Teach Employees to Problem Solve for Better Customer Service

Restaurant managers often ask me how to deal with employees who are “not good at problem solving.” These employees are usually servers, hosts or other front-end staff who deal a lot with customers as part of their work. If a customer comes to an employee with an unexpected or unusual request, it is up to that employee to both make the customer happy and work within his or her scope of authority.

So when restaurant managers ask me this question, I always wonder: “How many problems come up that truly haven’t already been solved before? Why don’t your employees have more ready-made solutions to use – at least for the problems that recur on a regular basis – so they don’t have to problem-solve on the fly?”

Why would you want employees on the front lines to make important decisions on the basis of their own judgment, if they could instead rely on the accumulated experience of the business and the long-term employees who have worked there?

hand drawing best practice concept

Show me any employee who is making lots of bad decisions and I’ll show you someone who needs to be making a lot fewer decisions, at least for a while. And most of those decisions have already been made. Most “mistakes” in customer service-oriented problem-solving are decisions that were never up to that employee in the first place. Instead of trying to “make a decision,” that employee should have just implemented the ready-made solution, a decision that was already made a long time ago.

As a manager, the question you need to ask yourself is this: What kind of job aids do you have at your disposal to help your employees use ready-made solutions for dealing with recurring problems, so they don’t have to “problem-solve” anew each time?

If you do already have such job-aids at your disposal, then make sure everybody on your team is using them. Go on a campaign. Spread the tools and spread the word. Use them as a centerpiece of your regular one-on-one dialogue with each person until they know the check-lists backward and forward and use them without fail.

If you do not already have good job aids at your disposal, then you need to start working with your team to create some.

If several people on your team are doing the same work and facing the same problems, pull them together as a team. Otherwise take it one person at a time. Brainstorm:

  • Make a list of every recurring problem you face.
  • Take each problem, one by one, asking for each:
    • Is there an established policy, procedure for this problem?
    • What resources are available?
    • How much discretion will the individual have to improvise? What is the best solution here?
  • Spell out a best practice for each problem, step by step.
  • Make that spelled out best practice a standard operating procedure.
  • Turn those standard operating procedures into simple job-aids, like check-lists or automated menu-driven systems.
  • Make sure everyone starts using them.

Once you have created these job-aids, you can use them for training and retraining and, of course, in your regular one-on-one coaching.

Every step of the way, as you use these job aids to coach your employees, pay close attention. Job-aids should be dynamic living tools that you can revise and improve over time.

Sometimes managers will ask me, “Yes, but doesn’t this approach actually end-run teaching problem-solving? If they never have to puzzle through a problem, how do employees learn to solve problems on their own?”

For starters, they will learn and practice the best step-by-step solutions to as many recurring problems as you can possibly think up in advance. Over time, together, you and they will add more and more recurring problems — and solutions — to that list. Employees who study those best practices and use those job-aids will develop steadily growing repertoires of ready-made solutions. There will be a lot of problems they can solve very well.

“But wait,” a manager might protest: “What happens when the employee runs across a problem that was not specifically anticipated? If they are taught to implement ready-made step-by-step solutions, like robots, they won’t know how to think for themselves. Won’t they freeze up in the face of an unanticipated problem?”

The answer is no. It turns out that by learning and practicing ready-made step-by-step solutions, employees get better not only at solving the specific problems anticipated, but also at solving unanticipated problems. By teaching employees to implement specific step-by-step solutions to recurring problems, you are teaching them what good problem-solving looks like— like so many case studies.ua897cvtgl

Of course, there are some problems that a front-end employee shouldn’t attempt to handle on their own. Teach your team to ask themselves, after identifying a problem or customer request, “Do I have the knowledge, authority, and resources to solve this right here and now? Or do I need to find someone who does?” Once they learn what types of problems they should not to try to solve on their own, your employees are much less likely to go beyond their discretion and exacerbate problems that come to an employee’s attention.

Teach an employee that once he or she has identified that a problem is outside their purview, the next step is to gather basic information quickly and pass it to the right person as soon as possible. Then have them stay in the loop on these problems: How was the situation handled? What procedures were used? What information was needed to resolve it? Is that information readily available for future reference? That’s how an employee can turn a problem into one they know how to handle on their own in the future.

Experience solving problems successfully is what comes from learning and practicing ready-made solutions. Employees get in the habit of solving problems well and learn what effective solutions look like, which is a much better foundation for improvising should unanticipated problems arise. You will have many more problems that are solved quickly and easily. You will have fewer situations that are mishandled, and fewer ongoing problems that hide below the radar and fester and grow unbeknownst to anyone.