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Customer Service

7 Common Customer Service Mistakes

Over the years that I’ve been a Trainer and Speaker with ZingTrain, sharing how Zingerman’s builds a culture of great service, I’m sure you can imagine how my awareness of the way that different companies deliver customer service has only increased.  Of course, there’s a wide range out there – I personally try to patronize businesses that prioritize service and give constructive feedback when my expectations aren’t met.  And thankfully, the clients we get to work with at ZingTrain are typically high performers when it comes to customer service and don’t fall into these customer service traps.

Here are what I believe are common customer service mistakes that companies (or organizations) make:

Mistake #1: Companies focus on tasks and productivity, not people (customers OR staff!)

You’ve likely seen this in action if you’ve traveled through an airport or visited a grocery store – the person working behind a counter with their head down, deeply focused on whatever it is that they’re doing.  Could be preparing a rack of ribs, could be getting a passenger manifest ready – could even be solving world peace! It’s still deeply frustrating as a customer to be on the other side of the counter while the service provider seemingly ignores you.

There are many reasons this happens – but the bottom line is always the same.  Front-line service providers feel like they have to finish tasks to have visible, tangible evidence that they’re valuable to the business.  Spending time talking to customers, making them feel welcome and answering their questions fully and patiently often takes time away from completing that work.

To be clear, I’m NOT advocating that you stop doing the tasks!  I know they’re important and vital to the running of any organization.  What I’m advocating is that people come first, tasks come second. Make it okay for someone to pause in their work to look up and greet a customer.  Be explicit that no matter what, we want our employee’s attention up and around them, not down at their work station.

Tool for remedying this mistake: The 10-4 Rule – When someone comes within 10 feet, we make eye contact and smile.  Within 4 feet, we verbally greet them. 

Success Story: A couple of years ago, I was talking to a young woman from North Dakota who manages a wholesale plant nursery.  She attended a Customer Service workshop with ZingTrain in February, and took one of my favorite tools to heart – the 10-4 Rule – and went back and implemented it with her team for the upcoming growing season.  When I saw her that July, she shared what a change that one tool made in their customer service! Rather than feeling like walk-in retail customers were an interruption, preventing the greenhouse staff from the important work of keeping the plants watered, greeting customers because almost a competition to see who could welcome them first.  And, as she said, “Turns out, you can talk to a customer while you’ve still got the hose in your hand watering the plants!”

Mistake #2: Companies get in their own way

There are a couple of ways I see this playing out, and I’m confident that if I asked you, the list would grow even longer!

One way companies get in their own way is by focusing on the .1% of customers who are trying to take advantage, not the 99.9% of customers who have a legitimate issue.   It’s not the job of a front-line service provider to determine if a complaint is valid, the expectation is that they’ll handle the issue in the moment and we can review it after the fact.  We try to presume positive intent – if they feel like there’s an issue, or they know this is a repeat issue with this customer (this is where service documentation is extremely helpful), a supervisor or manager is there to help.

Another way companies get in their own way is by being too rigid or scripted around customer service.  I remember the old McDonald’s example where a cashier asked someone who was only purchasing fries, “Would you like fries with that?”  From a distance, of course that is a ridiculous question to ask! But I guarantee that the employee was trained to ask that question of every single customer.  One of the things I like the best about our service approach is that we view it as ‘One Size Fits One” not ‘One Size Fits All.’ Every single interaction should be tailored to the customer.  The customer won’t necessarily want the same thing each time, nor will every customer want the same thing. It’s also one of the fun parts of giving great service, to tailor your approach to the person you’re interacting will, letting your own personality and style shine through.

The last example of this mistake is when companies prioritize their own ease of operations over the customer’s ease of working with them.  It’s the mile-long form to fill out before you can even become a customer, or multiple hurdles to leap before they’ll deign to work with you.  It’s only having a single “contact us” box on your website, with no other contact information available. These are all systems that were set up to help the company, not the customer.  

Tools for mitigating this mistake:  Create service systems with flexibility. Teach your team how to break the rules.  Review your systems using your customer’s eyes.  

Cautionary tale:  I started my career at Zingerman’s working in the Service Center at Zingerman’s Mail Order, taking orders and handling complaints over the phone.  13 years later, I still vividly remember a first-time customer who called to let us know that “I didn’t like the coffeecake, my husband didn’t like the brownies, my daughter didn’t like the bread, and my grandkids didn’t like the cookies.”  I thought to myself, “Sure sounds like you managed to EAT everything, how much did you all not like it?!” Rather than acting on my own assumptions and judgment, I relied on my service training and instead was gracious and apologetic, and offered to send a more savory gift box to see if that might be more to her family’s taste.  She agreed, naturally – and (I am still embarrassed to admit) I made a note of her name and the order information to look up after time passed, to see if she called to complain about that order, too! When I looked her up a couple of weeks later, not only had she not called to complain – she placed an order to send the same savory gift box to 5 of her friends and relatives.  Had I acted on my instinct, we would have lost that future sale, and likely that customer.

Mistake #3: Companies don’t listen to their customers

This mistake often goes hand-in-hand with the previous mistake.  I guarantee that for every company that has a rigid policy, there are MANY customer complaints about that policy that get ignored as sour grapes.  

We’re very passionate about listening to the voice of our customers and service measurement here – it’s a key component of our customer service culture!  We get feedback all of the time, and it can really help to teach people how to listen for it, and what to do with the information once we have it.

