How to Improve your Company's Customer Service
The other day, my colleague Bob told me an all too familiar tale. Bob took his family on vacation to a well-known luxury hotel with locations across the globe. He travels extensively, so he is a Gold Member of the chain's guest rewards program. As a preferred guest, Bob paid an extra $18 per night during his vacation to get an upgrade including complimentary cocktails, appetizers and breakfast-or so he thought. It turns out that those perks were available only to Platinum Members. Bob's "perk" for the extra $18 per night? Free in-room bathrobes and two champagne flutes (but no champagne!). Bob went to the front desk to express his displeasure and confusion. "This situation isn't really creating an incentive for me to want to book another vacation at your hotel," he told the front-desk clerk. The desk clerk shrugged and replied, "Do what you have to do."
What would you do if that clerk worked for you?
To be sure, a shrug and a disaffected reply create a bad customer relationship. So you might be tempted to discipline, or even fire, the employee. Not so fast. Reflect for a moment: What about that person's work environment led him to believe it was OK to respond that way? Is the company's culture somehow sending mixed messages about customer service?
As the global economy shifts toward services provided by a highly skilled, multicultural workforce, only those companies who successfully create a customer-centric experience will garner the customer loyalty that is so highly prized in today's marketplace. Leaders have many other concerns competing for their attention, so customer service often gets left to front-line employees. That's a big mistake on any leader's part. Here are five ways in which leaders can help shape and promote the customer experience:
The creation of a customer-centric culture starts with the leaders who model it. This applies to both line and staff functions. Even if your team doesn't have direct contact with the purchasing customer, you can still model exemplary internal customer service.
A leader named Mary, who heads a corporate training department for a large financial services firm, is one of the most effective role models I've encountered. When her team designs a new training program, one of Mary's first questions is, "How will we design a program that fits our customer's needs?" In this case, the customer is the employee who will attend the training program. Leaders who model this meticulous type of care demonstrate to employees that customers-both internal and external-are important. Customer service isn't just some slogan on the wall.
When was the last time you monitored phone calls in your call center, sitting right next to an actual service rep? What about taking a ride-along with your service technicians? First-hand experience of what's happening on the front lines serves two purposes for a leader: 1) It builds awareness of what's happening in your customer service operations; and 2) It builds employee morale. Leaders who are plugged in gain credibility with their front-line workers.
Years ago, when I was a human resources manager for a high-end department store, I was sometimes called in to coach a front-line department manager who was having trouble relating to her sales associates. Feedback from the employees typically went like this: "Susan is never around. Whenever we have a question or get swamped on the floor, we have to go find her. She just sits in her office doing paperwork." Not surprisingly, these department managers were having difficulty meeting their departmental sales goals. It was up to me to help Susan and her peers see that they needed to be accessible to their employees-pitching in on the floor during peak sales times, not in the back room taking inventory.
Service mottos aren't all bad, but they need to do more than offer lip service. Ensure that your company's service statement is up to date, then promote it in a genuine way. Engage employees about what they see as key customer service issues in your department. Ask what's working and what's not. Be truly open to your employees' feedback about the customer experience. After all, who has the majority of the data? They do, and they'll share it if you actively listen.
At one heating and cooling company, managers run a weekly meeting during which technicians discuss customer service issues. The managers role-play customer service scenarios to keep the technicians' skills sharp. Over time, this kind of consistent, real-life focus on customer service sends employees the message that customers really are important.
During the course of all your observing and discussing, you're bound to hear of something that needs to be fixed. Do it. Nothing will decrease the effect of your customer-centric culture efforts faster than failing to take action on identified problems. If there are legitimate reasons why a procedure can't be altered (government regulations, for example), then be sure to communicate this.
Even organizations with a strong service track record need to revisit their service brand. The Ritz-Carlton chain of hotels (not the chain mentioned earlier) has long been synonymous with luxurious facilities and impeccable service. But BusinessWeek reports that a few years ago, executives at Ritz-Carlton realized that perhaps they had done too good a job creating customer service guidelines. The standards had led to cookie-cutter responses from front-line staff, so management went to work generating customized service scenarios based on each hotel's locale. They worked with front-line employees to guarantee that the responses felt authentic and relevant to their respective locations.
Your overall corporate culture will dictate what's appropriate for celebrating. Regrettably, most efforts come across as cheesy, with front-line employees secretly rolling their eyes. Even so, don't let the naysayers stop you from genuinely thanking the staff who serve your customers well. One of the effective leaders whom I coach blocks 30 minutes on her calendar each week to write personal notes to employees who have demonstrated exemplary customer service. Above all, employees want to know that their efforts matter. Sometimes a small token of appreciation goes a lot farther than a grand gesture.
Leaders who keep these five actions foremost in their to-do lists will stay far ahead in the game when it comes to building strong service culture in their organizations.
JENNIFER V. MILLER advises executives on tactics for creating productive organizational cultures.