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Your Employees' Dirty Laundry Stinks. Don't Let Them Air It to Customers

Employees engaging in personal or professional gripe-fests in public is one of the most egregious and intolerable customer disservice phenomena I know of. I can't think of too many things that reflect more negatively on a company -- so don't let it happen at yours.

How many times have you stood by a counter -- be it at an airline, burger joint, cell phone provider or government office -- and listened to two or more employees airing their dirty laundry, often while ignoring the customer(s) in front of them?

"Can you believe that last guy wanted to return that shirt? It's like, from last year! How obnoxious!"

"Did any of these people hear me say 'boarding from the back of the plane?' And they wonder why their flight is gonna be late."

"Stan told me to clean the fryers tonight. Screw that, I clean them every time Joe leaves early. That's just bullsh..."

I've seen and heard it countless times, and it sends my Customer Service Avenger rage into overdrive. Public bitching-and-moaning, personal conversations or phone calls, or any combination thereof, have no place in any customer environment, period. Doesn't matter if the boss is really a jerk, if the last customer was Satan himself, or if the employee has a splitting headache. Whether they're wearing a name tag, uniform, business suit, logo polo shirt or paper hat, when your staff is "on the clock" and in front of customers, their problems are not your customers' problems, and should never be. Ever.

I once read--and I believe it to be true--that Disney requires all of the "Cast Members" at its theme parks to remain in character whenever they are in public areas, no exceptions. That means the second the Dumbo head goes on, you're Dumbo every second until you go back in the locker room and take the head off. The parents who spent a weeks' pay on tickets don't care if your car is in the shop; their daughter wants a big, happy hug from Dumbo. And so does the next kid, and the next... There's a reason that Disney is widely considered one of the most admired, customer-focused companies in the world. Its customers get a positive, professional, and consistent experience every single time.

So what about your business? Much of the time this subtle sabotage may be going on without your ever knowing. But that doesn't mean you can't take steps to minimize, prevent, or stop it:

1. Create and maintain a work environment where employees are generally happy and satisfied. This is obviously the first and best step. A happy, healthy, functional, open, and friendly workplace brings out the best in people. Lead by example. Let your team see that you are a customer-service superstar and that you can't be flustered. If you're grumpy and gripey, you're giving them unspoken permission to be the same way. Smile 'til it hurts. Here at Skooba Design, a huge part of our culture revolves around having a sense of humor. Anyone without one would never fit in here, so in many ways, our environment is self-governing, ensuring that the customer always sees us the way we want to be seen.

2. Reward great customer feedback. When you catch employees in the act of consistently representing the company the right way, let them know.

3. Make your standards clear. Tell employees -- in the most positive way possible, lest it backfire -- that they are the face of the business and every moment they spend representing you in public is an impression, just like an advertisement. That impression can be anywhere from terrific to horrific, based on something as simple as a smile or a frown. Explain that the success of the company, and everyone in it, is directly affected by this public messaging. Tell your staff that that if they have problems or complaints, your door and your mind are always open. If they are having a "moment" when they really, truly can't represent the company positively, there are things they can do or places they can go to chill out. Give them a way to feel safe taking their gripes off the sales floor, or whatever the equivalent of the sales floor may be in your business.

4. Demonstrate zero tolerance. Of course, punitive approaches are generally least desirable and effective in the long run, but when all else fails, you need to actively and decisively nip gossip, public complaining, and other negative behavior in the bud. If you see or hear of an incident, make it clear that it is unacceptable, and take corrective action as necessary. Your business depends on it -- employees whose behavior reflects negatively on your company are like a virus. Their demeanor and attitude spreads to co-workers and customers quickly, and can do massive damage if left unchecked.

It is not realistic to expect people to be happy every day, even in the best of companies. But it is realistic -- and critical -- to make sure that your employees' moods and private lives never interfere with the customer experience. Unless, of course, an employee's mood is ridiculously happy and enthusiastic... that's the contagion you want.

Got any related horror stories -- whether as an observer of other companies or from within your own business? How have you dealt with problems like these? I'd love to hear from you.

(Clothes line photo courtesy of Flickr/tracitodd)