Moving Past Active Listening to Facilitate Communication: Shifting the Paradigm

GearsIn several previous professional positions, especially those in call centers, there has been considerable time spent training people to actively listen.  The problem; active listening can be faked, and fake active listening is as useful as a shower without soap or shampoo.  You might get wet, but you do not feel clean.

Listening has four distinct levels, these are:

  • Inactive listening – Hearing words, seeing written communication, zero impact mentally. Mostly because your internal voices drown out the possibility for communication.
  • Selective listening – Hearing only that which confirms your own voices, opinions, and biases. While others are speaking, you are already forming your response.
  • Active listening – Show the other person you are paying attention, engage with meaning in a reply. Focused upon removing barriers to get your point across.
  • Reflective listening – Paying attention to intent and content, reducing emotion, two-direction as both parties are engaged in achieving mutual understanding.

Tools for listening effectively, which for all intents and purposes, means listening reflectively, requires several tools, along with considerable experience in using these tools.  Customer service focus – not sales in disguise, not having a hidden agenda, and not covertly looking for opportunities to turn the conversation back to you.  The attitude of service – is all about what your intention is after listening.  Sales are all about attitude and winning over someone else; however, how many sales require first being able to reflectively listen; every single one.  Desire – desire determines your choices, your choices form decisions, and decisions determine destiny!

ElectionConsider the press conferences at the White House.  A room is full of people who would claim they are professional listeners, who then report what is being said.  Yet, how many times do you see questions asked with an agenda, personal opinions warping what is said into what they desired to hear, and then reporting what they erroneously heard to satisfy their desires politically; every single time.  Hence, the problems with active listening and how active listening can be faked.  Desire and attitude of service are not being applied to improve customer service focus.

Communication occurs in two different modalities, verbal and non-verbal.  Good communicators adapt their message to the audience.  Adapting the message requires first a choice, determining who the primary and secondary audience is, then focus the message onto the primary audience.  Next, adaptation requires prior planning, which includes mental preparation, practice, and channels for feedback.  Finally, adaptation requires listening to achieve mutual understanding, careful observation, asking questions designed to lead to mutual understanding, and clarifying what is being said to achieve mutual understanding.

Too often, those labeled as “good communicators” cannot listen reflectively.  They have never learned how to use the tools of desire and attitude of service, in a manner that builds customer service focus into reflectively listening.

Leadership CartoonConsider two people the media has proclaimed as great communicators, Presidents Reagan (R) and Obama (D).  President Reagan was listened reflectively, asked good questions, listened to the answers, asked more questions, and then listened some more.  In listening and asking questions, President Reagan built people (customer service focus) and was respected by enemies and friends for his ability to communicate (personal desire determined destiny).  President Obama has been labeled by the media as a good communicator; but by all accounts, he never listened, his questions showed he desired to be heard, and his focus was all on him as the smartest person in the room.  Desire builds an attitude of service, which then forms the customer service focus, which then reflects a desire to reflectively listen and achieve mutual understanding with those being communicated with.

One of the most despicable problems in customer service today is a theme established by Stephen Covey, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”  On a recent issue, a letter was sent to Senator Martha McSally (D) of Arizona, the response has formed the epitome for not listening in written communication as the response had nothing of the original issue even discussed.  The response was a form letter, on a different topic, and lacked any response that the sender had been heard; but, the letter advertised Sen. Martha McSally and her commitment to listening to her constituents.  But, you might say, a Senator is too busy to respond to every communication delivered, a few other examples of both verbal and non-verbal communication failures.

  • Two lieutenants, representing the Department of Veterans Affairs, Federal Police Service, stationed at the Phoenix VA Hospital. Engage a person not wearing a mask.  Body language clearly states they are the authority and will broker no resistance.  The officers spend 45-minutes haranguing the patient before cuffing and frog-marching the patient to a holding cell, where the patient who was seeking services in the emergency room, waits for an additional 60-minutes before being forced off Federal Property.  The patient informed the officers multiple times of their pre-existing condition and inability to physically wear a mask.  The hospital mask policy allowed for a face shield to be worn instead of a mask, and after the patient put the face shield on, the officers continued to verbally engage without listening, until the foregone conclusion of arresting the patient could be justified.  The patient was fined $360.00 (USD) for “disorderly conduct” by refusing to wear a mask.
  • Calling a major cellular phone provider (AT&T) with questions about the price plan. The representative answered every question but needed to make a sale, and their focus was on making that sale, not on assisting the customer.  Not the agent’s fault, the policy of the call center is to up-sale on every call.  If the agent does not up-sale, the call is automatically downgraded in quality assurance and the agent gets in trouble.  Hence policy dictates that the customer not be listened too reflectively as the sale must come before the customer.
  • Hotel check-in, online registration was made specifically for a particular sized bed, but due to late check-in, the customer is not provided what was asked for, and the attitude of the clerk is one of disgust at being bothered. Verbal and nonverbal cues are sending messages that the customer is the problem and is interrupting the life of the clerk.
  • A patient receives a call to make an urgent appointment with a VA medical provider in general surgery. The medical provider has demanded the patient be seen in the clinic, thus negating a phone or video styled appointment.  The patient’s record clearly states the patient has trouble complying with mandatory masking for patients seen in the clinic.  The provider arrives 20+ minutes late to the appointment, and because the patient is not wearing a mask immediately refuses to see the patient, wasting 90-minutes of the patient’s day.  The provider gets off in 10-minutes, and seeing the patient will make the provider late getting off.  Was the mask really the problem; not likely.

