Why Great Customer Service Teams Fail: The Hidden Danger of Normalization of Deviance

Corry van den Brink
Founder & CEO

In this article, the concept of "Normalization of Deviance" in customer service is explored. It refers to the phenomenon where people within an organization become accustomed to deviating from established standards, thinking these deviations are acceptable. The story of Sandra, a supervisor, illustrates how her team's complacency led to shortcuts and decreased quality. Sandra's realization prompts her to implement measures like regular audits, open communication, and data-driven decisions to correct the course. The article emphasizes the importance of vigilance, audits, communication, data analysis, and leadership training to maintain top-notch customer service.

Last week, we dived deep into the treasure chest of customer service, unearthing five golden skills that can propel your team to stardom. If you missed this article, don't worry—you can catch up by reading it here.

Today, we will explore a hidden, mysterious island—the concept of "Normalization of Deviance." Imagine this: Your team is sailing smoothly, enjoying the high tides of rising customer service ratings. Beware, pirates and storms lurk in these waters! Even the best teams can hit a rough patch, and that's when the concept of Normalization of Deviance comes into play. Let's set sail and discover what this enigmatic term means and how to navigate around it.

What is the Normalization of Deviance?

You may be wondering, "Normalization of what now?" Please don't worry; you're not alone. The term was first coined by sociologist Diane Vaughan. Picture this: It's 1986, and NASA's space shuttle Challenger is all set for lift-off. But disaster strikes—the shuttle explodes just seconds after launch. How could something like this happen? Vaughan pointed her magnifying glass at the event and concluded that the tragedy resulted from a phenomenon she named "Normalization of Deviance."

In simpler terms, it means people in an organization grow so used to doing things the "wrong way" that it starts to seem "right" to them. You see, this insensitivity to errors happens gradually, sometimes over the years, and usually only results in disaster once multiple things go wrong simultaneously.

Now, how does this eerie concept haunt the hallways of customer service? Let's delve into a story that paints this picture in the colourful setting of a shopping centre's guest experience department.

The Story: Sandra, The Savvy Supervisor at ShopEase Mall

A Team Rejuvenated

Meet Sandra, the energetic and forward-thinking supervisor of ShopEase Mall's Guest Experience Team. Six months ago, her team successfully underwent a customer service training makeover. It was like a movie montage, with charts trending upwards and the team high-fiving each other as customer compliments poured in like rain during a storm.

Sandra felt proud. She had seen her team transform from caterpillars into butterflies, fluttering around the shopping centre and spreading joy. Customer service ratings climbed higher and higher. They were at an all-time high, and it seemed like they had just strapped a rocket to their backs and were soaring through the clouds.

The Warning Signs

After months of smooth sailing, little cracks started appearing in the ship Sandra was captaining. Team members began taking shortcuts—cutting corners here, skipping steps there. A missed greeting to a guest, an overlooked security protocol, or an ignored cleanliness standard might seem like small things, but they started piling up like leaves in the fall.

"We've been doing this long enough. We know what we're doing," some team members would justify, convinced they were acting in the name of efficiency.

Sandra sensed something was off but couldn't put her finger on it. The team was still getting good ratings, and customers seemed happy. But a tiny voice inside her kept whispering, "Something's not right."

The Realization

Then, one fateful day, Sandra stumbled upon an article about "Normalization of Deviance." The pieces of the puzzle clicked into place. She realized her team was unknowingly drifting into dangerous waters. Just like sailors ignoring the signs of an approaching storm, her team had become insensitive to the deviations they were making, thinking they were sailing just fine.

Course Correction

Not one to let her ship sink, Sandra called for an urgent team meeting. She made her crew aware of the lurking danger with charts, data, and heart-to-heart conversations. She introduced a "No Shortcuts" policy and decided to implement weekly audits to catch any deviations early on.

Slowly but surely, the ship steadied. Sandra's team returned to their previous glory, back to delivering top-notch guest experiences. This time, however, they were more vigilant, more aware, and committed to not falling into old traps.

Practical Takeaways

Sandra's journey is more than an entertaining story—it's packed with lessons waiting to be unpacked. Here's a deeper dive into some critical takeaways:

  1. Constant Vigilance: Like a guard at a fortress, always look for early warning signs of complacency or shortcuts within your team. Recognize that little missteps can quickly snowball into major problems.
  2. Regular Audits or Reviews: Implementing a weekly or bi-weekly auditing system can serve as a reality check. This gives you a chance to catch deviations before they become ingrained habits. Make these reviews comprehensive, examining everything from customer interactions to backend operations.
  3. Open Communication: Create a safe space for team members to openly discuss concerns or confess to mistakes without fear of harsh penalties. This promotes self-awareness and group accountability, essential ingredients in combating the Normalization of Deviance.
  4. Data-Driven Decisions: Utilize analytics tools to monitor key performance indicators (KPIs) related to customer service. A dip in performance metrics could be an early sign of deviance normalizing within your team.
  5. Leadership Training: Invest in specialized training for team leaders focused on identifying and addressing the Normalization of Deviance. Knowledge is power, and a well-informed leader can be a game-changer.

Intrigued by today's topic? I'm just scratching the surface! Next week, I'm diving deeper into the complex world of customer service management. I'll unveil a secret weapon—my leading indicator that signals a team could be sailing toward an iceberg. Trust me, this is information you won't want to miss, especially if you're committed to maintaining a top-notch customer service team.


The tale of Sandra and her team underscores the dire importance of understanding and addressing the Normalization of Deviance. It's akin to having an advanced GPS for the complex, ever-changing customer service landscape. By staying vigilant, conducting regular audits, encouraging open communication, making data-driven decisions, and investing in leadership training, you're not just avoiding pitfalls but setting your team on a path to becoming industry leaders in customer service excellence.

The road to customer service excellence is a shared journey, and your insights could be the missing piece someone else needs to complete their puzzle. Let's continue this dialogue and propel each other towards uncharted heights of customer service quality. Mark your calendars for next week’s essential read, and until then, keep your sails high and your standards higher.

May 1, 2024