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Leaders – Spend Time On The Front Line!

During my career in the customer service industry, I’ve learned the value of leaders spending time on the front lines. Often as managers and executives, the tendency to be removed from what actually happens “in the trenches” is probably more of the norm than the exception. Position requirements and expectations often monopolize much if not all of a leader’s time. I suggest that leaders regularly carve out time to spend on the front lines and actually get a “hands-on” experience. Here’s why:

1. Enlightenment – In today’s business environment, managing by the numbers seems to be the way to go. Numbers are critical in managing a business, but one must remember there is a story and people behind the numbers. As a leader, you may be surprised to learn the “real” story. Time spent on the front line actually performing the duties connected to your numbers will assist you in determining if the numbers utilized for performance goals are in fact the correct numbers or if adjustments are required. Compare your operations numbers to your customer satisfaction levels. Is there a negative gap between the two? Your operation may appear to be successful according to the operations numbers, but if the customer satisfaction levels are not following the same pattern, it’s time to get the real story. In the same manner, compare your operations numbers to your employee satisfaction levels. It’s been my experience that this one can fool you. Your operations numbers and employee satisfaction levels may look good, but how’s your employee turnover level? Often times employees true feelings are spoken with their feet in comparison to what they say. Regular visits to the front line will assist you in getting the real story behind the numbers.

2. Respect – The amount of respect you gain from the front line workers by spending time with them is enormous! During my last corporate stint, I challenged a vendor manager to spend time performing the work of his front line workers. I had frequent conversations with these workers and understood the imbalance of their workload and performance goals. The vendor manager responded to my challenge with a resounding “Not happening!” One day later, where was this manager? On the front line performing the same duties as the other workers. What was their response to his being there! The word spread like wildfire! They knew that he could not perform the duties at their rate of speed, but were elated that he took the time to learn first hand the reality of their work situation. His respect and appreciation for these workers changed after this experience. The front line workers’ respect level for the manager changed as well. Hopefully, more realistic performance goals were the outcome of this scenario.

3. Improved Morale – Imagine the long-term effects to employee morale in the example given above regarding the vendor manager’s decision to spend time working on the front lines.. When front-line workers believe that leaders care enough to “get in the trenches” to gain the front-line workers’ perspective, a positive moral shift is usually close behind. A long-term positive change in morale follows if changes are instituted to assist the front-line worker in being more successful in servicing their customers (both internal and external customers). Front-line workers usually have great ideas for improvement and are just waiting for someone to ask for their opinion. Regular visits to the front-line will provide a regular flow of new ideas and suggestions.

3. Improved Customer Experience – An improved customer experience is usually the result of leaders getting hands-on experience at the front line. As leaders typically have some measure of influence within an organization, they can be the driving force behind needed changes and ideas for improvement that become evident when spending time on the front line. As these changes are implemented within the organization, a positive impact flows out to the customer through improved service and front line employee attitude and demeanor.

A front line experience is good for all leaders. It gives one a different perspective on what actually happens within an organization. I have a saying – “What you see is not always what is – ask questions – your perspective may change as a result of the answers.” Don’t rely solely upon numbers to run your organization. Spend some time on the front line!

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Efficient Processes for Great Customer Service

While it is critical to provide great training for your customer contact personnel, both soft skills and task specific skills, it is immensely important to create efficient customer service processes. This is key to both internal and external customer satisfaction. The goal should be: 1. To create processes that allow customer service personnel to provide timely service to the customer , yet not negatively impact other internal customers. 2. To create processes that allow the customer to efficiently conduct business with the company.

Efficient processes allow your customer service personnel to feel good about the level of service they can provide. Their ability to provide a high level of service creates satisfied and loyal customers. During my career on the front line, I found it very frustrating to attempt to provide great customer service while working within an inefficient system. Review your processes regularly to insure they remain efficient. Identify all process participants and stakeholders. Hold process improvement sessions to identify areas of opportunity. Look at the process from the external customer’s viewpoint. Become the customer to determine if the process is customer friendly. When you customer attempts to do business with your company via “self-service” avenues such as your website, it is critical that this is not an arduous task. Calculate the financial impact of rework – how much does it cost to do the same task a second time due to an error? Where you can gauge how many customers option out of a self-service avenue to interact with your customer service personnel, identify the reasons for their doing so. Don’t allow customers to take the ultimate option out to your competitors because of an inefficient process. Determine what each customer is worth and the financial impact of a lost customer. This should help to guide your decision regarding evaluating your processes.

Process reviews and improvement projects can be a time-consuming task, but are well worth it in the long run. A by-product of process improvement projects is a heightened sense of teamwork as well as a positive impact to employee morale. Customer service personnel usually have the answers to inefficient processes and more likely than not have developed undocumented “work arounds” with an eye towards preventing negative customer experiences along with making the process easier for themselves. Efficient and customer friendly tasks help to insure that your customer is satisfied with your service. Consider the financial impact of inefficient processes. How much is a typical customer worth to your organization? How many customers can you afford to lose because of non-customer friendly processes? Don’t forget that you can lose employees for the same reason. How much investment in training and benefits are lost due to employee frustration with an inefficient system? Think about a cumbersome experience with a service provider and ask yourself how that experience made you feel as a customer. Remember that a person is impacted by your processes – hopefully in a positive manner. Take the time to review your customer service processes step by step as this will help to maintain a high retention level of both customers and customer service personnel.

