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

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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
All Rights Reserved – Image Copyrights used under Fair Use and are not included in the authors copyrighted materials.  AZ Quotes retains image copyrights.

Leadership: Winning the External Customer Through Improving Internal Customer Development

Internal-CS-Attitude-Low-ResThe following situation drives home the need for every employee to become more cognizant of the power of internal customer service. A nurse approached an internal business unit officer. The internal business unit officer provided access so the nurse is more able to do his/her job effectively, timely, and serve external customers efficiently in the performance of nursing duties. The internal business unit’s sole customer base is the internal customer, especially other nurses and medical staff members. The nurse received half of the access he/she needed to perform his/her functions and told the simple process needed to finish granting access must wait for some amorphous time in the future. Finally, the nurse received instruction to chase down business unit representatives, who will ultimately visit the work environment to complete the process; the final action from the business unit to complete granting access, while simple, was not going to occur at that moment in time, the nurse’s sixth visit for access.

This is a perfect storm of internal customer service affecting external customers and potentially could be life threatening for the external customer, all because the business unit officer’s convenience was more important than internal customer service. Granting access occurs often enough that specific processes and procedures should be in place to make the granting of access smooth and efficient. The nurse had made five previous visits to this business unit before finally obtaining half of the access needed. The example provided proves both a lackadaisical attitude to internal customers and an organizational culture of failing external customers.

Here is another recent example displaying internal customer service destroying external customer relations. To obtain a credit for a customer deserving a credit, a front-line employee approached a supervisor for authorization. The front-line supervisor reviewed the problem, granted the needed approval, and both completed the business-mandated process to officially request the credit issued to the external customer. The granting authority, whose position is to support internal customers as a backroom office aiding internal customers, refused the request, multiple times, across several months. Higher and higher, the request for the credit moved through the organization’s monolithic leadership structure to no avail. The leaders could see the needed credit, see how the organization was at fault, and agreed to the credit approval. However, forcing action from the back-office support team to act was “too politically expensive,” which resulted in the company changing the official position so that the customer was at fault. The credit was ultimately denied since the external customer failed to follow the company’s rules.

At each stage of the request, to obtain relief for the customer throughout the lengthy process, the front-line employee informed the customer the service being provided was an outreach for customer satisfaction. With the final request for reprieve denied, who is to shoulder the customer anger, frustration, and hurt feelings; not the back office causing the problem, but the front-line customer support representative. The final nail in this horrible customer service example was the back office person refusing the request did so because he/she personally did not like the manager making the request and made this known to the business leaders approaching the back office for assistance. In fact, every time this back office representative could make life hard for that manager, he/she actively choose to impede, distract, deny, and hamper external customer service, through internal politicking. The manager, blamed for not being “polite enough” to the needs of the back office personnel, received a reprimand from the business leaders for causing hurt feelings. The internal investigation proved the manager and the back-office personnel never met, had never interacted outside of the business process requesting service, and the back office personnel simply expressed an opinion of dislike for this single manager.

It is time and past time for internal functionaries to realize this truth: if all your customers are internal, without the external customer, the first job cut or lost is yours. Without external customers, business fails. The daily actions supporting internal customers decide the war for external customers. This is a cold hard truth. Internal customers, e.g. fellow employees, not properly serviced, supported, and respected, directly cause external customers suffering exponentially. Regarding the nurse example, how many times will this nurse need access, not have it, and patients suffer needlessly? If the nurse has to ask another nurse for their time to grant access, more patients will suffer needlessly, all because an internal business unit failed internal customer support. If the manager in the second example is directly in charge of twenty service representatives, and those twenty service representatives write tickets requesting support through the business unit manned by the unprofessional staff member 300-times in a month, how fast has a simple unprofessional act snowballed into disaster for the external customers?

Leading to the question, “how does an organization begin to change internal customer support to win external customers?” Shown below are the five first steps:

  1. Start today, start with you, and start by changing how you see your fellow employees. When asked a question from a fellow employee, consider whether the question is an “interruption” or an “opportunity?” This simple choice powers the internal customer service culture and attitude.
  2. While reports and statistics are important, has the voice of the internal customer become lost in those reports and statistics? When was the last time a report included actual internal customer voices, not a survey with a sampling of voices specially selected, groomed, and cleansed to support a point, but actual voices from internal customers? VITarSS powered communication is the phenomenon of voices echoing in the halls of decision-making.
  3. When conflicts between processes or procedures and internal customers arise, who wins and why? If a process, a method of working, trumps an internal customer, this is going to reflect in how that person treats the next internal customer onto the destruction of external customers. If a procedure, even if the procedure speaks to compliance issues, trumps people, the external customer will suffer greatly. If the worst thing an external customer can hear from a company representative is, “This is policy,” how much more damaging is this to internal customers to hear and suffer? Why is it not company policy to find every option to say, “Yes,” before saying, “No” at every level of internal customer support, from the boardroom to the grounds keeping staff?
  4. It is okay to say, “I don’t know,” provided the next statement becomes, “Let me find out and get back to you by the close of business tomorrow.” This is good policy for external customer service. Why does internal customer service not use this more?
  5. “I am sorry.” This simple phrase carries power, provides respect, and opens opportunities. Yet, how often is power stripped from this phrase and the apology is left a vacuous non-entity, because action failed to follow the phrase? If a situation warrants an apology, apologize, discuss actions needed to rectify the situation, and then perform the actions.