Social Justice Warrior 2Not listening is probably the largest social problem in the world today.  Everywhere fake active listening is observed, along with copious amounts of observable inactive, selective, and active refusals to listen.  Some of the problems in improving listening are policies and procedures that do not allow for individual adaptation or situational understanding.  However, too often, the individual choices to grab power, exercise authority, and pass along inconvenience are the real problems in not listening.  Harvey Mackay is reported to have said, “Easy listening is a style of music, not an attribute of communication.”  Proving again that listening is a choice, a personal choice, borne from desire, bred on attitude and reflected in verbal and non-verbal patterns of communication.

The following are some launch points for improving listening in society:

  1. Understand your desire.  Know that your desire choices are determining your destiny.  If your destiny is not one, you appreciate, return to the desire and make different choices.
  2. Practice mental preparation, based upon previous situations, to make different choices. Listening is a voyage of discovery to reach a mutual understanding, but mental preparation is key to safely reach the destination.  Prepare, use a mirror, practice until what currently feels alien becomes familiar.
  3. Reduce emotion. The principle of empathy and sympathy are destroying listening and only reflect the internal voices.  The volume of internal voices is silencing the ability to reflectively listen, necessitating the need to fake actively listening for employment’s sake.
  4. Listen as you would have others listen to you. This is an adaptation of the “Golden Rule” and remains applicable as a personal choice.  How you choose to listen will determine your destiny.
  5. Listening remains the number one tool you control and has application to written communication and verbal communication channels. Body language is a non-verbal communication channel that can be heard as well as seen.  How are you communicating non-verbally, which is interfering with your written and verbal communication attempts?

Listening is a choice.  Listening is hard.  Yet, many people have pointed out that we have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as often as we speak.  Choose to reflectively listen, choose to reach a mutual understanding, watch your destiny change.

© Copyright 2020 – M. Dave Salisbury

The author holds no claims for the art used herein, the pictures were obtained in the public domain, and the intellectual property belongs to those who created the pictures.

All rights reserved.  For copies, reprints, or sharing, please contact through LinkedIn:

https://www.linkedin.com/in/davesalisbury/

Customer Service Begins with Employees – Knowing the Paradigm

During the last 60 days, I have had the ability to see two different companies and their training programs up close and personal.  Both companies provide call center employees, and currently, both companies are employing a home shored or remote agent to conduct call center operations.  Neither company is handling remote agents very well; and, while both companies have excellent credentials for providing exterior customers with excellent customer service, both companies fail the first customer, the employee.

ProblemsCompany A thinks that games, contests, prizes, swag, and commissions adequately cover their inherent lack of customer service to employees.  Company B does not offer its employees any type of added compensation to its employees and treats their employees like cattle in a slaughterhouse yard.  Both companies talk an excellent game regarding treating their employees in a manner that promotes healthy exterior customer relations, but there is no substance, no action, no commitment to the employee.  Company B has an exceedingly high employee churn rate, and discounts that rate because of employees working from home and not being able to take the loneliness of an office atmosphere.  Company A has several large sites and is looking forward to having employees back on the call center campus.

When the conclusions for employee dissatisfaction were shared, the question was raised, “How does the leadership team know when the employees are not feeling served by their employer?”  The answer can be found in the same manner that the voice of the customer is found, mainly by asking the employees.  Neither company has an employee feedback process to capture the employee’s thoughts, ideas, feelings, and suggestions; relying solely upon the leadership team to provide these items.  Neither company overtly treats its employees poorly, Company A does have a mechanism to capture why employees leave the organization.  Company A was asked what they do with this information and refused to disclose, which is an acceptable answer.

Consider an example from Company A, a new hire has been in the hiring process since January, was informed they were hired around the first of April but was also told the next start date/new hire training class has not been scheduled due to COVID-19.  The employee is finally scheduled for a new hire class starting the first week of June.  Between the time of being hired and the start date, the employee begins taking classes Mon thru Fri, 1800-2100 (6:00pm to 9:pm).  The employee is scheduled to begin work at 1030 in the morning and work until 1900 (7:00pm).  The new hire asks for help with the schedule, the classes being taken will improve the employee’s skills upon graduation on the first of August.  Training is six weeks long, but the overlap is only 9 working days.  Company A’s response, either drop the classes or quit the job.

Internal-CS-Attitude-Low-ResThus, the attitude towards employee customer service is exposed to sunshine, and regardless of the games, prizes, food, swag, commissions, etc., the employee-customer service fails to keep highly talented employees.  This example is not new, and is not a one-off, unfortunately.  The example is regular business for employee treatment, and as the trainer stated, there are always more people for positions than positions open, so why should we change operations?  Since January Company A has been working unlimited overtime to fill the gap in open positions.

Company B informed all new hires that training is four-days long, and upon completion on the job training commences.  On day 3, training is extended to five days, on day 4 training is extended, and on Saturday, training is extended to a mandatory Sunday.  No excuses, no time off, no notice, and no reasonable accommodation is provided to make other accommodations for children, medical appointments, etc., and by the time Sunday arrives, the new hire class has already logged 60-hours in a week that began on Tuesday.  Several employees are unable to make Sunday and as such are now kicked out of training, and will lose their jobs once HR gets around to giving them the ax.

Neither employer offers reasonable accommodation to employees working from home, as working from home is an accommodation already.  Marking the first area of risk; if an employee works for your organization, regardless of the attitude of employee treatment, reasonable accommodation is the law in America, and similar laws are on the books across the world.  Yet, both companies were able to eschew the law and deny reasonable accommodation.  Company B did it by never responding to the employees after they missed a day of work during training.  Company A did it by forcing the employee to decide without the aid of HR, claiming HR does not have any power in the decisions of training.

