Communication – A Tool of Improving Call Centers, a Leadership Guide

A call center recently asked for some help. They have an “open-door” policy for employees to use. The call center meets all the designated training directives and compliance mandates. They believe they are the “best of the best” in providing customer support and have won awards from third-parties to back up these claims. Yet, employee churn remains high, employee morale remains low, and the leaders are becoming wary of the employment pool attracted to the call center.

ProblemsIn making observations, the consultant team tested the “open-door” policy and found that those sought were never in their offices even though the doors were open. The training was occurring, but the training offered had little to no value for the front-line customer-facing staff. It was generally considered a zero-sum game, providing time off the phones and causing stress and overtime costs. Worse, the front-line supervisors and employees’ perception was the existence of a chasm, separating them from higher organizational leaders.

Yukl (2010, p. 7) stated the definition of leadership as a “… multi-directional influence relationship between a leader and followers with the mutual purpose of accomplishing real change. Leaders and followers influence each other as they interact in non-coercive ways to decide what changes they want to make.” Fairholm (2001) built on the definition by Yukl (2010), insisting that leadership is a social event specific to the group of followers and leaders. Leadership and followership is a social contract; a call center is one of the most unique social environments possible. Due to this social environment, the leader who inspires communication is the call center leader who will be highly successful and train others to be highly successful.

Inherent to a fruitful and lasting social environment that promotes growth and development, leadership requires non-coercive methods to inspire and empower and provide aid to followers during change. Leadership in call centers is a social event specific to that group of followers, and leaders requiring mutuality in action to influence objectives being appropriately met. Coercion is a poison that infects like cancer into social environments; unfortunately, coercion is an easy trap to fall into as it is effective in the short-term.

Using the definition of leadership by Yukl (2010), we find why coercive leadership is ineffective; coercion cannot touch the followers’ hearts and minds to empower action towards objectives. A coercive action is any activity performed to harm or ensure the compliance of the action’s target. Coercive practices take many forms, from withholding benefits, including praise, to overt action, including threats and force. Coercive measures are used as leverage to force an individual or team to act in a way contrary to their individual or team interests. Covert coercion is rampant in many call centers and takes the form of restrictive policies, carrot/stick incentives, and human treatment policies that allow favoritism to rule instead of results.

Coercion is pernicious, and coercive practices are preventable. Yukl (2010) further elaborated that the follower only gives the coercive leader power out of fear or acts as a coercive agent to oppress others.  Furthermore, Yukl (2010, p. 137) specified that coercive leadership produces fear as the only motivator, and fear is dysfunctional, making nothing but more dysfunction in followers. Academic researchers often use the military as an example of coercive power and coercive leadership. Yet, having served in the US Army and the US Navy, I can attest coercion does not work in the military just as it does not work in any other industry. Coercive power is an acid destroying everything, building nothing, and dehumanizing people into animals.

The opposite of coercion is persuasion. Persuasion is the mode of being effective in collaboration, and persuasion requires trust and communication. Trust is an operational factor that builds the relationship between followers and leaders. It is the single most crucial factor in collaboration; but, collaboration and trust, as operational concepts, require two-directional communication to reach maximum effectiveness (Du, Erkens, Xu, 2018).

Internal-CS-Attitude-Low-ResCommunication as a tool in expressing confidence in the follower/leader relationship gains strength to clear misunderstandings and reach the desired consensus to meet organizational goals and operational objectives. The operational concept of trust and communication requires the third leg of the trust relationship agency. The follower needs to possess agency to act, informed agency requires training to employ, and the power and support of leadership to feel confident in action as detailed by Boler (1968), Avolio and Yammarino (2002). Which is where concepts meet reality, where theory is tested, and the leader is needed.

The following are proposed actions to build trust in organizations, improve communications, and empower the agency in employees to act. One of the worst things a leader can do when coercion is suspected is “trust exercises.” Trust exercises like standing a person on a chair and having them fall back into the team’s waiting arms. A call center leader colleague tried holding team and department meetings using “trust exercises,” and the result was best described as a catastrophe. The actions proposed are practical and can be employed in all call centers, including those working remotely due to COVID.

