Brutal truth about customer service

I have an admission to make: Just like you, I am sick of hearing about customer service. And to make matters worse, we are retail trainers, and yes, customer service trainers.

Delivering great customer service is hard - possibly the hardest thing to achieve in an organisation. Great customer service is therefore also one of the best differentiators a retailer can have because it is so hard to copy.

Great customer service is therefore still the holy grail of a retail organisation. You can copy someone’s marketing. You can copy their range and assortment. You can even open up right next door. But you can’t copy a service culture.

Ready for the big insight?

You don’t TRAIN for customer service, you CULTIVATE it.

If you consider that key difference carefully, then quite a few differences emerge from the traditional view of customer service. Let’s consider what the process might be like if you thought about breeding (or growing) customer service.

PLANT

The first step is to plant the seeds of customer service: A vision. A customer service charter. (Of course planting assumes planter – and it is a prerequisite that the planter is made of the right stuff.) It helps if the first seed is a strong seed that will eventually sprout the other seeds that will spread the culture.

Many employees will have been exposed to other customer service cultures and will have been trained in other organisations. Transplanting them is a dicey proposition. Sometimes it will take and sometimes not.

NURTURE

Water and fertisliser. Not everything is easy or pleasant to do. Nurturing is hard work – ask any farmer. And it is relentless.

The fuel that will deliver your success (the fertiliser) is your passion. You must stir your passion into the soil and spread it around generously.

PROTECT

Make heroes of the people who deliver. When it comes to cutting staff, are frontline people first to go and management the last?

If the CEO does not take a pay cut when things are tight, you can be sure the soil for customer service is not fertile.

If someone makes a legitimate mistake, with the customers’ best interests at heart, and they are fired anyway; you can be sure that seeds of service will not grow. If punishment is the outcome, then making yourself small and invisible is the natural response.

Small and invisible people cannot do great things.

PRUNE

One of the hardest things you must do is to fire the people who don’t fit in –especially if they are seen as ‘performers’. Those who are unhappy and those who mock customers or serve with a heavy heart must be let go. 

A novice observing an experienced gardener will wonder why seemingly healthy branches are pruned. But the experienced gardener can see which shoots are growing in the wrong direction and are sapping the energy of the whole plant.

REAP

This is why we do it: to reap the fruits. And as the biblical analogy goes (and I paraphrase) we all know that bad trees don’t bear good fruit.

RE-SEED

Put back. Re-invest. Use the best performers as your mentors for the new people coming through. To reap does not mean stripping the cupboard bare – it means you allow enough to reinvest in next year’s crop. Leaving some money on the table, the old gamblers knew, would allow you to walk away from the game alive.

REST

Reward the ‘soil’ with a break. Plant a different plant. Don’t train in customer service only. Add some variety. Allow people to develop themselves and their other interests too.

There is more to it of course – not everything fits the ‘cultivation’ metaphor. (Read more here.)

The caveat, going back full circle, is of course that these skills are only viable in the right culture.

And creating the ‘right’ culture can be done, and you can even use consultants to get it right, but change management is not a simple skills training exercise that is sold to the cheapest bidder. You need to work withpeople who understand people and share your passion and your commitment.

 

There are other dynamics at play too, and it is worth considering a few other salient facts and facets before rushing out to start the process.

PERPETUAL

You can never stop. If you lose focus because you want to implement something else (another buzzword platform) and you lose sight of this process, it will wither on the vine.

UNPREDICTABLE

You are working with people some results may surprise you - and not always in a bad way. You are bound to experience and gain some delightful interactions and outcomes. And you are bound to come across a customer that is hard to please no matter what.

In conclusion, we should then consider what the role of customer service training is, if there is one.

Breeding your customer service culture is not something that can be outsourced to a trainer. Consultants and trainers have a role to play, and the role WE play is:

CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE DESIGN

We have adopted a structured approach to help our clients step through the whole customer experience. It is easy to SAY that we should walk in the shoes of the customers; and it is easy to TALK about Moments of Truth. But institutionalising those the experience is another matter altogether. Customer Experience Design (CXD in our shorthand) incorporate several frameworks that constitute a comprehensive approach to customer experience development and delivery.

CUSTOMER SERVICE SKILLS

The skills employees need to have to deliver great customer service are either communication based:

  • How to ask questions.
  • Listening with intent.
  • Responding with empathy.
  • Solving problems efficiently.

And great customer service also needs product- and organisational knowledge. Product knowledge supports the sales process and is rather obvious. But organisational knowledge in is equally (if not more) important.

And by this I don’t only mean knowledge of policies and procedures, but:

  • What are the limits of authority? (And when is it OK to break it.)
  • What is our vision and what is my role in growing towards that vision?

And ultimately, a piece of advice you may not want to hear.

Unless you can commit to a passionate, lifelong commitment to make great customer serivce a cornerstone of your business, you really shouldn't bother. Save your time and money for when you go bust and need to do something else.