For more than 20 years, I have created workforce development programs for a wide range of clients, on three continents. Topics have ranged from the simple to the complex across industries, but I can always count on one request from every client: Improve customer service.
The practice of teaching this same course over and over is illogical. What evidence do we have that learners lack knowledge or skills when performance is substandard? Customer service training is traditionally framed around impressing upon the learner the importance of serving the customer well. Often the organization's service standards are included, along with tips on how to diffuse an angry customer or how to escalate a customer complaint.
If this were adequate, I would not need to keep repeating myself. What was missing from the needs assessments was an answer to the question, "Why don't employees consistently deliver excellent service?"
I began using training and organizational development opportunities to ask about customer service issues and was told repeatedly that employees perceived the content as useless. Nurses at one hospital empathized with management's concern for patient satisfaction but felt pressured to do more with less. "I want to be caring, supportive, and kind to the patients and their families," one nurse said, but she did not feel that she could offer both quality service and patient care.
Feedback from other organizations varied in specifics, but the essence of employee frustrations remained consistent. They wanted to provide excellent service, and their concepts of what that meant were parallel to that of their employers. They knew what was expected of them and wanted to have cordial exchanges on the job. What often stopped them from executing on this desire was the sense that they felt some external pressure to cut customer service short. I concluded that addressing this issue was at the heart of improving customer service outcomes.
In 2008, I was asked to develop a customer service program for a state agency. My needs assessment started with a request for data. I would ask, "What makes you think there is a service delivery problem?" Anecdotal stories were presented but no objective data was offered. Attending to this gap became part of the plan but only after we could define and describe quality service and meaningful metrics. In the meantime, I needed to collect observational data on the job and interview staff about customer interactions.
This state agency often encounters disgruntled citizens, and evidence was mounting that emotional wear and tear on employees might be cumulative. Like the nurses, the staff was frustrated at not being able to help customers as much as they liked. Without knowing it, some of the actions they took with the best of intentions worked at cross-purposes for the agency.
This is illustrated by the employee who answered customer questions that she was not authorized to address. Her reason for violating the rules was that she wanted to save customers from having to call back and wait again in the call queue. What she had not been told by management was that this attempt to help was creating significant problems downstream in the system, as customers received incorrect information, acted on it, experienced negative consequences, and complained to their legislators, who complained to the governor.
A blindness to the agency's customer service system derived from a tradition of knowledge specialization across divisions and levels of the agency. Each agency component worked in isolation on its customer concerns, without creating a systems perspective. Likewise, management developed policies and procedures without explaining their rationale to the staff, limiting employee ability to solve problems. It was critical to break down the barriers among and between knowledge groups to improve performance.
I wanted to know what role supervisors played in managing customer service and found they had little input. It also came as a shock to discover that supervisory staff did not see their subordinates as their customers. "Why else do you have your position," I asked, "if not to help your staff be successful?" This question became central to shifting their perspective.
Efforts to help individuals or groups improve problem solving skills were haphazard and relied on individual supervisor initiative. Leadership wanted to see management training implemented for all supervisory staff. My division was asked to help them develop the attitude and skills of a performance coach.
The agency had not conducted customer service training for many years. Individual classes had been offered on request from specific managers, but the generic content was 10 years old and ineffective. Classes included
- telephone etiquette
- building trust and rapport
- active listening skills
- problem solving
- diffusing anger.
Little or no skill building occurred, and the role-play scenarios were not drawn from job experience. Practice did not simulate employee jobs or address identified needs. Participants responded predictably by seeing the class as irrelevant. The needs assessment indicated that staff both knew and were capable of performing as expected. Thus, neither education nor training would improve performance.
That left only affect as the obvious target of our efforts. Employees at all levels needed to empathize with their customers and develop effective techniques for managing their emotions.
The 10-hour program began with asking participants to define and describe excellent service from their perspectives. This gave them a chance to identify and revel in memories of personal and group success and offered the facilitators a performance link to the new standards.
Small-group reports demonstrated without question employee knowledge and desire to excel. It also provided opportunities to impart information at the moment a learning need was identified. Participants were then asked what got in the way of consistently delivering excellent service. Their answers can be classified according to Table 1.
The largest grouping of real barriers unknown to management can be classified as employee ignorance. They lacked the specific operational information needed to respond effectively to customers and did not understand how the customer service pipeline operated. This ignorance led to a serious chain reaction of mistakes made by one, then another employee, with none of them understanding how they contributed to the pile-up. Of all the issues raised, increased knowledge-sharing across agency groups became the highest priority.
An extension of employee ignorance included a number of important initiatives underway that were unknown to almost all employees except senior management. Some solutions were of a long-range technological nature with legislative funding requirements. Others embraced supervisory skills, or lack thereof.
Frontline perception was that senior management did not know or care that supervisory staff had been inadequately trained to perform their duties, and this was not true. Leaders recognized that they had done too little and were in the process of addressing the need. Some of the problems identified were beyond the power of anyone to fix - the nature of the agency's work meant there would always be angry customers. Discussing these issues revealed unmet internal process needs such as applicant screening and interviewing procedures.
Courses for frontline staff and supervisors were identical in objectives but were delivered from different perspectives. Each unique customer support group within the agency was taken through the training separate from others to allow cohesive themes to build. Thus, for the information technology team, their needs, problems, and potential solutions were kept separate from the issues raised by staff working directly with the public. Employees working directly with internal or external customers were trained separately from supervisors, whose customers were frontline employees and the legislature. All employees were exposed to the newly adopted agency standards, and each group was asked how they would help the agency meet these expectations.
Humorous YouTube vignettes were incorporated into frontline staff presentations to change the pace and medium of interaction across the one and a half days of instruction, while focusing participant attention. All classes included small group discussions and problem-solving cases drawn from their service areas to help build critical thinking skills and share lessons learned. Operational cases were given to call center agents, difficult visitors to security officers, and needy manager demands to the human resources team.
The most powerful learning came when participants were challenged to choose between two competing agency objectives. On the one hand, they were supposed to solve the customer's concern on the first contact, but that goal argued against an agent referring a citizen to a more knowledgeable expert for advice. Going through complex scenarios helped employees refocus on the highest priorities of the agency instead of one rule or another. In small groups, we talked about why an organization implements rules and under what circumstances they should be broken.
An important design element to the program included emotive exercises intended to help frustrated employees see the situation from the customer's perspective. We did this by using visualization techniques and scenarios from another work environment with similar emotional consequences. We brought the employee into the emotional state of the customer to build empathy and understanding. Once again, we were careful to avoid pointing a finger of blame at the participants, who would learn little if they felt alienated.
We wanted to evaluate the impact of the program on customer service performance, but agency service levels were unknown. Initial reactions from the staff were largely positive, with comments such as, "This is the best class I've had in 16 years." Another participant said, "We should have had this 20 years ago."
Facilitators began keeping track of how many participants hugged them after the class. Senior management heard back from staff about how valuable they found the program, in particular the insight learners received on how the amygdala controls emotional responses to stress.
Supervisors said they saw an immediate effect and were eager to attend training to learn how to coach their staffs to achieve higher standards of excellence. All members of the team felt that they had an important role to play in creating a solution and were willing to take ownership. Participants indicated that 50 percent or more of the content was new to them, and 75 percent agreed that important learning occurred. More than 90 percent recommended that their colleagues attend the course. The training was completed at the end of an administrative cycle. A new governor and cabinet have since been installed, and plans to follow up on recommendations have not been announced. T+D