  1. Employ praise! Honest, truthful, fact-based, and reasoned praise is the most powerful tool a call center leader can employ to build people. With many call center workers working remotely, using praise as a recognition tool is critical to improving employee performance.
      • Use QA calls to issue praise.
      • Use non-cash incentives to recognize powerful deeds.
      • Make praise public through company newsletters and leadership emails.
      • Be specific, direct, and honest in your praise.
      • Be consistent in offering praise.
  1. Saying you have an “open door” is not enough, be the support mechanism your people need.
      • Respond to emails. Even if you cannot offer a substantial response immediately, personalize the email response, set a follow-up date, and meet those follow-up dates for additional communication.
      • Respond to employee questions with enthusiasm for listening and acting, not merely speaking.
      • Stop active listening; begin immediately to listen to meet mutual understanding through reflective listening. Mutual understanding and a promise to act on a concern are essential to support “open-door” policies; failure to listen and act is the number one failure of “open-door” policies.
  2. Training must change. If training is not a value-added exercise to the person receiving training, training has not occurred, resources have been wasted, and problems are generating.
    • Does your trainer know how to gather qualitative data from front-line workers to make curriculum developments?
    • Does your trainer know how to collect quantitative data from the training program to gauge decision-making in curriculum improvement?
    • What adult education theories are your trainers employing to instruct, build, and motivate adult learners who are employed?
    • How do you measure training effectiveness?
    • Does a “trained” employee know how to use trainers’ information to change individual approaches?
    • Do team leaders take an active role in training, or are they just “too busy?”

All these questions and more should be powering your training of the trainer discussions. If these questions are not being addressed, how will you, the call center leader, know your training investment dollars can return a positive investment? Training remote workers, especially, requires training programs that can motivate learners to change personal behavior. Thus, the training must have the ability to reach the student’s honor and integrity.

Leadership CartoonCOVID has provided many opportunities, and only through collaboration, communication, trust, and empowered agency, can help call centers to survive this difficult period. Regardless of how long the government shutdowns occur, your call center can survive, and call center leaders can prosper, provided they are willing to be leaders indeed, not managers in disguise.

References

Avolio, B. J., & Yammarino, F. J. (2002). Transformational and charismatic leadership: The road ahead. San Diego, CA: Emerald.

Boler, J. (1968). Agency. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 29(2), 165-181.

Du, F., Erkens, D. H., & Xu, K. (2018). How trust in subordinates affects service quality: Evidence from a large property management firm. Business.Illinois.edu. Retrieved from https://business.illinois.edu/accountancy/wp-content/uploads/sites/12/2018/03/Managerial-Symposium-2018-Session-IV-Du-Erkens-and-Xu.pdf.

Fairholm, Gilbert W. Mastering inner leadership. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001.

Ruben, B. D., & Gigliotti, R. A. (2017). Communication: Sine qua non of organizational leadership theory and practice. International Journal of Business Communication, 54(1), 12-30.

Yukl, G. (2010, April 23). Leadership in organizations [Adobe Digital Edition Version 1.5] (7th ed.).

© 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/

Call Center Chaos and Appreciative Inquiry

While this article discusses government call centers generally, and New Mexico (NM) Government call centers specifically, please do not think the problems described are specific only to, or lessons could not be applied to, many other call centers.  New Mexico Government call centers all have a common problem, they are purposefully designed to not help or serve the customer.  Worse, the work processes are convoluted to the point that work takes anywhere from 10 – 15% longer than it should, costing 30 – 50% more than it should.  Worse, if a customer gets connected to an “Escalation Department,” the workers in that department have no authority, no tools, and nothing they can do but repeat marketing materials, and hope the customer goes away.

Cute CalfEssentially, the NM Government call centers, at the city and state levels of government are as emasculated as a spring-born calf!  Let that sink in for a moment.  No tools, no authority, no support, and only their verbal wits to make the customer go away.  If you think this problem is only apparent in government call centers; well, you are wrong.

AT&T has a very similar, though not as endemic issue.  Sprint, the problem is both apparent and not considered a problem.  AIU, COX, Comcast/Xfinity, FEDEX, UPS, UoPX, and more, you all have very similar issues where the work processes and the customer service are disconnected, leaving employees emasculated and stuck spouting marketing lines in the hope of appeasing the customer.  Sure, some of you have better call escalation processes, but these escalation processes only show the emasculation of your people more exactly.

For example, take today’s interactions with a NM Government Call Center.  The representative on the call escalation line could very easily reach out to their supervisor and take the criticisms and ideas from the customer’s call, put them forth as their own ideas, and improve the call center and customer attentiveness of the organization.  Unfortunately, sad experience has shown that new ideas in NM Government Call Centers are anathema to the good order and discipline of the call center.  Thus, proving that the endemic lack of customer attentiveness is systematic in NM Government Call Centers and considered a benefit to the customer/taxpayer using the government service.