Now, many people will advise the employees hindered in their job search that the company does not serve them.  That fit into a new organization is more important than money.  That if an employer does not serve their employees, that employer has no value and the ex-employee is better off.  Yet, the companies hired these people, went to great expense to onboard these people, and now must spend more money to hire more people to fill the gap.  Both companies will have to pay overtime and other incentives to get the newest new hires through training.  All because of the disconnect between serving internal customers and external customers.  Many business writers have said, the only customer business has, are the employees.

Leadership CartoonMyron Tribus used a water spigot to help explain the choices of business leaders where employees are concerned.  A business is either a money spigot and customers, employees, vendors, stakeholders, do not matter, so long as the money keeps rolling in to pay off the shareholders.  Or business is a spigot with a hose on it to direct the efforts of the business through the relationships with employees, customers, vendors, stakeholders, and shareholders, to a productive and community-building long-term goal of improvement.  Either a business is a money spigot or a community building operation, the business cannot do both.

With this analogy in mind, the following four suggestions are provided for businesses that either want to change spigots or need help building the only customer relationship with value.

  1.  Decide what type of business you want to be, and then act accordingly.  No judgment about the decision is being made.  Just remember, the greatest sin a business can commit is to fail to show a profit.  Employee costs can make and break employers and profits.
  2. Provide a feedback loop. Employees are a business’s greatest asset, the greatest source for new products, new procedures, new methods of performing the work, and new modes of operation, and until the leadership team decides the employees have value, the business cannot change to meet market demands.  In fact, that business that does not value employees, cannot change at all, ever!
  3. Be “Tank Man.” As a child, I remember watching the Tiananmen Square incident unfold in China.  I remember watching a man, stand in front of a tank and bring that tank, and several more behind it, to a standstill.  Nobody knows this man’s name, but many remember his stand.  Be the example of world-changing customer service, even if no one will ever know your name.Tank Man - Tiananmen Square
  4. Many parents have told their children, “Actions speak louder than words.” At no other time has these words been truer.  Act; do not talk!  Show your employees’ customer service and they will conquer the world for you.  Actions to take might not mean expending any money.  Showing someone you care is as simple as listening, and then helping.  LinkedIn daily has examples of hero employees who do more, serve better, and act all because their leader acted on the employee’s behalf.
    • Blue Money BurningConsider Company A for a moment, the time of class overlap was 1-hour. The number of days the overlap was going to affect that employee, 9.  Thus, for the cost of nine hours at $17.00 per hour, or $153.00 USD total, an employee was lost.  How much blue and green money was lost getting that employee hired, just to see that employee leave within two days of starting?  How much more blue and green money will be lost to replace that lost employee?

No longer can employer hope to treat employees poorly and still achieve financial success, between social media and modern communication, the word gets out that an employer does not care about their employees.  No longer can labor unions abuse non-union members autonomously.  No longer can a business walk away from social and community abuses with impunity.  The choice to treat people as valuable assets is an easy choice to make, choose wisely!

© Copyright 2020 – M. Dave Salisbury

The author holds no claims for the art used herein, the pictures were obtained in the public domain, and the intellectual property belongs to those who created the pictures.

All rights reserved.  For copies, reprints, or sharing, please contact through LinkedIn:

https://www.linkedin.com/in/davesalisbury/

Customer Service Surveys – Bringing Sanity to the Survey

Nissan sent me a post car sale survey. I answered the questions honestly, and the sales rep did a great job; yet, those servicing and supporting the sales rep did some stuff, and I am not particularly pleased. I was specific in the comment section, praising my sales rep, and particular on who and where the ball was dropped creating issues. Not 30-minutes after completing the survey, I receive a call from a senior director at the Nissan Dealership who said that my sales rep was going to be fired and lose all his commissions for the month because the survey is solely his responsibility. The senior director went forward and said, “This is an industry-wide practice and cannot be changed.”

I disagree!

As a business consultant, long have I fought the “Voice-of-the-Customer” surveys for measuring things that a customer service person, salesperson, front-line customer-facing employee, does not control. If the customer-facing employee does not control all the facets that create a problem, then the survey should only be measuring what can be controlled. For a car salesperson, they have a challenging job, and they rely upon a team to help close the deal. Including a service department, a finance department, sales managers, and more. The blame all falls upon the sales rep for problems in the back office.

I sold my Kia Soul for a Nissan Juke, my salesperson at Peoria Nissan was excellent and I wound up purchasing three vehicles from Peoria Nissan. I have purchased a Rogue from Reliable Nissan, and a Juke from Melloy Nissan, both of which are in Albuquerque, NM. Tonna Yutze at Peoria Nissan is a great salesperson. Shawn Walker, at Reliable Nissan, is a young salesperson, with great potential. Of all the cars I have purchased, these are the car salespeople who have made a sufficient impression that I remember their names long after the sale — speaking more about the salesperson, than a post-sale customer survey.

Quantitative data is useful but means nothing without proper context, support, purpose, and a properly designed survey analysis procedure. Even with all those tools in place, at best, quantitative data can be construed, confused, and convoluted by the researcher, the organization paying for research, or the bias of those reading the research report.

Qualitative data is useful, but the researcher’s bias plays a more active role in qualitative research. Qualitative research suffers the same problems as quantitative research for many of the same reasons. Regardless, quantitative and qualitative data does not prove anything. The only thing qualitative and quantitative data does is supports a conclusion. Hence, the human element remains the preeminent hinge upon which the data swings.