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Tips For Hiring The Right People To Service Your Customer

Having the right personnel interacting with your customers is crucial to long-term business success. Customers expect a certain level of service, so it’s important to have the right person in contact with your customers. Here are a few tips on hiring the right people to service your customers:

1. Hire Attitude – While it’s most common to hire for experience, I believe that attitude should be top priority. Customer service requires one to have a mind-set of service. This mind-set brings with it a belief for the need to always be ready to serve, to go the extra mile to make someone else happy. When interviewing prospects, make inquiries regarding what gives the prospect the feeling of fulfillment at the end of the workday or in life in general. Listen for references along the lines of helping, serving or resolving issues.

2. Hire Energy – Having serviced customers myself both on the phone and face to face, I know that providing great customer service requires energy. It’s important to stay upbeat throughout the day as one’s lack of energy is very noticeable to the customer (yes – a lack of energy is very noticeable over the phone.) Notice how your prospects enter the room, how they greet you, their sitting posture during the interview and the pace of their responses to your questions. These are all tips as to the level of energy that they will bring when interacting with your customers.

3. Hire Good Ears – One’s ability to listen well is another required trait for being successful at customer service. Good ears helps one to listen for what’s important to a customer. When developing a solution for a customer’s need/want, good ears are critical as they allow you to ask good questions in response to the reasons the customer provides for seeking to utilize your product/services. They also assist in filtering for the real issue when the customer is upset. The need to speak should be secondary to the need to listen. How well does the prospect listen during the interview? When you are leading the conversation, does the prospect wait until you complete your thoughts before speaking? Do their responses/questions indicate that they are actively listening when you speak? Do they maintain eye contact during the conversation? These are indicators of one’s listening ability.

4. Hire Thinkers – I often look back on my career in customer service and think about how often I had to be quick on my feet when working with customers. Not every situation is routine and oftentimes it’s necessary to formulate resolutions quickly. The ability to determine what is required in these non routine situations (which requires a lot of #3) and then create a plan of action is key to retaining customers. Customer service personnel must be able to think their way through these situations in order to create the best solution for both the customer and the company. Give situations and scenarios to your prospects that require them to devise a plan of action.

5. Hire Curiosity – Asking questions is a major component of customer service as it helps one to develop the best product/service solution for the customer. Curiosity is a good trait for customer service personnel to possess. Look for people who have questions about your company – where it’s headed, what can the prospect look forward to if chosen for the position and even questions about your history with the company.

6. Hire Team Players – When performing my customer service duties, I found that more often than not, that my actions impacted someone else within the company. It was important to remember to not to negatively impact others when providing service to the customer. You can determine your prospect’s team player level by listening for group activities when you ask about their interests. Does their work history indicate group participation? Include group scenarios in your interview sessions that induces the prospect to talk about how each group member is impacted by the decisions of one person.

Customer service personnel can make or break your company. To insure that your customers receive great customer service, take the time to hire the right person to service your customers. Hire people – not just experience. Remember, the right people, delivering great service, create loyal customers, which leads to referrals, which creates long-term success.

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Come Back At 6am!

In anticipation of future trips out of the country, I searched online for the passport application procedure. The detailed instructions advised of my requirement to bring my application and other required documents to an acceptance facility (United States Post Office). Online information shows that the hours of operation for passport application are 9:00am – 2:00pm, Monday through Friday. Upon arriving at the post office on a Tuesday at around 11:30am, the passport office was locked, with an “Hours” sign on the door, but without any hours of operation listed. I proceeded to wait in the post office line in an attempt to gain information regarding the passport office. When greeted with a “next!” from the post office worker, I asked if he knew when someone would return to the passport office. He advised that I would have to return at 6am the following morning to sign up for an appointment and someone from the passport office would call me to schedule an appointment! When I stated that this procedure is not very customer friendly, the postal worker advised me that this was an upper management decision and I should contact the passport agency about having someone at the location if I was unhappy with the current procedure. By the way, he stated all of this without making eye contact and did not seem the least bit empathetic about how this procedure impacted passport application customers.

When partnering – in this case – the post office and the passport agency, it’s important to make sure that partners are on the same page regarding procedures. The passport website information regarding passport acceptance facility (passport office at the post office) hours of operation did not match what actually takes place at the acceptance facility. Passport customers should feel confident that the information provided on the website is correct. Partner employees (post office employees) should be confident that the procedure information provided by the onsite passport agency personnel is the same information provided on the passport agency website. On another note, the procedure of requesting a passport customer to return at 6am to add their name to a list, wait for a phone call from a passport agency employee to schedule an appointment and then return for the appointment is not at all customer friendly. I would suggest offering the option to for passport application customers to schedule appointments online. This method offers ease of use to the customer as well as efficient use of passport office personnel as both the number of allotted appointments can be controlled and personnel scheduled to be onsite only when needed. In the meantime, I still need a passport!!

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