less engagement leads to lagging service. Lagging experience leads to lower sales.”

Micromanaging customer experience

Speaking via Call Centre Helper, Helen Ginman, a trainer and consultant with Unique and Inclusive Wellbeing states that customer service autonomy is often sacrificed by organisations in order to better micromanage CX.

“Some contact centres purposely give advisors low autonomy because they believe it will give them more control and shape the customer experience.

“But if advisors have to handle a query where there is no clear guidance on what to do and they lack the autonomy to come up with creative solutions themselves – panic mode sets in. This is especially the case when they know that they might be judged on that call later.”

Ginman argues that there can be serious and negative mental health issues to consider within businesses that assert too much control over the expense of autonomy.

Unfortunately, control correlates directly with demotivation

Studies going back more than ten years also state this and have highlighted the effect control and autonomy has on motivation and stress levels in contact centres. Customer service expert and author, Jeff Toister believes it is a lack of understanding that often forces employers to create a highly autonomous environment:

“A lot of this stems from executives looking at call centres as a ‘cost’ and in business, if it’s an expense, they want to minimise it as much as possible. So they pay low wages, they control the processes to make things simpler and give people less individual though.

“Unfortunately, control correlates directly with demotivation. Employees end up essentially putting notes into their systems that are being placed for other people further down the chain to fix the problem. That’s demotivating to the agent because they’re the one being complained to but they can’t actually fix the problem. So part of the fix there for companies, the really smart companies, is to have a lot of cross-functional work; call centre managers and fulfilment centre managers meeting on a regular basis to compare notes and share feedback so they can streamline the process agents have to actually instantly resolve problems.

“The other fix is simple but it scares call centre managers – give agents the broader guidelines and the autonomy to actually resolve the problem using their best training and instincts. Make it OK to actively discuss problems with the customer and ask what next. The company has to get to grips that this almost always results in better service for the customer and you have better agents; the downside is generally minimal in those situations but you end up with highly motivated staff.”

Allowances for staff

An evolution of this ‘fix’ in many big businesses is to give customer service staff individual budgets specifically for autonomous decisions about rewarding customers in moments where there are less obvious cut-and-dry solutions to a customer’s query.

It is something previous practiced by – with staff given a monthly allowance to ‘gift’ customers.

Louise Locke, director of customer service at previously explained to MyCustomer that such initiatives were part of a wider requirement of staff to be in charge of their own decision-making.

“It is a huge enabler of people self-driving their own development. People need to take control of their own destiny and we’ve enabled a pathway to help people get there.”

The mandate for many big businesses is to bring that personal relationship back but maintain scale

Other companies, such as Autoglass and BT, have previously trialled using third-parties to incorporate more autonomous ‘gifting’ into their customer service agents’ processes.

“The personal relationship is being taken away from customer service, especially in larger companies,” explains Indrek Poldvee, the co-founder of a customer retention tool called Sorry-as-a-Service, which was designed to help big businesses with the problem of allowing service and support staff to reward customers at scale.

“Everything is becoming more and more digital. More and more automated. Obviously, the mandate for many big businesses is to bring that personal relationship back but maintain scale.

“We are losing the human touch in customer service. Big companies often come across as too corporate in moments such as this, when a complaint has been made and there’s been a failure in delivery or service. Give customer support teams as great an opportunity as possible to offer something personal to customers, and to go the extra mile to show they care.”

Informed by technology

Whilst Nadia Begum’s story was one that unfolded at a bank branch, for many customer service employees, the past 18 months have seen their work shift to remote settings as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

According to Salesforce’s 7 Ways Of Giving Your Customer Service Agents Autonomy this has, above else, been one of the biggest factors in the drive towards more autonomous working in customer service and contact centre environments.

“In some cases it wasn’t easy, but it opened up many employers’ eyes to the benefits of remote work scenarios. This includes the fact it may be appealing to the next generation of customer service agents

“When agents don’t always have to commute and can better balance their personal and professional obligations through technologies that support WFH, a feeling of autonomy is a natural byproduct.” 

This is a huge factor given that a 2019 study found that around 56% of millennial customer service workers felt they didn’t have the right tools in place to actually solve complex customer problems and therefore that led to not feeling satisfied with  their contribution to the business. This was despite the fact that for 56% of respondents, dealing with complex issues is the most challenging part of the role.

Salesforce’s Kelly Singsank says autonomous decision-making is still something that should be informed by technology.

“There will be plenty of occasions when agents need to make a judgment call on whether to allow an item to be returned, to offer a full refund or other kind of “make good” to a customer. When you have historical data on the conditions that can guide those decisions, agents should be able to make the right call without their manager. 

“Agents can not only use the same tools to look at data and identify the most actionable insights. They can also offer anecdotal evidence based on front-line observations that help refine or bolster a particular service strategy. 

“Remember, autonomy doesn’t mean that customer service agents should feel like they’re all on their own. It means they should feel a greater sense of owning the results they deliver.”

Indeed for Nadia Begum, this was the exact reason her new role at Octopus was offered to her after being dismissed at Lloyds, telling the BBC she had “been ‘put on a pedestal’ at the new company for the same reason she lost her job at the bank: as an example of the benefits of being autonomous in customer service; rather than the repercussions.


Replies (3)

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Andrew Moorhouse
By Andrew Moorhouse
22nd Jun 2021 13:03

It's a good well-written piece Chris. I feel something that's masked here is the distinction between rules, guidelines, boundaries and policies.

To avoid confusion, rules should be treated as Black and White. FCA, Security, GDPR etc. I think Bryan's view could be misconstrued by some as these type of rules are not meant to be broken. But guidelines should be pushed for sure.

AHT should be seen by all as a guideline, but I've witnessed top performing BPO Agents (when measured by C-Sat) put on a PiP - a performance improvement plan, when taking 10% longer on calls. As you can imagine, these top performers didn't hang around for long.

I'd also suggest that giving autonomy and a small budget for 'wow moments' can backfire. I've seen this a few times. As the unhappy customer often expects more than a £15 credit or, in utility field work, they didn't just want a new strip of turf laying; they then wanted the full lawn replacing! I think wow moments too are archaic and the whole purpose of giving autonomy, or a creating a permission culture, is to give the agent the space and resources to fully resolve the customer issue.

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Replying to Andrew Moorhouse:
Chris Ward
By Chris Ward
23rd Jun 2021 09:34

Thanks Andrew. Some excellent points raised - specifically on budgets/ allowances being difficult to manage. We've certainly seen examples of customers 'gaming' these offers in recent times - especially via social media.

I agree with your points about rules vs guidelines and many businesses appear to be seeing sense when it comes to giving their staff some flex on their guidelines in order to resolve customer queries. It's a pity that we're still seeing examples (such as the one at the start of this article) of businesses that are leaning the other way, even when the outcome seems obvious to most.

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By Fastyam
14th Sep 2021 11:43

What level of importance do large companies really place on customer experience when it is evident that many call centres are managed by 3rd parties and many of them are overseas due to the lower cost burden. Recent personal experiences suggest that automation and AI is becoming the process by which most companies are dealing with their customers and there are reducing levels of human interaction across the board. Accountants tend to be in senior positions within larger companies and budgets and profit margins are driven by short term strategies. Only when companies recognise the importance of long term customer focussed strategies, recognising the value of customer loyalty, will things change.

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