Leading to some questions that every business sending out a “Voice-of-the-Customer Survey” instrument needs to be investigating and answering continuously:

  1. Is the data being captured relevant, timely, and accurate?
  2. What is being measured by the survey instrument, and why?
  3. How is the information being used to improve upon that which is measured?
  4. Who benefits from the survey and why?
  5. Who is harmed by the survey, and why?

Even with all this taken into consideration, business leaders making decisions about “Voice-of-the-Customer” survey data need to understand one person can make or break the service/sales chain; but, it requires a team to support the customer-facing employee.  Juran remarked, “When a problem exists, 90% of the time the solution is found in the processes, not the people.” Hence, when bad surveys come in, defend your people, check how your business is doing business, e.g., the processes.

The dynamics of “Voice-of-the-Customer” survey instruments require something else for consideration, delivery. AT&T recently sent me a “Voice-of-the-Customer” survey via text message. Collecting the barest of numerical (quantitative) data, three text messages, three data pieces, none of which gets to the heart of the customer issue.  Barely rating the salesperson in the AT&T store I had previously visited. Recently, I received a call from Sprint, where the telemarketer wanted to know if I wanted to switch back to Sprint and why.  The nasal voice, the rushed manner, and the disconnected mannerisms of the telemarketer left me with strong negative impressions, not about the telemarketer, but of Sprint. Nissan sends emails and while the data collected has aspects of the customer’s voice (qualitative) and numerical rankings (quantitative), my impressions of Nissan have sunk over the use of the survey to fire hard-working sales professionals. My previous bank, Washington Mutual, had a good, not great, “Voice-of-the-Customer” survey process, but the customer service industry continues to make the same mistakes in survey delivery and application.

How and why in “Voice-of-the-Customer” surveys, or the delivery and use of the survey data, leaves a longer-lasting impression upon the customer than the actual survey. Thus, if you are a business leader who purchased an off the shelf “Voice-of-the-Customer” survey analytics package, and you cannot explain the how, why, when, where, what, and who questions in an elevator, the problem is not with the customer-facing employees doing your bidding. If your back-office people supporting the customer-facing people are not being measured and held accountable, then the survey is disingenuous at best, and unethical at worst.

I recommend the following as methods to improve the “Voice-of-the-Customer” survey process:

  1. All business leaders using the customer service survey data must be able to answer the why, what, when, who, and how questions clearly to all who ask about the survey tool.
  2. If you have sections for the customer-facing employee and mix in other questions about the process, the customer-facing employee’s responsibility begins and ends with the specific questions about the customer-facing employees’ performance. You cannot hold a customer-facing employee responsible for broken back-office processes!
  3. Revise, review, and research the data collected. Ask hard questions of those designing the survey. Know the answers and practice responding to those asking questions.
  4. Get the customer-facing employees involved in forming what needs to be measured in a survey, have them inform and answer why. You will be surprised at what is discovered.
  5. Use the data to build, teach, train, coach, and mentor, not fire, customer-facing employees. Support your people with data, not destroy them.
  6. If you cannot explain a process or procedure in an elevator speech, the process is too complicated. No matter what the process is, use the elevator as a tool to simplify your business organization, processes, procedures, and tools.
  7. Be a customer! When a customer, ask tough questions, drive for answers that work, and if the customer-facing employee is struggling, train through the chain of command!

Never forget, the value of the “Voice-of-the-Customer” survey is found in actionable data, to improve cohesion between the front- and back-office, training talking points, and the power to return a customer to your business. Anything else promised is smoke and mirrors, a fake, a fallacy, and sales ruse.

© 2019 M. Dave Salisbury

All Rights Reserved

The images used herein were obtained in the public domain; this author holds no copyright to the images displayed.

 

Man’s Inhumanity Towards Man: Shifting the Leadership and Customer Service Paradigm

quote-mans-inhumanity

Recently, I was asked, “What does customer service mean to you?” The question continues to reverberate in my mind. Drawing upon several recent experiences, let’s discuss why customer service continues to be useless, debilitating, and demeaning. Finally, let’s imagine a way forward, a new paradigm for understanding the relationship between people as human beings, customers, and employees, who all deserve the best customer experience we, the professional customer-facers, can provide.

For the record, my wife considers the first example a genuine customer service success and remains a pleased customer. Since the first example concerns both of us, I see the customer service provided as a fail and will explain in greater detail below. According to my wife, this example is a win because of the treatment and ease of concluding her part in the customer service example. This separation of beliefs highlights another reason why voice-of-the-customer surveys (VoC) should not be a knowledge performance indicator (KPI) for service professionals. Service delivery is ambiguous, and as the disconnection between my wife and I represents, service value is in the eye of the beholder.

The first example begins with Amazon.com. The end user received their order for a product (the customer was served), which also contained two items not requested, not ordered, and not paid for (an additional hassle for the customer). The customer service department, at Amazon.com, was consulted and the agent informed the customer, “Since the cost to return the products did not justify shipping the products back to Amazon, the customer could keep the products” with Amazon’s blessing. This is not a good customer service experience for several reasons:

  1. The customer now has to dispose of new products not needed or wanted.
  2. The only justification for not returning the products was the cost, e.g. inconvenience, to Amazon.
  3. The underlying problem, receiving parts not requested, did not come with a solution that served the customer; nor, did the option to keep the parts improve the customer experience.

