speaking with authority  a tale of an ambassador and a receptionist
A smiling receptionist wearing a phone headset. Used with permission thanks to Anita Berghoef.

When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law. Matthew 7:28-29

A Tale of the Good and Bad of Customer Service

My phone rang at 5:40 Tuesday night and a voice said, “John, my name is [first name only] and I am on staff at the [name of embassy]. What can I do to help you?” A few minutes later he said, “Be assured, we will not interfere with your travel plans. I will look after this tomorrow and do everything possible to resolve this by noon. One way or another, you will be looked after.”

I hung up the phone, and said to my wife, “I think that was the ambassador himself. He spoke with such authority.” I checked their website’s staff list (listing everybody including the receptionist) and sure enough I was right—only the ambassador had that name. My question is, why did I assume it had to be the ambassador? Why wouldn’t I expect any staff member to speak like that to fix a problem? Well, read on.

My online visa application in January was confirmed by email as having been received, so I assumed it was also being processed. But no. Even though the website doesn’t say so, the online application goes nowhere until the hard copy arrives with your passport. It takes seven business days to get a visa, and there were only eight business days left before I leave! So I scrambled to put together a new application and sent it guaranteed overnight by Canada Post (hoping that in emergencies the embassy could issue a visa in five days). Well, the application was delivered in two days, not one (I didn’t mail it from Elmira—my mistake), and the receptionist said the visa section was closed the day it arrived. Now I was really worried for a number of reasons. The visa office did not return any of the five messages I left on Monday and Tuesday. Not one.

In desperation, I hit ‘zero’ and spoke to the receptionist again, who was amazing. She was empathetic, she did everything she could to help me. She even put me on hold, walked to the visa office, confirmed the lady was there, told her of the urgent nature of my call, and asked her to take my call when she put me through. The receptionist transferred me…and the visa office dumped me straight into voicemail!! Back to the receptionist I went, who was professional but perturbed. She said she would personally retrieve my passport and send it back to me so I could leave on Sunday. She said in an emergency I could apply for the visa when I entered the country. I expressed my gratitude to her. I knew she was in no position to actually do anything about getting the visa but at least she was looking after my passport. But as it turned out…I underestimated her.

While she had no authority or power to grant a visa, she did have the ability to bring my case to the ambassador’s attention.

When he called, I assumed he was from the visa section. But he spoke with such authority that there was no doubt in my mind that this was a person who could make things happen and I knew he had to be the top person. He made me confident my problem would be solved because he made specific promises, offering no maybes or waffles, just firm commitments. He spoke with authority. And he delivered in less than a day what normally takes seven. So today, Thursday, I have my passport and visa in my hand.

Customer Service Reps (CSRs) and Their Authority

That got me thinking. My experience is that when there is a problem, customer service people rarely speak with much authority. By authority, I mean projecting confidence in making commitments that will be delivered. I assumed it must be the ambassador I was speaking with because I rarely hear other staff speak with such authority and confidence in their ability to take action. Ideally, I’m sure you’d like every staff member to have that confidence. If every employee were seen as strong, capable and powerful in their ability to commit to action, wouldn’t that raise the public’s favourable perception of your ministry? The prospect of dealing with an organization that couples staff empowerment with high staff ownership of the organization’s values is compelling. I want to associate with organizations like that!

The receptionist could have said, “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do” and then have left me on my own to solve my problem. But she didn’t. She offered advice and told me to do something that was outside their policy—email a UPS shipping label so she could send my passport back faster (their policy on the website is to use only Canada Post). The receptionist made an exception to policy! While she couldn’t grant the visa (after all, there are limits to what can be delegated), she went beyond the rules and policies to understand the spirit in which they were written. She knew how the embassy wanted to serve the public, and she felt she could make an exception to policy in order to do the right thing. Ask yourself, how far up the organizational chart does someone have to go to get a decision to do the right thing? I hope it’s not very high.

Building Authority in CSRs

We can learn from Jesus, who taught with authority while the teachers of the law didn’t. Why did he teach with authority? Because he was entitled to and because he owned what he was teaching. He knew the spirit of the law. There’s a lesson!

The receptionist knows what good and bad service look like and it appears she felt entitled to make a judgment call about my case. She demonstrated that she owned the embassy’s service standards by making it her personal responsibility to see that I was served well. You expect the ambassador to speak with authority. I was surprised and delighted when the receptionist did too. She didn’t overstep her authority, but she did live up to what had been either explicitly or implicitly delegated.

How Leaders Can Empower CSRs

As leaders, we should do two things very well:

  1. Ensure that all staff are entitled to speak with authority about upholding agreed-upon standards of service and values. Back them up when they do. If we will always do what is right, and if we have agreed that our ministry values and standards of service are what is right, then how can we go wrong by giving people at all levels the authority to make things right? Julian Byng, commander of the Canadian Corps at Vimy Ridge, said in the context of empowering front line troops to make decisions, “In a crisis situation, the man who does something may sometimes be wrong, but the man who does nothing is always wrong.” I used to understand a crisis as a problem or a threat. But since studying biblical Greek, I know now that the Greek word for crisis means “to make a judgment based on taking various factors into account.” In other words, to think. I now understand a crisis to be something that demands a decision, and that is a much better way to think about it. I find that thought empowering. Anyway, when a situation arises that must be dealt with, let your staff know you will support any decisions that align with your values and the spirit in which you want to serve. The receptionist obviously had no difficulty going to the top when a co-worker didn’t live up to the standards. Senior leadership needs to delegate to staff the ability to always do the right thing.
  2. Ensure that all staff are exposed to the ethos of the ministry. You can’t make them accept it deep down as their own (only they can do that), but you can promote it to them. Culture-building is one of the most important responsibilities a leader has. Anybody can mouth the words, but only those who really own the words can speak and act with conviction and power about them. The teachers of the law knew the words of the law, but not its meaning and intent.  Jesus did, and that is why he  spoke so powerfully.

Not only did Jesus himself have this authority, but he gave it to all his disciples as well. It wasn’t just the senior leader who could be authoritative, but everyone could be. He told his disciples they would do even greater works than he did (John 14:12), and we know from Acts 4:33 that they did so with power: With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all.The apostles were entitled to speak and act with the authority of Jesus, and they owned that authority by acting on it. Imagine if that could be said of all of your staff about the mission and values you stand for.

You know what to do, so now in the immortal words of Jean-Luc Picard, “Make it so!”

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