The Agency “X” Factor

When I became a Quality Consultant, I took on a responsibility to advise management whenever I either receive excellent service or non-standard service. I do not seek recompense; I just provide the feedback. The attitude of the manager of the establishment usually tells me whether or not quality is a part of the business’ credo.

Last week I facilitated a Strategic Planning session in a metropolitan hotel – part of a well-known hotel chain. The facility represented itself as a meeting facility, but they set us up in a sub-standard manner. This was quickly resolved, but set the stage for a comedy of service mistakes that resulted in my visit with the hotel’s general manager.

As usual, I told him that my job was to feedback whenever there was excellent or substandard service and, unfortunately, he had a problem throughout the facility with the latter. He listened quietly but made no representation regarding a resolution to the problems (or acknowledging the problems in the first place). He apologized for the issues that I disclosed, but he reminded me of the character in recent national motel advertising whose job description included making abject apologies (but who could not correct any of the problems).

Did he leave me satisfied? NO!

Will we return to that hotel? NO!


I have heard agency staff argue with customers.

I have heard agency staff tell customers that it was a computer problem or a company problem (shifting the blame).

I have heard agency staff tell customers, “There’s nothing I can do! You’ll have to pay it and we’ll correct it later.”

I have heard agency staff tell customers that the staffer doesn’t have the authority to help the customer.

What I rarely hear is a staff member apologizing to a customer and telling him that (s)he will resolve the problem immediately, and, frankly, that’s all the customer wants to hear!

Do customers make mistakes? Of course! I’m not talking about issues that are customer errors. Those must be explained carefully and patiently and then the staff member should help the customer correct the error. What we are discussing here are the myriad of errors made by the company and agency that are real frustrations to the insurance customer.

Does the customer care that the error was made by the insurance company? Of course not, they are calling you because you are the conduit to resolving the problem. The easier the conduit works, the happier the customer becomes. If he thinks that every time he calls the agency he will be hassled, you will be encountering irate callers frequently. If he feels that you are genuinely trying to help him, he will be more patient with the occasional error.


The most progressive customer oriented businesses in the United States give their employees great latitude in solving customer problems, whether justified or not. Funds are established and the service staff is encouraged to use the funds to resolve customer problems. The front line staff is given the authority to solve the customer problem – NO MATTER WHAT IT TAKES – without the intervention of the business owners.

Are you cursed with being involved in every petty issue that arises in your agency? If so, you probably brought it on yourself by not trusting the service behavior of your staff. Why do you have them on the payroll to serve customers if you cannot trust their judgment about HOW to service them?

I understand that agencies face regulatory issues regarding their uses of agency monies to satisfy customer problems, but that is more of an excuse than a reason. When was the last time you heard of an agency being penalized because they committed too much to solving a customer’s problem? I am not talking about rebating or paying customer premiums with agency money. The issue here is resolving legitimate customer problems on the first call with the agency employee responsible for serving the customer.

Your reputation for customer service is as delicate and urgent as the decision of an airline pilot facing an in-flight problem. His response must be instantaneous and decisive; he has been trained to do this and wouldn’t be at the stick if he weren’t qualified. Similarly, your service staff must be trained and qualified to serve the customers. When a problem arises, they must respond instantaneously and decisively. If an airline pilot hesitates or tries to “get back to the problem later”, he risks the lives of hundreds. If your service representative does not decisively solve the customer’s problem, she risks the loss of the customer’s confidence at best and, potentially, the loss of the customer, all over a problem that could probably be easily resolved if the customer were speaking to the agency owner.


The service representative is unsure of the agency owner’s confidence in her decision-making skills. The agency owner may second-guess her decision. Of course, decisions could be different if we had more time to decide a solution, but we never second-guess our own snap decisions in the face of a customer problem. We call ourselves “decisive”. Have confidence in your staff. Let them make those “decisive” resolutions to customer problems, instead of you. And support them, even if the decision is not the same you would have made. That decisiveness is what cements the solid service relationship between the customer and the agency. You do not need the customer to be impressed with you as the owner of the agency. They assume that you can resolve problems at your level. You should rather have the customers feel that anyone in a position of service responsibility has the authority to resolve problems. That’s what gives them the confidence in the agency, itself.