Encouraging Personal Authority

When carried out correctly by retailers, empowering store associates to make some decisions on their own will result in exceptional service for customers.



As a pet store owner or manager, one of your challenges is to create a quality service environment. By encouraging associates to take personal responsibility for delivering exceptional service—and by giving them appropriate decision-making authority—you empower team members to become customer champions.

Although personal authority means different things to different pet stores and to different employees, it never means giving employees unlimited freedom to do whatever they want. Instead, your focus should be on enabling employees to make choices and act within defined boundaries to exceed customer expectations.

Encouraging personal authority is an ongoing effort to assess and balance risk and readiness Risk includes the consequences to the store if personal authority is not handled well. This includes financial risk, risk to your store’s reputation, and risk to customer and team member relationships. Readiness reflects how capable an employee is to handle authority, based on experience, skills and training.

This diagram provides an easy model to help you determine the appropriate level of authority to delegate. 

• Low Risk, High Readiness: The employee has the experience and skills on which to base this type of decision, and a failure would not be damaging to the store. Example: Empowering an experienced associate to arrange a special delivery for a customer.

• Low Risk, Low Readiness: The employee may not have experience with the task, but the risk to the store is low. Example: Empowering a new associate to process returns of low-cost items without manager approval.

• High Risk, High Readiness: Although a mistake may be costly, the employee has relevant knowledge, training and experience. Example: Allowing a very experienced employee to special order expensive merchandise that can’t be returned to the manufacturer or distributor. 

• High Risk, Low Readiness: A failure would significantly impact the store’s finances, brand and relationships, and the employee lacks needed expertise. Example: Promoting an employee with limited retail experience to assistant manager. 

Assigning Levels of Personal Authority
Delegating personal authority doesn’t mean that everyone gets the same amount of leeway. Effective managers know that different levels of authority are appropriate for different people — and for different situations.

As you think about how much authority to delegate, consider the following levels, listed from least to most:

• Level 1: The manager makes the decision and informs the employee.

• Level 2: The manager and employee work together to make the decision.

• Level 3: The employee makes the decision, but must inform the manager before acting.

• Level 4: The employee makes the decision and (if requested) informs the manager afterwards.

Regardless of the level of authority you assign in a specific situation, you should consistently share information, so employees can learn and be ready to handle similar scenarios in the future. Good managers also regularly reassess employees’ skill and experience, and their readiness to handle different situations.

Defining Boundaries = Guidelines + Examples + Suggestions
Every pet store has rules. But when employees need to go beyond an established policy or procedure to make a sales and service decision, they need to understand just how far their personal authority goes—and which alternative solutions are appropriate.

Boundaries determine how empowered an employee is to make service decisions. Explaining boundaries to employees is most effective when you provide guidelines, examples and suggestions to help them understand the range of their personal authority.

Guidelines spell out actions to take and limits to stay within, such as time frames, costs and prerequisites. For example, your store may give every employee the personal authority to accept returns without a manager’s approval for merchandise accompanied by a receipt dated within 30 days or returns without a receipt on undamaged merchandise valued at up to $30.

Examples are specifics that help the employee understand how the guidelines work in real life. In this case, the employee can accept the following returns:

• A $75 cat tower with a receipt showing she purchased it last month.

• A nail clipper kit that does not appear to have been used, has all its components and is exactly like one on display, priced at $27.99.

Suggestions are broad recommendations about what associates should consider before, during and after exercising their personal authority. For returns, you might encourage employees to consider whether the customer’s request is reasonable (e.g., the cat tower doesn’t seem sturdy enough or the clipper kit was a gift). Associates should also consider the potential to resell the item (is it in perfect, unused condition?), as well as the potential negative impact on the customer’s loyalty and word of mouth.

Avoiding Employee Frustration
Sandra is a relatively new associate at a pet store. Her store’s policy only accepts returns up to 30 days after the purchase. Sandra helps a customer who wants to return some unused bird toys that he bought two months ago. When the policy is explained to him, the customer asks to speak with a manager. The manager listens to the situation and then promptly allows the customer to return the toys. 

Employees often feel frustrated and confused when their service decisions are overruled. In this case, Sandra thought she was following the rules, but her manager undermined her authority. Sandra will likely feel uncomfortable handling even the simplest return in the future.

To help Sandra better understand the situation and minimize her frustration, Sandra’s manager could have taken her aside after approving the return, confirmed Sandra’s knowledge of the policy and explained the context in which an exception to the policy was appropriate. With that knowledge, Sandra would be more likely to exercise appropriate personal authority in future situations.

To help prevent employee frustration, be sure to:

• Communicate boundaries and options clearly.

• Review what you tell employees they can or can’t do to make sure messages are consistent.

• Provide positive reinforcement when employees use their authority appropriately.

• Treat failure as a learning experience, not a reason for punishment.

Taking Action
Delegating personal authority to employees can be scary, but it’s critical to empower your team to deliver exceptional customer service. 
Not sure how to get started? Spend time interacting with your associates one-on-one and as a team to discuss what gets in the way of customer satisfaction. What additional decision-making authority would help employees solve these problems? Be prepared to explain what steps you will take to give employees this authority or why giving them the authority is not possible.

Stephanie A. Kaplan is the director of online education for the Pet Industry Distributors Association. She manages PIDA’s free online training program, Pet Store Pro

This article was adapted from “Leadership & Team Building,” one of 28 chapters available as part of Pet Store Pro’s online training. Lessons cover the manager’s role in providing leadership, building a team to achieve customer service goals, creating and living a shared vision, fostering teamwork, and leveraging opportunities for change.


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