Purposeful customer abuse is not appreciated, not acceptable, and eventually leads the call center to ruin.  Which is a monumental waste of the potential in your employees, as well as being ruinously expensive for some future disaster.  In speaking with retail associates at Comcast/Xfinity and COX Communications, one learns from frontline representatives what to expect from calling the call centers.  If the retail associates are frustrated with the inability to be served, this is automatically passed to the customer.  Bank of America has this problem in spades!

Appreciative InquiryAppreciative inquiry is a growth mechanism that states that what a business organization needs, they already have enough of, provided they listen to their employees.  Appreciative inquiry and common sense tells leaders who want to know and change their organization, how, and where to go to begin.  Appreciative inquiry-based leadership is 6-continuous steps that start small, and cycle to larger problems as momentum for excellence permeates through an organization.  But the first step, just like in defeating a disabling addiction, is admitting there is a problem.

Coming back to the NM Government Call Center, the front-line supervisor upon hearing about this representative’s experience, chooses to believe there is a problem.  Knowing that the problems are endemic and systematic in the organization, decides, “For my team, we will be the core of excellence.”  Thus, this supervisor is now motivated to take the second step in the appreciative inquiry cycle, “Define.”

The supervisor defines what they can change, and then from that list of items that they can control will select the first item to change by asking themselves and their team, “Which item on this list can we tackle first?”  Thus, leading to the third step in appreciative inquiry, “Discover.”

Imperative at this step is the focus upon what is already going right on the topic selected.  Not focusing upon what is wrong, or upon what cannot be controlled or influenced by the team.  Focus on the positive, list the best of what is going right!  For example, if the inquiry will be reducing hold times, and the team has been trending down from multiple hours to single hours of hold time, focus on the positive, and get ideas about tips used from those who are successful in reducing hold times.

The idea in discovery is to create the motivation for the next step in appreciative inquiry, “Dream.”  But, do not dream small!  Remember, when you shoot for the sun and miss, you still land among the stars.  Dream BIG!  Dreaming is all about setting your sights on what currently is considered impossible, that your team can make possible.  Going back to reducing hold times, set the dream at 30-minutes.  You can always come back and dream bigger or repeat the appreciative inquiry cycle on this topic again in the future.

Next, “Design,” design the future and it becomes your destiny; which also happens to be the remaining two steps in the appreciative inquiry cycle.  President Thomas Monson is quoted as saying, “Decisions DO Determine Destiny” [emphasis in original].  If you decide the status quo is acceptable, that decision determines the destiny, and ruination will follow.  If you decide to pursue excellence, this decision will determine how successful you and your team can be.  Design the future you desire, state the goal, write it down, post the goal, speak positively about the goal, and build momentum through accomplishing small steps towards the goal.

Thus, the destiny is born into fruition and what today is impossible, is tomorrow’s reality.  Destiny in the appreciative inquiry cycle is defined as creating what the future will be.  Positive growth occurs through incremental steps and changes the destination.

A pilot friend of mine loves the story about a new pilot who is making their first cross-country flight with a more experienced pilot.  The young pilot is close to being able to solo, and the experienced pilot knows the route, the weather, and decides to let the young pilot fly solo for a few hours.  The new pilot gets bored holding a single course and wavers a little to the left, and a little to the right of the base course and does not think anything of the consequences.  Several hours go by and the experienced pilot returns to the flight deck to discover bad weather is moving in fast, the small lane cannot fly in the weather that is coming necessitating an unscheduled landing, and the plane is 400-miles off base course.  The young pilot said, I only moved a few degrees left and right, we cannot be that far off course.  Later the experienced pilot shows a track of the airplane on a map to the young pilot and reality sinks in, by a matter of a few degrees, over time, the plane got in trouble.

A few DegreesAppreciative inquiry is exactly like the plane, by having a destination, defined according to positive desires, through the process of discovery, dreaming of the possible future, while designing the future, the appreciative inquiry leader can make the small changes today that move the destination from ruination to success.

The first step is admitting there is a problem, and desire to fix that problem at all costs.  What are you passionate enough about to fix at all costs?  Whether you are a representative or a company director, the same question applies and the answer will determine your ultimate destiny.  The key is action at all costs.  The efforts, time, resources, etc. will be spent to achieve does not matter, the new destination does matter.

A call center supervisor friend of mine had three stellar and highly experienced employees on their team.  My friend also had some young talent with incredible potential.  Because the three stellar employees did not want to become supervisors, this effectively blocked the new employees from achieving potential.  My friend had to make a choice, lose the new potential, or reorganize the team.  My friend chooses to keep the experienced people, and shortly after this decision was made, two quit for other opportunities, the new potential quit because they longed for professional growth, my friend was promoted, and the new supervisor had no depth of experience left on the team.