While the customer-facing agent was kind, considerate, and per the company guidelines acting in all good faith to the customer, in the interests of the company the customer was not served even though a solution was generated and the customer went away. Consider the person who was supposed to receive these parts. They will have to call and either receive a bill credit or the parts need to be shipped, thus delaying the other customer as well as not serving that customer by respecting their time, resources, and honoring the customer’s commitment to using the retailer Amazon.com. With both customers not being served, how can Amazon.com, or any business organization, dare refer to these customer interactions as “service.”

Regarding the next two examples, I am purposefully vague about the entities committing the customer “dis-service” at this moment, for a reason. I do not want distractions, e.g. reader bias, to interrupt or interfere with the focus upon the incidents by naming the organizations. The second example comes from an infamously poor government office that has a reputation for providing poor service to their customer base. The third example comes from a truly infamous retailer who is already struggling but generally has much better customer interactions. The second and third examples’ names will be provided later in this article.

While dealing with a large government entity, both in person and over the phone, three separate and divergent answers to the same problem were received over the period of five different opportunities to assist the customer. By stating this experience happened with a government entity, many people already are presuming the experience was bad. It was, and this is an acceptable and reasonable policy for bureaucrats to exemplify. I disagree most heartily that any government office can produce poor customer interactions and skate by blithely. Since all governments cannot operate without forced taxation, the government entity should be providing better, not worse, customer interactions than those found in the private sector and the need to hold the government to a higher standard is sorely lacking. More to the point, the original problem remains unresolved more than 15-days after the problem was promised a solution within 5-business days. What amazes me the most in this affair is the nonchalance, non-interest, and forthright noncommittal that government employees are allowed, nay encouraged, to get away with in customer interactions with those same taxpayers, who both need help and pay the taxes to keep the government employee employed.

Third, a recent example occurred during this now past holiday season; a customer approached a company representative for directions; the company representative did not have any pressing duties to occupy his/her time and can leave his/her assigned post to aid customers in improving the customer experience. I know this, as I checked with the manager and witnessed the customer service provider playing on a cell phone moments before being asked a question. The company representative gave a broad hand, and arm gestures yelled at the customer and appeared in all appearances to be inconvenienced by the customer’s request for directions. The company’s policy states the company representative is to walk the customer directly to their desired destination and await the customer’s pleasure to return to their original post as the only method to handle this type of service request. When this was brought to the manager’s attention, the manager acted shocked in front of the customer raising the complaint, and then took no action, as the additional action was deemed “not warranted” per the manager’s murmured comments to other employee’s in the vicinity. More to the point, the manager took the opportunity to bad mouth the customer raising the complaint and presented the complaint to other employees, who “snickered” at the language the manager used to describe those making complaints, while falsely thinking the customer who is raising the concerns was not paying attention.

Finally, a recent example from a major fast food franchise, while Burger King as a corporation should not be held accountable for the work the franchise performed, the customer service example remains priceless in showcasing the uselessness of serving the customer and the need for training customer interaction professionals. While using coupons, the customer became confused in the “legal print, ” and the order took longer to place and pay for than normal. The cashier at this point does three things: 1. Assumes the confused customer cannot hear; 2. Bad mouth the confused customer to the next three customers who were waiting patiently; and 3. Blames the customer for taking too long to order their food. Later, the cashier approached the confused customer, blamed the incident on him, offered a faux apology, and walked off muttering about stupid customers not understanding the reality of fast food restaurants.

In the third example, do not be distracted by the poor leadership being presented by the manager. Focus instead on the customer interactions: two different customer experiences, both deemed “acceptable customer service” by the powers that control the experiences. Neither customer was served nor was the problems solved. The first customer found a more helpful company representative who followed the company policy, and the second customer interaction with the manager only strengthened the customer’s resolve to continue to avoid the retailer. Two opportunities to grow a new relationship, enhance a new paradigm upon the customer, and promote goodwill and loyalty with the local customer base were missed. Customer interactions can and should be held to a higher standard, and the following defines my position that focusing solely on customer service is useless along with steps to improve.

Focusing solely on “serving the customer” is useless as all the customer receives is a meeting of their stated needs. In the third example, the customer received directions; thus, the customer’s need was met, and service was provided. In the first and second examples, the customer needed information and a plan of action to overcome the situation experienced. Even if the work resulted in the customer needing to take more action, the customer was “technically” served. In the fourth example, the confused customer received his food, was able to use a coupon, and was thus “served.” Is it apparent that merely serving the customer is useless?

The service to the customer, while technically meeting the customer’s needs, remains not just poor but pointless; all because the focus of the organization is honed to simply provide “service” or meet the customer’s stated need at the lowest cost, the fastest interaction, and the least amount of effort for the company and those employed to provide customer service. Sometimes all that is wanted by the customer is to resolve the problem quickly and efficiently and courteously and move forward with their lives. This is yet another reason why freedom is needed in customer interactions to serve as needed for each customer making contact. Customer facing professionals deserve better from their leadership than simply “providing service to customers.” Customer facing professionals need leadership, guidance, and freedom to develop the rapport necessary to shine their personal, professional pride into the customer interaction, all with the intent of not merely “serving a customer’s needs,” but providing opportunities for the customer to be motivated to brag about their unique customer experience.

In practice, the following steps should be the underlying governing principles to move from service to professional pride.

