Always prepare the soil before planting seeds

dreamstime_m_936477A colleague recently asked for my opinion regarding the skills that customer service representatives (CSRs) need the most help with. I qualified my response by saying that it assumes CSRs already possess a positive attitude and a willingness to expend discretionary effort in the moment of choice. If they lack these qualities, although capable of consistently executing the mandatory job functions for which they are paid, no amount of skill development will enable them to consistently delight customers.

In my work, I write about three dimensions of job roles: job knowledge (knowing WHAT to do), job skills (knowing HOW to do it), and job purpose (knowing WHY they do it). Most qualified managers can equip employees with job knowledge and job skills through onboarding, OJT, and ongoing training and development programs. As a result, these managers produce competent employees who are capable of reliably executing the mandatory job functions for which they were hired and are paid. Unfortunately, payrolls are filled with highly-trained CSRs who are capable of reliably executing an array of job functions but who lack awareness of job essence; their purpose or highest priority at work.

That being said, assuming employees have been screened using predictive software and/or behavior-based interviewing questions to validate traits such as initiative, optimism, and team orientation, I would advocate for skill-based training in the following areas: listening, empathy, and problem solving.

Listening: Too many CSRs fail to adequately listen. Two weeks ago, I called United Airlines to change a flight itinerary. After explaining that I was canceling the Wichita leg of my multi-city itinerary (Denver to New York to Wichita to Denver), the CSR said, “So you want to fly from New York to Wichita on Wednesday?” I’m not sure if she was preoccupied with handle time or what, but she had not been listening to me. During the same conversation, I requested the 2:59pm flight from La Guardia to Denver. A minute later, the CRS said that there were numerous flights available, beginning at 6:20am. Again, I asked for the 2:59pm flight that I had originally requested.

Empathy: The ability to empathize with customers is a key skill that separates competent CSRs from extraordinary ones. I recently launched a companion guide to my book on Amazon Advantage. Like most entrepreneurs, I was excited for the opportunity to fill an unmet need in the marketplace by creating and offering a new product. Unfortunately, my initial product page was riddled with inaccuracies causing me to open a case with Amazon support. A day went by without a reply. Then two days. Then three. Then four. On the fifth day, after submitting follow up queries from the Amazon Advantage support page, I took to Twitter. Naturally, I was disheartened to learn that Amazon Marketplace’s latest tweet was more than 15 months ago. On the sixth day, I received an obligatory reply that lacked any empathy or sensitivity. It was clear to me that my enthusiasm for my new product launch was not shared by the Amazon Advantage CSRs who, from my perspective, were busily executing the mandatory job functions for which they are paid with no attempt to reflect voluntary job essence by expressing genuine interest in me (as a new Amazon Advantage merchant/seller), demonstrating a sense of urgency, or conveying authentic enthusiasm for my new product launch.

Problem solving: CSRs are generally effective at following established problem resolution protocol. The problem is that a process, policy, or service model rarely contains the sentiment that a customer’s problem is your problem. When employees lack this mindset, their solutions to customers’ dilemmas are limited to what is on the screen or page before them – and this may not completely solve the customer’s problem. But when employees take ownership by adopting the mentality that a customer’s problem is also their problem, this enhances their ability to consistently resolve problems to the satisfaction, if not delight, of customers.

Last year, my family stayed at a lodge in Breckenridge over spring break. We checked out as the housekeeping crew arrived to clean the condominium unit. From the lodge, we drove into downtown Breckenridge for lunch and shopping. After two hours or so, we were on the road back home to Denver. Two hours later (four hours after checking out of the lodge) we arrived home and, while unpacking, noticed that we were missing a bag. When I phoned the lodge, the front desk agent said, “Oh, yeah. That bag’s right here.” Further questioning confirmed that the bag had been brought to the front desk hours earlier (while we were still in Breckenridge) but, remarkably, no one had bothered to problem solve and call us – although they had all of our contact information, including cell phone numbers!

So, while listening, empathy, and problem solving are a worthy skill set to develop, if CSRs lack traits such as initiative, optimism, and team orientation, then providing training in these areas may be analogous to throwing seeds on rock. Without fertile soil, rather than take root, the seeds will wither over time and blow away…

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

New! Cascade the lessons from Delight Your Customers throughout your department, division, or entire organization. Order the Delight Your Customers Companion Guide by Steve Curtin and Brian O’Neill.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Photo credit: © Joseph Gough

A line in the sand

line in the sandIn 168 BC the Greek ruler, Antiochus led an attack on Egypt. Before reaching Alexandria, his path was blocked by a Roman envoy who delivered a message from the Roman Senate directing Antiochus to withdraw his armies from Egypt and Cyprus or consider themselves in a state of war with the Roman Republic.

Antiochus said he would discuss it with his council, whereupon the Roman ambassador instructed a soldier to draw a line in the sand around Antiochus. “Before you cross this circle,” said the ambassador, “I want you to give me a reply for the Roman Senate” (implying that Rome would declare war if the Greek ruler stepped out of the circle without committing to leave Egypt immediately). Weighing his options, Antiochus wisely chose to withdraw.