Some would blame the new employees for quitting too soon, others would lay the blame on the supervisor for not developing the talent pool, others might express dismay at the senior talent leaving; honestly, they are all right, and all wrong!  My friend decided to hang the costs, and the decision was a tremendous learning experience.  Using appreciative inquiry will provide similar learning experiences, prepare, and commit, now to learn first and stay focused on the positive.

Appreciative inquiry can help; there are six operational steps:

  1. Admit there is a problem and commit to change.
  2. Define the problem.
  3. Discover the variables and stay focused on the positive.
  4. Dream BIG!
  5. Design the future and outline the steps to that future.
  6. Destiny, create the destination you desire.

Follow the instructions on a shampoo bottle, “Wash, Rinse, Repeat.”  The appreciative inquiry model can be scaled, can be repeated, can be implemented into small or large teams, and produce motivated members who then become the force to producing change.  Allow yourself and your team to learn, this takes time, but through a building motivation for excellence, time can be captured to perform.

© 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/

Let’s Talk Customer Service – Internal and External Processes

I have been shopping for a new financial institution since Washington Mutual was gobbled by Chase ten years ago this October.  Washington Mutual was not perfect, but they offered two things I rate all business transactions upon, ease of business, and functionality.  The functionality occurred with precision, veracity, and good customer experience.  Ease of business meant that the customer experience was not inhibited by internal processes, the need for conducting business (external) was not clogged or overshadowed by processes (internal).

Why does this matter? – Because when the customer needed a transaction concluded at Washington Mutual, the bank philosophies of ease of business and functionality made the customer experience more robust and easier for employees and customers alike.  It is to ease of business and functionality, as a core business mentality, the following is addressed, in the hopes of promoting improvements in customer attention, focus, and support.

Blue Money BurningAs a financial institution shopper, especially when the customer approaches a manager or assistant manager, regarding a poor experience, the mentality of ease of business and functionality should be the cornerstone of the conversation with customers (external & internal).  10 October 2019 – I approach the “Welcome Desk” at Navy Federal Credit Union (NFCU) and ask to speak to a manager.  The person behind the desk claims, “I am an assistant manager; how may I help?”  I explain, I am shopping financial institution shopping and have a problem depositing a check using the NFCU App.  Then I ask if the check I was presenting for the deposit, and the endorsement were acceptable for both an ATM and the counter.  When the endorsement was verified as acceptable; I asked, “Why is the endorsement unacceptable for the NFCU App?  To which my answer was, “The verbiage specified for deposits through the APP is different to protect NFCU from double or triple deposits of the same check.”  Interestingly enough, the verbiage is not standard across the website, the NFCU App, or the email received rejecting the deposit through the NFCU App.  Meaning, my check deposit was denied through the App because NFCU’s internal processes are insufficiently designed for ease of business and functionality; thus, the customer is inconvenienced because NFCU cannot function properly in the back office in support of front office customer facing-transactions.  Why is it an external customers job to make the back-office employees work less?

There is a trend in financial institutions, Government offices, and emergency rooms to hide the employees behind the double and triple walls of an impenetrable polymer.  Chase branches have all been upgraded, my local VA Hospital is being updated, and the local Social Security Office was upgraded several years prior.  At the Chase branch, the counters appear to have shrunk to improve the ability to hear and be heard through the thick polymer; good job Chase, Thank you!  The VA ER, no such luck, no such plans, hearing a patient’s concerns has been trumped by the business stated need to “protect the worker.”  At the local Social Security Office, the desks and counters equate to more than 4-feet of separation between the speaker and the listener, and communication is non-existent for anyone with hearing difficulties, speech difficulties, etc.  Functionality and ease of business have been eternally sundered, and the customer pays the price in time, frustration, aggravation, and the inability to conduct business.  In the dangerous times we live, it only makes sense to have a security plan, to implement security options, and to support a safe business environment.  However, security should never be the excuse for killing ease of business or functionality.  I recently traveled from Albuquerque, NM to El Paso, Texas, to visit my “local” Chase branch.  Where I then had to repeat myself no less than twice for every verbal request, and the teller had to repeat themselves the same to conduct business.  Was a transaction concluded; yes, but the functionality and ease of business were abnegated and not conducive to continuing a customer relationship.