Winning the internal customer is easier than winning external customers. Keeping internal customers is easier by magnitudes than keeping external customers. The power in achieving excellence in internal customers is that external customers notice and desire to remain customers to continue to experience great customer service.

Human Resource (HR) people talk of winning the “Talent Battle” to find and keep the best workers; yet, HR does not fight this battle; nor does HR have any power in the battle for talent; this battle is in the daily actions of internal customer service. The single most powerful action a business leader can take is to change how they approach internal customer loyalty building. Want more market share, a larger bottom-line, and promotions, win internal customer loyalty. Not psychopathic followership and not cult worship, but active internal customers working diligently to be the best worker they can be solely because you provide them the best service you can.

© 2016 M. Dave Salisbury

All Rights Reserved

 

Shifting the Paradigms – A Fouled Anchor is your business with old processes.

In the US Navy, a fouled anchor chain symbolizes the rank of a Chief Petty Officer.  An anchor, including the attached chain, provides stability to the ship and is a useful tool when not holding the ship at anchorage.  A fouled anchor chain is usually deemed not repairable and is cut loose and replaced.  The anchor chain becomes fouled through ocean debris, twists in the chain, marine life, etc.  Inherent in every business is a “steady as she goes” mentality, a “don’t rock the boat” culture, compounded by an “if it works, don’t fix it” managerial belief.  These beliefs are the fouled anchor chain in your business and can be fixed for increased success and improvement.

If your business has not and is not doing an 18-month periodicity review of all business processes, a fouled anchor chain is dragging your business.  If you have a process review, does it automatically launch upon new technology adoption?  If not, a fouled anchor chain is dragging your business.  If your managers are comfortable with the status quo a fouled anchor chain is dragging your business.  If your front office is frustrated and disconnected from the back office, a fouled anchor chain is dragging your business.  Dare I go on?

The future is very hopeful and the anchor chain does not need to be abandoned and can be fixed with these five easy suggestions, following the KISS Principles (Keeping It Supremely Simple), to unfoul that anchor chain.

  1.  Before improving external customer focus, be sure your internal customers, e.g., employees, are enthused, communicating, and thinking.  This means the leadership team needs to listen.  Sit down with a new person for a few minutes each day, listen to what works and what doesn’t work, act, then follow-up.
  2.  Select a manager. Put that one manager in charge of one process, provide that manager with proper resources, and hold him or her accountable for that process.  Repeat until all your managers have a process assignment for which they are directly accountable and responsible.  Processes and work procedures cannot be generated in a vacuum nor can they be improved in a committee.
  3.  Internal customers, e.g., employees, are the main source for success or failure for your organization. Address the ‘FUN’ feature. FUN means allowing creativity in workspaces, flexibility in completing work, and promoting ingenuity.  I cannot tell you, nor would I dare try, what FUN means for your organization, but your internal customers can.  Remember to listen, ask, listen, act, listen, follow-up, and listen some more.
  4.  Accept change, promote change, but keep a thought in mind; change just to change is not effective.  This means very simply that change must have a purpose, which can be easily and efficiently communicated.  Change on the organizational scale should include everyone.  When only one business unit changes and the business leaders “hope” the change will “catch on” for the rest of the organization, a fouled anchor chain develops, and useless, mind-numbing, resource-sucking change initiatives that go nowhere fast occur!
  5.  Stop “servicing” customers! Earn their loyalty and trust. Cars are mechanical and therefore serviced; people are human and therefore respond.  Cars have interchangeable parts and anyone can “service” them.  People are not interchangeable, and if they are to be accommodated, the emotional connection must be made to win their loyalty and trust. Many authors have discussed this principle since mid-1990.  Internal customers are your first focus; external customers will be attainable only if internal customers are assisted to be proficient and effective in their jobs.

Often managers use linguistic gymnastics to avoid change that drains intellectual improvement from your organization.  That must be addressed and stopped. Managers are not leaders; leaders never manage but are innovative problem solvers; therefore managers must become leaders as referenced in (2) above or eliminated.  The bureaucracy of administration at every level can and should to be eliminated or transformed into working accountability, responsibility, and innovation, and your anchor chain will continue to be useful and your organization will be better.

© 2015 M. Dave Salisbury

All Rights Reserved