A few years ago, my husband and spent the weekend at a small inn outside Knoxville, Tenn. Although the setting--overlooking the Tennessee River--was gorgeous, the establishment was a bit quirky. (For example, the rooms seemed to have been decorated by my Great Aunt Irma.)

The strangest part was the service. Staff members (who were mostly young) seemed eager to please. But they were also high strung. Any off-script request made them twitch.

The inn did not serve liquor; we had been told that we could bring wine or beer. But at dinner, when we took the bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon out of its brown paper bag, the waiter panicked. "Oh, my!" he said. "I know we have a corkscrew somewhere, but I'll have to ask the manager." He set off as fast as his legs could carry them.

Eventually, the corkscrew was found and we drank the wine. But the experience made us uncomfortable. We felt conspicuous. We started limiting our requests so we didn't make the staff nervous.

I was reminded of this experience over the weekend when reading a New York Times Magazine interview with Richard Branson, founder of The Virgin Group. Mr. Branson was asked why many airline employees seem unhappy.

"It's not necessarily the staff's fault they're disgruntled," he said. "They're not given the tools to do the job properly. For example, if somebody wants a kosher meal and it's not on the plane, the crew member has to explain that to the passenger, and the passenger takes it out on the crew member. If that happens day after day, you soon turn a friendly person into someone defensive and unfriendly."

The lack of kosher meals or corkscrews is an operational issue; the company hasn't provided the supplies or equipment that employees need. Employees may face many other obstacles to delivering good service: Insufficient training. Poor technology. Not enough time (because there's too much work or too many calls to answer). Incomplete processes.

The result? Employees lose confidence that they can be successful. They approach work not with a smile and a spring in their step but with clenched teeth and hunched shoulders.

To find out whether your employees lack confidence, ask them these five simple questions:

  1. When are you most successful with customers?
  2. When aren't you successful?
  3. What prevents you from delivering great service?
  4. What are customers' greatest unmet needs?
  5. If we could do one thing to help you provide better service, what would that be?

Of course, asking questions is just the first step to make changes needed to improve customer service. But getting employee feedback is a great way to start.

(For more on this topic, check out recent columns from Jordy Leiser, Brian Hamilton and Christina Desmarais.)