  1. No matter the method for customer interaction, make the time to show genuine interest in the customer. This will require making conversation, employing reflective listening techniques to ensure mutual understanding of the customer’s position, and representing the company with professional pride. For the customer-facing employees to show pride in the company the company leaders need to ensure the “What” and the “Why” is known to the employees’ so the employee can exemplify the “What” and the “Why” to customers. Leadership is key to communicating with a purpose and promoting the spirit of reflective listening in an organization. Make the connection of mutual understanding and most of the customer problems shrink in size.
    1. Active listening is good, but it doesn’t make the grade anymore.
    2. Reflective listening is all about making sure mutual understanding has been achieved.
    3. Mutual understanding provides one interaction resolution, goes beyond simple servicing needs, and displays the pride and professionalism of the company’s commitment to customer interactions.
    4. Reflective listening can be employed in voice, email, instant message, and face-to-face customer interactions and reflects an easily attained step up from only actively listening.
  2. Promote the customer experience by not differentiating between external and internal customers, treat them all as valuable customers deserving attention, focus, eye contact, and validation that their concern is justified and worthy of attention. Act in a manner that the customer deserves the best, and the spirit of customer interactions will infuse all the customers with a commonality of desire, hope, and professionalism. As a customer interaction professional, how much better do you offer superior interactions with customers when you, receive excellent customer interactions from the company you spend time representing?
  3. Remember to make the human connection in human interactions. Using reflective listening, focus on the clues, the body language, the tone of voice, and acknowledge these communication streams through competent action. For example, if the customer is perceived as stressed and is speaking in a clipped and hurried manner, respond kindly, but through accurate and speedy action acknowledging the customer’s stress and meeting the customer’s need by respecting their time. Human interactions are improved through human connections that reflect respect and that embody this principle in every human interaction, and the customer-facing employee becomes a customer’s hero. Using the information above, are we not all customer-facing employees; yes, we certainly are!
  4. Freedom to think and act in the interest of the customer, based upon sound critical thinking skills, is exemplified at the time of the interaction without second-guessing after the interaction. This happens more often in call centers, but every customer-facing employee has had this occur to them. At the moment, the decision appeared the best course of action, but after the interaction/interference of a manager or a quality assurance (QA) employee has second-guessed and provided “advice” that does not provide value to future customer interactions, doubt is planted removing confidence in acting appropriately in the future. Does this mean allowing poor judgment to survive? Absolutely not; it does mean that the “advice” needs to model and reflect value for future decisions, not cast aspersions upon the previous decisions.
  5. SMART Training. Everyone knows the axiom for SMART Goals; training should also embody the principles of and reflect SMART, “Specific, Measurable, Applicable, Realistic, and Timely.” If the training does not meet SMART levels, the training is not valuable to the persons receiving the training. Make the training SMART, and the potential for improving professionalism in customer interactions grows exponentially.
  6. Never stop learning, never stop reaching, and never stop growing. How often does training cease for employees after the new hire training concludes? How is a new employee supposed to meet the demands of a constantly changing customer population without ongoing training? More specifically, should managers, team leaders, directors, VP’s, and the C-Level leaders also continue to learn and receive training in their positions, roles, and company? If the front-line customer-facing employees need constant refresher training, then every customer-facing employee needs constant refresher training that meets the SMART training guidelines and provides value to the individual using that training.
  7. Stop wasting resources on unproductive goals, e.g., serving customers with excellence. Serving customers, even with “excellence,” remains a useless and wasteful activity; eradicate the term “customer service” from the company vernacular and memory. Begin by realizing the opportunity provided in customer interactions to grow the business, supporting customer interactions through reflective listening where mutual understanding is the goal, and by acting upon the mutual understanding achieved.

We, the professional customer-facing providers, can and should be able to onboard these principles and lead the eradication efforts to remove customer service from our focus and professional labels. The importance of not serving the customer, but elevating the customer interaction, cannot be understated. The customer experience needs to be elevated with reflective listening and prompt action to mutual understanding and a sense of mutual growth as partners in using the company’s products and services. The customer is too important to continue to waste resources only to serve. Make the opportunity to deliver and elevate, and the bottom-line will take care of itself abundantly. The organization in the second example is the Department of Veteran Affairs. The organization in the third example is Target.

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© 2017 M. Dave Salisbury
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Customer Service Leadership through Religious Realism

Authors Note:  This analysis was a concluding project during my doctoral degree on customer relations management.  I post it here as the sentiment contained tracks with a desperately needed shift in the conversation between internal customers to facilitate an improved external customer support system.

For this analysis, a customer is defined as both an internal (fellow employee) and external (a person or organization paying money for your product/service) entity desiring a product or service. Gitomer (1998, 2005, and 2008), Greenberg (2002) and KASET (1988) all provide more detailed distinctions regarding customer classes, service needed, and methods for providing the euphemistic term “customer service.” When discussing customer service Avolio & Yammarino’s ‘Full Range Leadership Theory’ (2002) including the need for strong moral character as found in religious belief and the combination of the philosophies of Realism and Positivism, are employed to help define why multiple principles are required to fully influence the customer interaction while attempting to provide service.

Religious realism is based upon the following philosophies, positivism and realism, with religion as an overlaying guiding measurement mechanism. Positivism is the field of philosophy that deals with obtaining knowledge through logic, mathematics, and human sensory input. For example, an item is understood as hot due to a source of heat transference and the heat is felt through sensory input and understood employing prior experience. Epistemic knowledge is created through experience and through genetic knowledge transference (Hoerr, 2007). For example a parent passes on the knowledge of hot and burn to a child who forever knows the difference between hot and cold. Peale (1992) is called upon in conjunction with Allen (1902) to broaden the positivist philosophy by adding the control of human interaction, the individual’s thoughts, feelings, bias, attitude, and personality. Allen (1902) is especially important for the consideration that thoughts predict outcomes.

