Autonomy vs. Standards…in Business, Customer Service, the Customer Experience

As a business keynote speaker, I spend a lot of time speaking about the need for employee autonomy in customer service and business operations in general.  And a lot of time talking about the need to set and maintain service and brand standards. 

The bottom line?  You need to balance both.

Business works best when you provide your employees with well-defined standards, accompanied by the reasoning behind them and autonomy in how they’re carried out.

Define your standards using a three-part summary statement format:

1. Why the service is of value (why we’re doing this in the first place)

2. The emotional response we’re aiming to have the customer feel

3. The expected way to accomplish the service

Point three should be formulated in a manner that allows judgment and discretion to be used in all but mission-critical situations.

Formulated this way, standards help ensure that every part of your service reflects the best way your company knows to perform it—a prescription that your autonomously performing employees can then feel free to adapt to suit the needs and wishes, expressed or unexpressed, of the customers they’re actually facing at the moment.

What follows is a practical example of how a company might summarize a single standard:

We answer all web-form queries in a speedy, personable, non-automated fashion that assists and reassures, binding the customer or prospective customer to our company on the first response.

• The response time will be within thirty-five minutes.

•  The initial answer provided will either be complete or, if that’s not possible, will couple a partial, brief answer with a promise of a comprehensive future answer within a specified time frame. In that case, expert assistance will be requested internally, but the initial respondent will own the follow-up until completed to the customer’s satisfaction.

Then, take the time necessary to more fully explain your reasoning to employees:

‘‘We need to answer customer inquiries faster than anyone else, because our studies, last undertaken fourteen months ago, demonstrate this as one of the top five controllable factors in making a sale. The response needs to be friendly and professional for that reason as well.’’

And define any unclear terminology:

‘‘Faster than anyone else’’ means within two hours for an initial query, and within fifteen minutes for a follow-up query related to the initial query.

• ‘‘Friendly and professional’’ means to ‘‘use your best judgment’’ but also to ‘‘avoid the following list of phrases and consider the substitutes listed below instead.’’

Finally, you need to measure and, as needed, reinforce the standards.

 Standards and autonomy: Why the hybrid path  is the best path.

“All autonomy, all the time!” is by and large a bust.  It doesn’t work so well (using the  example of answering incoming Web queries) to tell an employee to ‘‘answer customer queries any time you want, ’’ because answering customer queries promptly is a crucial part of giving great customer service; it can’t be left to this level of potential variability.

And mindless, unexplained bossiness about standards is equally unworkable.  It doesn’t work to say to an employee, ‘‘You have to hurry and check this function off your list, or you’re in trouble.’’ You’ll end up with cursory replies, as the employee misapprehends the reason he’s responding, which now becomes not to take care of the customer, but because he’s checking something off a list to avoid angering his boss.

The hybrid path, straddling the line between employee autonomy and definition of standards,  is the only path to business success, consistent, sustainable business success.

Micah Solomon, author of “High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service“, is the customer service strategist and business keynote speaker termed by the Financial Post ”a new guru of customer service excellence.” Solomon is a top keynote speaker, strategist, and consultant on customer service issues, the customer experience, and company culture — and how they fit into today’s marketing and technology landscape. An entrepreneur and business leader, he previously coauthored the bestselling “Exceptional Service, Exceptional Profit“.


“Micah Solomon conveys an up-to-the minute and deeply practical take on customer service, business success, and the twin importance of people and technology.” –Steve Wozniak, Apple co-founder

Micah Solomon • Author-Speaker-Strategist • Customer Service – Marketing – Loyalty – Leadership

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Portions  of this article may have appeared in a different form in Micah’s earlier publications.

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