For example, “I wish you …” or “Why don’t you …” are both what we consider soft complaints. The customer is not upset or actively complaining, but both of those are an opportunity to improve.  

We capture all of that information, along with customer complaints, product requests, and suggestions on an electronic form called the Code Red.  All of that information gets aggregated, allowing us to see patterns and trends over time, and determine if a complaint is an isolated issue or something that we need to tackle.

Additionally, we have a form to capture compliments, too!  It can be really productive to document the proof that what we’re doing around customer service is worth the effort and expense.  Not to mention that it helps us recognize what’s going well and share the praise with others in the organization.

Tools to help you listen to your customers: Code Red Form, Code Green Form, Webinar on Service Measurement


Mistake #4: Companies view customer service as a department, not something expected of everyone

You may have had this experience when you call a business with a question or an issue and are told: “Oh, you have to talk to customer service.”  How frustrating, you might think – why can’t that person help me?

ZingTrain Customer ServiceWhat we believe at Zingerman’s is that customer service is everyone’s job and that anyone can help a customer – it doesn’t matter if you have the answer or are the “right person”, you can get help and the customer knows that they’re the priority.

One of the key indicators that this is happening organizationally when we work with a company around customer service is when we learn that not everyone will be participating in the training, and that leaders will not be in the room when we do the service work.  It sends a very clear message when leaders are not participating in the training, and they’re also missing out on the opportunity to a part of a shared conversation around service in the business. It’s an uphill climb to make a positive cultural change around service when it’s not universal.

Tools to create cultural change around service: Review job performance expectations, and include service for every person in every position.  When doing service training or service work, aim to be as inclusive as possible.


Mistake #5: Companies prioritize short-term financial results over long-term relationships

(Several of the previous mistakes come into play here as well – focusing on tasks over people doesn’t build relationships, nor does being rigid with policies and systems!)

Zingerman’s practices Open Book Management, a system of running the businesses that, in part, focuses on measuring what’s important to the business.  Part of our Open Book work is to train our team to understand the balance between our three bottom-lines (Great Service, Great Food, and Great Finance.)  Yes, we might save money in handling a complaint more conservatively, with less of an expense in making it right, but then we run the risk of losing that customer, which is ultimately much more expensive.  In our customer service training and in open book conversations, we teach that keeping a customer is much less expensive than getting a new one. Not to mention, from a service perspective, we want to create life-long customers, and pinching pennies isn’t going to allow that to happen.

To that end, we budget for the cost of handling complaints and fixing mistakes – as Paul Saginaw, Zingerman’s Founding Partner and Chief Spiritual Officer says, “Mistakes are expensive because we make them, not because we fix them.”  We try to drive down the cost of fixing mistakes by causing less of them, not by not fixing them well.  We also for going the extra mile to delight our customers! 

Tools for avoiding short term financial focus:  Teach your team your organizational priorities, including the value of handling complaints well.  FAQ about Open Book


Mistake #6: Companies don’t do what they say they’re going to do

I have the feeling that many of you reading this are nodding your head at this one, thinking of an example where you were the customer, and a company, let you down.  I know I have them in my past, both personally and professionally! The scale of this mistake can be small, like selling out of a specific dessert while a server is at the table promising it to a customer, or large, like the multi-national companies who didn’t have the data security any of us expected.

In a previous blog post, we talked about why, sometimes, saying “No” to your customers is ultimately really good customer service.  But often companies are so focused on landing customers or generating sales that they say, “Sure, we can do that,“ and in reality, it’s not so simple.  This is an issue I’ve heard dozens of times – the people generating sales don’t check in with the folks in engineering or production, and will promise something that the company’s not currently positioned to do, requiring Herculean efforts to accomplish.  (By the way, this is not great internal service!) Far better for the customers to say “maybe,” then talk with those responsible for delivering results before making any promises.

What really impresses me is when a company realizes that they aren’t going to be able to deliver, and they own up.  As soon as you know that you’re not able to meet your customer’s expectations, communicate that. Whether it’s a late delivery or you need to cancel, I think it’s always better to be upfront and prompt with the information, along with options for next steps.

Tools to increase consistency:  Review what you do when things go wrong and you can’t deliver. Read all about the importance of systems in helping with this in Part 1 & Part 2 of this article on “The Importance of Systems.”


Mistake #7: Companies don’t train their team on how to deliver great customer service or handle customer complaints

Time and time again, in customer service workshops, folks volunteer that at many previous jobs, they were never given clear expectations around customer service, let alone tools to deliver great service or handle complaints.  Every time I hear this, it makes me want to smack my forehead in frustration.

If we as organizations don’t tell people what we expect from them, how in the world can we hold them accountable to expectations that they don’t know that we have!?!  This happens all the time, though – so many companies I’ve interacted with assume that because someone’s worked in their industry before, they know how to do a good job.  Or that they will intuitively know how to give great service to your customers. This is rarely the case – most of us, myself included, need structure, tools, and guidance.

What I know to be true is that when you train people on what you expect and give them explicit, behavioral tools to use, they will flourish and deliver on those expectations.

Tools for customer service training: 

[BLOG POST] Why Do Customer Service Training?
[E-LEARNING COURSE] The Art of Giving Great Service
[WORKSHOP] SERVICE: Award-Winning Recipes for Customer Service
[SEMINAR] The Art of Giving Great Service 2-Day Seminar
Or… bring ZingTrain to your location to work with your team!

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