Sorry, Not My Department

By: Stevie Ray

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The little red light kept blinking. The screen on my office phone read, “Messages Waiting.” When I dialed the code to retrieve my voice-mail, however, the nice female computer voice said, “You have no messages.” After a few rounds of trying to clear the system by entering my security code, age, Zodiac sign, and date of my last Diphtheria vaccination, I tried calling the modern-day equivalent of the maze at the Minoan Palace at Knossos; the customer service help line. I have found the phrase customer service to be an oxymoron when dealing with the call centers of most large organizations. After being told for twenty minutes by a recorded message that I was first in queue (it doesn’t matter if you are first in line if you can still read War & Peace while waiting), I finally got through. The first thing the lady told me was that, since I bundled my services with their cable company, I was a preferred customer. I resisted telling her what I preferred to do with their service. When I told her my problem she said, “Oh, that’s a business account. This is the residential service. You have to call a different number.” So much for being a preferred customer.

I called the business service number she gave me and waited on hold for 57 hours. This guy said, “This isn’t the business service number.” I said, “But this is the number the other lady gave me.” He said, “Yeah, they give the wrong number a lot. Here is the number you have to call.” The question in my mind was, if the other people give the wrong number a lot, why doesn’t this guy do something to stop that? When I reached the new number they told me that, even though I have a business, since I have my office in my home I am classified as a residential account. I would have to call residential services. The number I called in the first place.

Now you might be saying to yourself, “I’m glad my company doesn’t operate like that.” Let me assure you that, unless you are a one-person operation, you are at risk of someone in your company saying, “Sorry, that’s not my department.” Any time this phrase is used it is a sign of three problems: 1) the company is so rule-bound that employees are afraid to step outside their role to serve a customer, 2) there is no cross-training, making employees unfamiliar with any part of the process other than their own, 3) the focus is on individual functions rather than the big picture; serving the customer. When I finally got someone on the phone who cared more about solving my problem than just doing her job, she said something remarkable, “I’m going to stay with you until this is solved.” She didn’t burden me with whether the issue fell under her job description, she was only concerned with making sure someone who was having trouble got some help.

Take the case of Werner Tarnowski. He was appointed to manage the Stuttgart office of Scandinavian Airlines in the 1980s. At the time, customer service scores were low and employee engagement poor. Werner decided that refocusing everyone on their jobs wasn’t the answer. It was the problem. If a passenger asked a ticket agent or gate attendant about a special meal request, no one knew the answer. By the time the passenger got on the plane, if there was a problem it was too late to do anything about it. What Werner did was to flatten the organizational structure at the Stuttgart office. He trained all employees to know, at least to a certain degree, what every other employee was doing. If a passenger asked a question, the employee would either know the answer or know immediately who to ask. Passengers began seeing issues handled on the spot. Not only did passenger satisfaction scores go up, but so did employee engagement. Employees don’t want to just do their jobs, they want to accomplish something. Even though employees may not want to do someone else’s job, they like to know how their work contributes to the big picture.

With my voice-mail problem, for instance, the instructions I was finally given to correct the problem were not specific to a business or residential account. The instructions could have come from anyone, if the company had taken the time to provide a modicum of cross training. Companies often avoid such cross training because of the time and effort required, but think of the amount of time wasted by employees shuffling angry customers from one department to another and the scales balance very quickly.

Got to go. My phone in blinking, so I have messages waiting. At least, I think so.

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at or

This article was originally written for The Business Journals. You can find Stevie’s other articles HERE.

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