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Navigating Labor Shortage in Customer Service: 3 Steps You Can Take Now

You’ve likely seen the signs posted in retail and restaurants: “Please be patient with our team.”

You’ve probably heard similar delay announcements when contacting organizations: “Due to unusually heavy demand... “

Supply and production issues are, as Carrington York put it in a recent LinkedIn News story, “flipping the U.S. economy on its head.” And customer service operations are in the middle of the storm.

For customers, the inconveniences and waits are frustrating. For those responsible for customer service, the challenges are immediate and pervasive.

Gut-wrenching, frankly.

As a customer service leader, what can you do? Along with efforts you may already have in motion - to bring on the people you need, prevent, and automate work, or others - I want to suggest three powerful steps:

1. Tap the potential of your team to innovate

A large consumer products company was struggling with high turnover and staffing shortages in a customer service department. Customer feedback was awful, the culture was stifling, and employees jumped at any chance to move to other jobs.

But as their new director would discover, his team would have answers. They just needed to be drawn out. He began an initial meeting by asking them about their value and purpose. One employee slouched in the back of a meeting room, responded with a question: “We handle consumer gripes all day... how important can that be?”

They decided to find out. Some simple analysis over the next few days revealed that 11% of customer contacts about a specific cleaning product were due to the cap being too hard to remove. Customers would force it off, too often shearing off the spray nozzle.

They shared this data with their packaging supplier, who redesigned the caps. Those contacts went away, reducing workload and benefiting many future customers.

That gave the team a glimpse of their potential. In the weeks and months that followed, the department became involved in marketing, systems improvement, and product development. A senior leader told me that team had become the “secret sauce” to the company’s research and development.

Employees became engaged and excited, and turnover dropped to single digits.

2. Educate everyone on the 'power of one'

Employees have an impact that goes far beyond the customers they directly help.

Consider a group of 20 employees who are helping 100 customers over a 30-minute period of time.

(I produced a table of predictions based on the formula Erlang C. Erlang C predicts staffing requirements when customer queues are involved - retail stores, contact centers, restaurants, or others. There are many simple, free Erlang C calculators; do search to find one, or go to www.bradcleveland.com/resources.)

With 20 team members, 32 customers wait five seconds or longer. As things play out (just glance along that row from left to right), 30 customers are still waiting ten seconds or longer, 29 are still waiting 15 seconds or longer, and so forth. You can see that a couple of customers wait for 240 seconds (4 minutes) or more.

Table showing an example customer queue

Figure: Example of a Customer Queue

What happens if you have only 17 employees? Woah! Dozens of customers are waiting four minutes or longer.

Look at the results when you have just one more person who jumps in and helps out. You’ve seen that dynamic in busy grocery stores; when they open one more checkout lane, all the lines shift around and everything moves more quickly.

Each employee has a significant positive impact on customer wait times - a ripple effect far beyond the customers they serve directly. Include this principle in training - knowing about it can put a new bounce in their step and pride in their work.

3. Establish simple, effective quality standards

Labor shortages in customer service are often viewed as a matter of keeping up with the workload. What’s often missed is how to respond to the nature of the workload. You can throw all the resources at it that you want, but if your organization isn’t prepared to handle the content of the work, it’s going to be a struggle.

This is where empowerment is so important. Many organizations want to do the right thing for customers, but too often put a multi-layered, time-eroding approval process in place to get there. Your employees must be able to take action as circumstances unfold.

Many executives are initially concerned with empowering employees to make decisions that could cost the organization. But empowerment done right is efficient and cost-effective.

Employees appreciate the trust and want to make decisions that are right for customers and the organization. And because it’s happening on the spot, you are saving resources and aggravation for all involved.

The key is to have clear standards and guidance. Here are the kinds of questions each employee should be equipped to answer:

  • What would resolve the problem for this customer?

  • What decision best aligns with our values and mission?
  • How should I best capture information and learnings about this issue so that we are equipped as an organization to make improvements going forward?

Training and coaching should be focused on these questions. Create scenarios and role-plays that strengthen judgment and decision-making skills. You won’t be able to anticipate and train on every situation that comes along, but you can provide a foundation that leads to good decisions, no matter the circumstance.


These steps can help you address labor shortages in the near term.

Long term, they deliver much more.

By boosting purpose, innovation, and empowerment, you’ll be strengthening your organization far beyond simply finding the labor resources you need.

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