Realism deals with that which can be understood but not seen. For example, gravity is real as a principle of science, but seeing gravity can only be understood through the attraction of an object to another, not seen as a power. Consider the item falling from a height, we understand the attraction of the item falling as the gravitational pull upon the object, but cannot see gravity. Hoerr (2007) adds to the body of insight regarding the genesis of knowledge and the genetic nature of learning. While many of Hoerr’s (2007) conclusions are not personally acceptable, Hoerr (2007) does identify many points in both religious leadership and knowledge creation, not fully explained or identified in postmodern thinking supported in Delanty & Strydom (2003).

Religion is used as an overlaying guide Von Braun explains this need succinctly in Miller & Fugal, (2000) [p 35], not to control the principles, but to fully understand the need for human behavior as choice and consequence cycle and the drive to become more than a club wielding species locked in mortal combat with elements, other men/women, and man himself. Religion is the impetus for many of man’s achievements, philosophies, and tenants of thought and action, this is inferred from a discussion by Newton as related by Miller & Fugal (2000) [p 70]. While not a researcher in the traditional sense, as an observer and author, not many come better; Carnegie (1936) and Allen (1902) are employed, as their collective observations regarding positivism, realism, religion, and the influence of thought upon the human interaction remain timeless. Muir (1902) and Frankl (1992) provide the religious overlay, non-denominational, but universal. Muir (1902) focuses upon specific guiding principles fundamental to man, when applied, could be termed religious. Frankl (1992) is employed as the sole purpose for man to strive is explained and examined in detail, again, in a non-denominational environment.

A review of traditional researchers performing work specific to religious leadership in customer service environments is identified encompassing the positivism, realism, and religion inherent in modern leadership. The works of Alon & Chase (2005), Pandey, Gupta, & Arora (2008), and Soltani & Joneghani (2012) are referenced extensively as their combined research provides the fundamental proof of religious leadership being dynamic in organizations, especially in customer interactions. The main theme running through all of these researchers is that no specific religious flavor stands supreme; but that strong religious morals are paramount to the leadership qualities identified by Hamlin & Sawyer (2007) and the customer service proficiencies identified by KASET International (1988). The ideals of strong morals, strong character, and defined positions of ethics, honesty, and specific limits are shown as attractive to customers. Steyrer, employed in Avolio & Yammarino (2002), emphatically outlines the research on character traits, stigma’s, charisma, and many other personality traits distinguished in individual people. Several times, Alon & Chase (2005), Pandey, Gupta, & Arora (2008), Soltani & Joneghani (2012) create the distinction, that while not needed for success, these character traits add depth and satisfaction to success. This is important, as many organizations do not employ religious leadership, realism, or positivism. Yet these organizations are successful or only successful for a short time. The answer as to why religious leadership is important and provides more satisfying success is found in the difference between leadership and management.

Leadership vs. Management

            Hamlin & Sawyer (2007) make the case perfectly clear that leaders are not managers and managers never lead. This theme is fundamental to the remaining analysis for several reasons; namely, leadership in customer service requires on the spot action, decision-making, and accountability, all anathema to managers (Avolio & Yammarino, 2002, p 25). Goldratt & Cox (2004), Gitomer (1998), and KASET International (1988) all espouse similar philosophies in caring for customers. More importantly, Greenberg (2002) discusses opportunity management in relation to customer centered focus which provides the guidance needed to develop people, train people, and improve service, which is the end goal of Goldratt & Cox (2004), Gitomer (1998), and KASET International (1988). The requirement to develop people, train people, thus improving customer service is a key trait in leadership missing in managers, Antonakis & House make this abundantly clear (Avolio & Yammarino, 2002, p 3-33).

While a multitude of factors persist in separating leadership and management, the other factor prevalent in religious based customer service leadership is found through agency theory; the principle is freedom to choose, coupled to accountability for the choice and consequence (Ekanayake, n.d.). Managers employ we, us, team, as deflectors to accountability or to soften consequences for ill, but employ I, me, and mine, when the consequences are perceived as favorable. Leaders are the exact opposite in their speech patterns, accepting accountability for negative consequences but deflecting praise for positive consequences. This phenomenon is documented in many places namely, Allen (1994), Brady & Woodward (2008), Maxwell (2003), and Wren (1995). Goldratt & Cox (2004) do a tremendous job documenting the changes as they occurred in a business with a charismatic leader and the managers who must make “bricks without straw (Exodus, 5:16-18).” The changes that occurred parallel the principles established by Greenberg (2002) and Hamlin & Sawyer (2007). More important is the behavior patterns of charismatic leaders, grounded in religious foundations, produce the organizational patterns discussed by Kreitner & Kinicki (2004), Lundin, Paul, & Christensen (1996). Dumdum, Lowe, and Avolio, quoted in Avolio and Yammarino (2002), increase the research in leadership character traits providing correlational evidence between effectiveness and satisfaction [p 35]. Dumdum, Lowe, and Avolio, from Avolio and Yammarino (2002) [p 53], outlined how “charisma,” “idealized influence,” “inspirational motivation,” and “intellectual stimulation” from leaders outweigh and influence both internal and external customers from a transformational leader. While transactional leadership is effective, the carrot or reward is always a problem in transactional leadership and is not as effective in training people, developing people, or influencing people. Managers often employ the transactional theory of leadership while never striving for the transformational aspects, which are more affective. The research is clear, leadership and management are totally separate principles, and leadership through religious principles is the better option for transforming organizations and the people associated with those organizations.