The above story recounts the origin of the “line in the sand” metaphor depicting confrontation, adversarialism, and ultimatum. And, while this conflict took place more than 2,000 years ago, similar showdowns between service providers and customers occur daily in a variety of forms such as: refusal to make exceptions, admonishment of customers for not knowing “the rules” (company policies, procedures, terms and conditions, etc.), and employee defensiveness or indifference toward critical customer feedback.

Here are three examples from my own experience (though, sadly, I could provide 33 examples if we had more time):

1.) As I approached the counter at an airport deli, I heard the customer ahead of me ask if the bread for his sandwich could be sliced thinner than those visible slices that had been pre-sliced. (The pre-sliced bread was quite thick and, as I learned, the customer had recently been diagnosed with TMJ syndrome – chronic pain that restricts how wide he can comfortably open his mouth.) The employee responded that the bread had been pre-sliced and could not be sliced thinner. The customer moved down toward the register, content to simply order a drink and a bag of chips. About that time, I noticed the open kitchen to the left where there were dozens of loaves of bread being stored on racks. I asked the employee if one of those loaves could be used to accommodate the customer who required thinner bread slices. At first she said no because, as she explained, the automated bread slicer used produced slices of standard thickness. Then I asked her if she had a bread knife behind the counter. At this point, she appeared to connect the dots and suggested that she may be able to honor the customer’s request after all. How many customers do you think will request thinner slices of bread at that airport deli today? Two? Three? Four? I’m not sure, but I can say this with certainty: these requests will be infrequent; they will be exceptions; and exceptions create opportunities to provide exceptional customer service.

2.) Last March, the branch manager at my neighborhood bank offered to print my last two months of statements for me (as we were refinancing our home through another lender). The following day, while reviewing transactions, I noticed a “statement printing fee” on my account in the amount of $6 (although there was no mention of a fee while I was at the bank). After taking to Twitter, the fee was promptly removed. A week or so later, the branch manager called me to apologize but actually made things worse by (subtly) admonishing me, saying three times during our call, “I’m just sorry that you felt as though you couldn’t come directly to me based on our relationship.” (Never mind that our “relationship” was based on a single encounter at the bank.) What she was really saying was, “Why did you broadcast my sneaky fee on social media?” Aside from the fact that customers should never be surprised by fees or terms and conditions they were not expressly made aware of in advance, they should feel free to use their preferred channel, Twitter or otherwise, when communicating with an organization.

3.) Over spring break this year, my family stayed at a resort at the base of Peak 7 in Breckenridge. On the day of our departure, we checked-out at 1pm, leaving the condo as the cleaning attendant arrived to prepare the unit for the next guests. We spent the next two hours in town shopping before leaving for home at 3pm. By 5:30pm we had arrived back at our house and were unpacking the car. It was then that my wife noticed that we were missing a bag. I called the resort and the employee at the desk said, “Yes, Mr. Curtin. Your bag’s sitting right here. Housekeeping found it in the unit and turned it over to the front desk.” When I asked her what time the bag was turned over, she said, “I’m not sure, but it’s been here since I arrived at 2 o’clock.” When I asked her why no one thought to call me (they have a record of my contact information, including cell phone and email address) during the previous four and a half hours, she claimed ignorance saying, “I don’t know. But if you have a FedEx account number, we can ship it to you – but not today, because they already picked up at 3:30pm.” So, four days and $65 later, we were reunited with the bag. This ordeal could have been avoided if someone at the resort had simply taken the initiative to notify me that I’d forgotten a bag before 3pm when I left Breckenridge for home.

Instead of jousting with customers over exceptions, not knowing “the rules”, or sharing critical feedback, employees should be trained to listen to them and (gasp!) empathize with customers by making the effort to connect with their unique circumstances, expectations, and perspectives. The next time you detect a line in the sand between you and your customers, consider inviting them across. That way, you can both be on the same side.

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Be a nation!

DeMilleWhile directing the 1956 epic film The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille challenged a large group of extras portraying the Israelites to energize their performance, shouting, “Alright now. Give me everything you’ve got people! Don’t be extras. Be a nation!”

DeMille’s exhortation of the extras reminds me of the ongoing challenge facing service industry managers to motivate employees, many of whom regularly display their indifference by leaning, standing around, or simply going through the motions at work, treating each customer like the last customer. Their “performances” lack energy, passion, and commitment.

If this describes some portion of your staff, take action! While DeMille used a commanding presence and a megaphone to inspire his actors, service industry managers can motivate employees in other ways:

Model the behavioral standards that are expected of your frontline staff. Great service starts with great leadership. If you are in a leadership role, your credibility will match your consistency. What employees see is what you’ll get.

Treat employees fairly in relation to the basic conditions of employment. I watched an episode of Undercover Boss where a rogue supervisor docked employees two minutes for every minute they clocked in late returning from their lunch breaks. In one cafeteria scene, an employee abruptly ended her conversation and ran full speed in the direction of the time clock to avoid being penalized. This practice epitomizes unfair treatment and fosters unhealthy employee relations at work.

