Ask why…

Last month, I was traveling to one of our colleges in western Minnesota to facilitate a day-long leadership retreat. I stopped at a fast-food restaurant on the way to eat a quick dinner. Tired from a long drive, I said to the server, “I’d like the 2-piece meal deal please, but can I substitute the biscuit with coleslaw?” I explained that I couldn’t eat biscuits due to a gluten intolerance. She glared at me and barked, “Nope! No substitutions.”   Too tired to work out another solution, I paid for my meal deal and carried my tray to a nearby table with biscuit included.

As I thought about this encounter, the first thing that struck me was how awful that customer service experience was. The second thought I had was about not ever returning to that restaurant again. But then, I got curious and thought….why did this server respond in the way that she did? Were there policies in place that kept her from being responsive to customer needs? Did she lack authority to make independent decisions? Did the restaurant not provide her training or incentives to help her make customers feel welcome?

As leaders, we’re responsible for the customer service experience of those we serve, whether our customer is a student, employee, or community member. Too often, customer service problems are not just a “people” problem, where the employee on the frontline is to blame. Yes, it might be that the employee is just having a bad day; but more than likely, the problem is caused by a bad process or lack of process.  When you discover poor customer service in your own organization, rather than immediately fixing blame to the employee, it helps to get curious and to ask “why?” “Why is this problem occurring?”

5 whysOne of the most simple and effective  problem-solving tools  I know of is the “5 Whys.” With 5 Whys, you’ll continue to ask “why” until you get to a root cause.  I’ve found that with most problem solving, it helps to stay curious and not land on a solution before getting to the root cause.  Here is a great resource with more in-depth information about the 5 Whys:

When you’ve faced customer service issues in your organization, what problem-solving tools have been helpful for you?

Anita Rios


2 responses to “Ask why…

  1. Sylvia Kathleen Secrest

    thx for this Anita! u rascal! good advice! i ALWAYS go online or give feedback (praise or a critique) when i have positive neutral or negative customer experiences. as a Manager in public sector settings for 30 years i KNOW that without feedback from clients/customers/peers/subordinates/& superiors inside and outside the organization employee development & organizational effectiveness is constrained. “if u dont ASK u never KNOW” be well Namaste!


  2. Thanks for your comment, Sylvia! You are right, giving and receiving feedback is important. And you are a brave soul to always give feedback.

    I recognize in my example that I chose not to give feedback to the server or the restaurant. I suspect that many of us don’t know about the negative experiences our customers have with us, because they don’t tell us. How can you ferret out customer service problems in those cases?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.