Spiritual leadership encompasses, the best of human striving, harnessing the power of individual effort and the power of positive thinking. This power to strive is derived from strong morals, developed over time and experience. Some of the experience has been learned genetically (Hoerr, 2007) and cannot be discounted simply because it sits in opposition to the philosophical theories of postmodernism. Soltani & Joneghani (2012) discuss these principles through expanded research coming to similar conclusions about the need for and use of strong morals in leadership and success. This does not mean that those without strong morals cannot succeed, but that the success of those with strong morals appears to last longer and possess a far greater reach and impact. Pandey, Gupta, & Arora (2008) researched the power of religious leadership/management in the corporate culture of an organization and the positive influence this religious culture has upon customer service. Again, this does not make a claim that those without religious leadership cannot be successful; but the research is clear that possessing the strong morals of a religion advances success and improves the customer experience. Religious leadership, corporate culture, and customer receptiveness to strong morals is mentioned due to the need for not losing oneself in corporate cultures. Those employees possessing strong moral character need not lose themselves making Carnegie (1936), Muir (1928) and Peale (1992) more applicable to the separation between manager and leader and the need for knowing oneself more abundantly clear. Kreitner & Kinicki (2004) allude to the same organizational principles discussed by the researchers Alon & Chase (2005) along with Pandey, Gupta, & Arora (2008). The organizational matrix needs strong moral character, epitomized through religious leadership, not management, is clear as detailed by Maxwell (2003).

Goldratt & Cox (2004) do a tremendous job documenting the changes as they occurred in a business with a charismatic leader and the managers who must make “bricks without straw (Exodus, 5:16-18).” The changes which occurred parallel the principles established by Greenberg (2002) & Hamlin & Sawyer (2007). More important is the behavior patterns of charismatic leaders, grounded in religious foundations, produce the organizational patterns discussed by Kreitner & Kinicki (2004) and Lundin, Paul, & Christensen (1996). Dauten (2003) provides impetus for leadership shifts, organizational change, and perspective on how to avoid some of the problems in making the change. Dauten (2003) adds another single variable into the volatile mix of change and leadership over management, a positive attitude as defined and described by Peale (1992). Dauten (2003) and Peale (1992) both emphatically state that without a positive attitude, as reflected through the actions of smiling, the charisma described in Avolio & Yammarino (2002) cannot be properly identified by those being led. Development Dimensions Intl. (2008) spells out retention efforts during change; yet the more telling research document lies in Frankl’s (1992) dissertation for delivering a product or service, changing the organization, all while retaining employees. Tribus (2008) specifically discusses how to change; namely, by being the change you desire to see in others. All of these authors are justified in the research conducted by Alon & Chase (2005), Pandey, Gupta, & Arora (2008), Soltani & Joneghani (2012). The principles of selling, customer leadership, product development, employee retention, and etc. all are developed more satisfactorily and improved through organizations with strong morals through religious leadership. Religious leadership is formed as a paradigm of action and detailed by Kuhn (1996) and Allen (1902). Kuhn (1996) outlines how paradigms are chosen, built, and become cultures in an organization. Allen (1994) introduces the simplicity behind realism and foundational knowledge, lifting, edifying, and providing methods for improving organizations. The keys here are simplicity that Muir (1928) expounds upon. Eden & Sulimani discussed in Avolio & Yammarino (2002) [p 287-308] expound upon the principle of self-fulfilling prophecy (SFP), Allen (1902) would describe this as thoughts becoming actions, predicting results. Regardless, self-fulfilling prophecy (SFP) also referred to as the “Pygmalion Paradigm” “works” (Avolio & Yammarino, 2002, p 288). The realization that expecting more from people, providing the training to achieve the higher standard, and raising the bar, is absolutely effective. This principle is universal in application. Changing how a person thinks, improves performance; expecting more from people, improves productivity measures; leadership, transformational leadership, founded upon strong moral codes and ethical actions, “works” (Avolio & Yammarino, 2002).

Religious Philosophy vs. Postmodernist Philosophy

Delanty & Strydom (2003) pitch post modernist thinking as the new reality and reject the fundamental principles described herein. Post modernist philosophy represented by Delanty & Strydom (2003) strives hard to cast out realism, redefining realism in new terms rejecting the foundation upon which the theory was built (p 442-447; 456-467). Habermas, quoted in Delanty & Strydom (2003), dictates that realism cannot be considered unless it is perpetually washed and filtered through new interpretations. This would be akin to learning about a hot stove by touching it and then re-experiencing the hot stove through burning other parts of the body, just to make sure we understand heat. The religious philosophy discussed herein would simply allow for learning that the stove is hot and looking for the signs of heat through sensory options to protect the individual from future burns or harm. While this analogy is simple, the concepts are easily understood. Postmodern thinking would have the individual continually suffer through new learning experiences in an attempt to understand heat. While the foundations of knowledge are more than acceptable to simply keep the individual from further harm through realistic endeavors and understanding. Bhaskar, Collins, and Habermas, again as displayed in Delanty & Strydom (2003) individually, would argue that the analogy about heat is too simplistic, not transcendental, and not ontologically expressive enough. Yet, Muir (1928) would argue that simplistic is best and more than sufficient to pass understanding from the author to the audience. This same philosophy would carry over into customer service and religious leadership. It is important to note, postmodern thinking will change language, attempt to re-define words, create new words and phrases, all in an attempt to overpower the thinking and thought of the audience. But the foundational principles of realism, strong morals, and leadership as a principle of living always shine through using simplicity.

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© 2015 M. Dave Salisbury

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