Recognize employees for contributions made to the business. One Gallup survey revealed that 65 percent of employees report receiving no recognition for their work in the previous year. If you are surprised by this finding, understand that saying an occasional, “Good job” doesn’t cut it. Employees deserve sincere and specific feedback from their immediate supervisors.

Encourage participation. Involve employees by actively seeking their input and ideas. Ask questions of employees and then listen to their responses. Stephen Covey termed the need to be listened to, to be understood, as “psychological air.” According to Covey, the highest level of listening is to listen with the intent to understand the other person. Most of us tend to do the opposite, seeking instead to be understood ourselves.

Create and manage an inclusive work environment based on respect and mutual trust where differences are valued, even celebrated. If left to chance, work groups tend to devolve into cliques whereby dysfunctional pecking orders are established by title, uniform, shift, department, and other factors.

While megaphones serve a purpose on a movie set, it’s insufficient to exhort staff without first providing a work environment that fosters engagement. By reinforcing the above principles, managers will create the conditions necessary for employees to shift from simply portraying dispassionate “extras” to becoming “a nationof enthusiastic service providers!

As a manager, how do you inspire top performance? Or, as a non-management employee, how are you best motivated to perform?

I’m listening…

Years ago, I sat next to an executive on a flight home to Denver. When he learned that I worked for Marriott, he mentioned that he had achieved Marriott Rewards Platinum Elite status after spending more than 75 nights in Marriott hotels around the world the previous year.

He began to praise the company and, specifically, the consistency of the product and service quality from location to location. While positive feedback is always welcome, I questioned him about problems he may have experienced or any areas in which we could improve.

He thought about it for a moment and replied, “Now that you mention it, there is one thing you can improve.”

He went on to rail against the inconsistency of Marriott’s package delivery process at its hotels. I can still recall the frustration in his voice as he recounted arriving late at night ahead of a morning presentation at the hotel and the staff being unable to account for the packages containing materials for his meeting that had been shipped in advance.

Invariably, after researching and providing tracking numbers and an hour’s worth of phone calls, denials, and finger pointing, the packages would surface in some corner of the hotel. Most of the time, they were being stored in the Shipping and Receiving holding cage and other times they were being held in the bell closet, behind the front desk, or in a sales manager’s office.

“Why can’t your hotels figure this out?” he asked. “It’s not rocket science.”

Fortunately, this conversation coincided with Marriott’s implementation of the GuestWare customer relationship management system and At Your Service® pre-arrival planning and “virtual concierge” program. These initiatives, among other benefits, improved the tracing of guests’ packages and prompted personalized, reassuring, and timely communication with hotel guests.

But this is not a post about process improvement. This post is about the importance of listening—REALLY listening—to your customers. If your goal is to differentiate your company based on customer service quality, consider these takeaways:

1. Solicit feedback from your customers. Most companies solicit feedback from their customers in ways that are more formal and less frequent (e.g., intercept surveys, focus groups, satisfaction surveys, etc.). I’ve found that there’s more integrity to customer feedback that is less contrived and more spontaneous. Look for opportunities to engage your customers that are less formal and more frequent.

2. Seek contrary evidence. While we all appreciate positive feedback, it’s difficult to elevate our performance without realizing the inevitable (and, in some cases, prodigious) opportunities we have for improvement.

3. Listen to your customers. This is not the same as soliciting feedback. It’s one thing to request feedback. It’s another to listen to the feedback in a non-defensive, non-prejudicial way with the intent to truly understand your customer’s perspective.

Here’s a memorable illustration of this lesson:

Part 1: Stew Leonard, Sr., of the renowned supermarket chain bearing his name, once received a written customer suggestion that his store should sell fresh fish. At the time, he was sending a van to Boston each morning to buy fresh fish. As soon as the van returned to the store, the fresh fish was prepared, sealed in plastic wrap on Styrofoam trays, and displayed in the seafood case for shoppers’ perusal.

He could have easily dismissed the suggestion but instead called the customer to inquire further. During that call, he learned that the customer defined fresh fish as being laid loose on ice (rather than sealed in plastic wrap on a Styrofoam tray). He thanked the customer for her feedback and decided to conduct a little experiment at the store.

4. Act on the feedback you receive from customers.

Part 2: The next day, he instructed his seafood department to display half the fresh fish wrapped in plastic as usual. The other half was to be laid loose on ice. One week into the experiment, he found that the fresh fish that had been laid loose on ice outsold the fish wrapped in plastic by a margin of 3:1 and that his gross sales of fresh fish had doubled!

In summary, be intentional about gathering feedback from your customers. Look for untraditional opportunities to engage them in conversations about their experiences (both positive and challenging) with your company’s products and services.

When you really listen to customers, you are expressing genuine interest in them. And by acting on their feedback, you are validating their perspective, reinforcing the relationship, and acknowledging their contribution to the success of your business.