3-direectional-balanceEase of business and functionality should not be sacrificed as a cost-savings measure or staff reduction model.  The Chase branches I have visited in the last two-to-three years have been changing, staff reductions have occurred, while automation has increased. During a previous visit to a Chase branch, three teller positions had been replaced with ATMs inside the branch office.  I applaud Chase for the investment made in making technology work; but, when I visit a branch, I want to speak to a person, not be hassled by another machine.  I want to be treated as a person whose time is as important as the banker/teller’s time, and have a human experience.  Hence, when I witness people replaced by machines, no matter how good the technology is, my cherub-like demeanor takes a significant hit.  I understand Federal Minimum Wage, State, County, City Mandated Minimum Wage Laws have all gone crazy increasing the human cost in business, I understand the need for physical security increases costs for human transactions, and I know that the human element is expensive in other ways and means, requiring more back-office work and humans.  Do not sacrifice ease of business and functionality on the alter with the humans.  If you have physical, armed guards, checking, x-raying, and hassling customers, you should not need the polymer and technical stations.  Strike a balance and err on the side of human-to-human contact, not technology.

Corporate LogosSpeaking of the need to strike a balance between technology and human-to-human contact, ease of business, functionality, and customer service, those “Self-Checkout” stations forced upon customers in retail stores remain a significant point of contention.  Home Depot and Lowe’s, thank you for not sacrificing customer attention and customer responsiveness on the altar of technology as “Self-Checkout” has proliferated in your stores.  Walmart, Smith’s, Kroger, Fry’s, and so many more stores could learn from your example.

My spouse has several Walmart locations she visits as “local.”  In every one of these stores, the same thing has transpired, the self-checkout stations have multiplied exceedingly, but the number of floor employees has dropped exponentially.  In fact, there is less customer attention in Walmart since the explosion of self-checkout than before across the five states I have been measuring; thus, I can only conclude, this is a tactical exercise from Walmart Corporate Offices to reduce staff, while not improving the customer experience.  Between the constant game of “Musical Shelves,” where products are in continuous movement from shelf to shelf and location to location, and the reduction in customer support, I find myself losing my cherub-like demeanor when trying to complete shopping.  Back in the 1990s I read a research report discussing how for every minute spent in a store, the balance of the shopping cart increases $10.00; thus, I understand the psychology of playing “Musical Shelves,” but the human-to-human involvement has led to less functionality in the shopping experience, throwing ease of business in the garbage.

Leading to the following suggestions:

  1. When looking to strike a balance between expenses and functionality and ease of business, err on the side of ease of business. Functionality will automatically improve when ease of business is sufficiently provided.
  2. Never allow a process, a procedure, and a business standard of measure to celebrate a second birthday. The ease of business should be a constant aspect of the daily workflow.  Functionality, as an extension of ease of business, should be the second prerequisite in the evaluation of processes to meet customer service goals.  Never forget, if a process, procedure, or business matrix cannot be explained completely in a single elevator ride, then that process, procedure, and business matrix are too complicated and need revision.
  3. Customer service should never involve telling a customer about an internal process. Thus, if the back-office is demanding a customer inconvenience that hinders ease of business or functionality, the back-office needs to be held to task and the process changed.

Businesses cannot long shirk ease of business and functionality and survive.  Human-to-human interactions are customer service, and when anything gets between the customer and the employee, business leadership must return focus to ease of business and functionality, not cut out the human.  Customer service should never be tossed because of technology, ease of employees, or as a staff reduction effort.  Your employee today is your customer tomorrow, and your customer today is your employee tomorrow, do you really want to proliferate problems handed to external customer’s as they become tomorrow’s internal customer?

Trader Joe'sTrader Joe’s remains the pre-eminent example of ease of business, functionality, and customer service working in an environment that is well balanced.  No self-checkout, no hassle when asking questions, and several of my local stores have added physical security without changing the human element.  Ease of business and functionality are apparent from the prices to the products, the shelves, to the physical store environment.  No technology separates the customer from a robust shopping experience that is both pleasing and adventurous.  Nothing special is done as a process by Trader Joe’s, but the ease of business and functionality promote the customer experience, which is shared by customers who spend short or long periods shopping and desire to return.  I recently witnessed a Trader Joe’s employee explaining to a customer how to improve fruit ripening techniques, the employee then went out of their way to guide the customer through what to buy and how to use the methods discussed with several different varieties of fruit.  This example is not a one-off singular event, but a regular occurrence at every Trader Joe’s store I have visited.  When you commit to ease of business and functionality, as a person and as a professional, opportunities develop.

© 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

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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