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Managing for Great Customer Service

As a former customer service manager, I know the position requires one to possess a balance of operational knowledge and people skills. Both are necessary in insuring the best possible experience for both team members and customers. Here are a few tips on managing this balancing act:

Remember that your employees are people. Often times as a manager, it’s easy to get caught up in metrics. These are important, as they assist in advising you of the state of your operation. Your employees help drive these metrics, so your people skills are required here. Take the time to explain to your team members how they contribute to the success of the customer’s experience. Always be conscious of the fact that you can’t meet the metric goals without your team. Your listening skills are critical in your role as a manager. Seek out and reward ideas for improvement. Implement those that result in cost savings or have a positive impact on the metrics. Provide more positive feedback than negative feedback. If your employees receive enough positive feedback, they are better able to receive feedback that points to needed improvement. Keep team meetings based on team issues. Celebrate individual and team accomplishments. Protect the integrity of your team members by keeping individual negative performance issues private. Find someone on the team to develop for a management position – in other words, train someone to replace you.

Develop cross functional awareness. This one is for the operational side of your skill set. As a manager, I always found it interesting and helpful to understand how other areas of the company operated. It’s important to know how your operation impacts other areas within the organization and vice versa. This knowledge will help you to develop better processes within your area. Share this knowledge with your team in order to promote cross functional thinking. The goal is to get your team to say to themselves – “When I do this, who’s impacted by my actions?”

Watch for patterns. – This tip has a mixture of both people and operational skills. Let’s start with the operational side. As an analytical person by nature, I’m always interested in patterns which meant I spent a lot of time graphing data. What I learned by doing this is that operation metrics usually contain patterns. I found that every one of my operational metrics flowed in a pattern. Since data analysis was a fun task for me, I would graph weeks of data to identify patterns. Doing so helped me to make operational adjustments to correct a negative pattern. More importantly, it helped me not to improperly respond to “blips”. “Blips” are what I considered a temporary change in the pattern that could be attributed to a one time incident – product issues, service related issues, etc. I would closely watch to make sure that the negative pattern change did not become a permanent change. Even if the pattern change is positive – it bears investigating to get the story behind the change, just to make sure that the customer still receives a great experience.

In regards to people and patterns, it has been my experience that everyone has a pattern. I found that team members usually perform their duties with their own signature – the way they converse with customers, the way they input information into systems and the way they interact with others. Just as in the example regarding operational patterns, it’s important to know and monitor people patterns. A negative “blip” on the people side may be a one time loss of call control or improper account notation. If further observations reveal no indication of repeat behavior, then consider that a “blip”. Protracted negative changes in the pattern may be an indication that the team member is experiencing stress – either occupational or personal. A conversation with this team member advising them that you’ve noticed a change in their work pattern and give them specific examples of the change. A simple conversation like this may lead to the team member advising you of issues that are impacting their job performance. Offer the appropriate assistance within company guidelines. Your team member will feel that you care about them as a person and not just an employee. During one managerial stint, I remember listening to one of the best call center employees with the company stumble through several calls as if it was her first time taking calls. Knowing that this was not her normal pattern, I advised her that I had listened to her last several calls and that she didn’t sound like herself. She advised me of some personal issues that she left home that morning without resolving. I advised her to call home and resolve the issues and come see me before resuming her duties. She took about 15 minutes to do so and appeared at my door to thank me for allowing her to take care of the unresolved issues. After resuming her duties, she was back to her normal pattern in handling her customers.

Remain objective. This tip is critical when giving feedback to your team members. Performance evaluations and coaching sessions should be based upon objective information. Provide data and examples on which the evaluation is based. Subjectivity will only lead to trouble. Team members should know that their performance rating is based upon their written performance standards which were created from the job description. Provide performance feedback on a regular basis as your team members look for consistency in this area.

Give respect to get respect. I think it’s every manager’s wish that they be respected as the person in charge. It’s been my experience that the best way to get respect is to give respect. Respect your team members as people first. Respect what they do by spending time performing their duties. Whatever it is that they do – take calls, service customers face to face, handle customers as a field service rep – you do it with them to get a real world view of what is required to actually do the job. Ask for their opinions by using these four words – “What do you think?” Listen to their opinions regarding operational issues. Be an advocate for your team. Remove obstacles that hinders their success. Team members will respect the position when they feel that the person in that position respects them.

It takes courage to be a manager. Balance the operational side and the people side for a better long term result. I always found that it’s better to manage through persuasion (here’s where we’re headed) vs commandment (you’re going whether you like it or not). The best compliment for me when one of my team members was asked “What do you like most about having Errol as a manager?” was their answer “He cares about us as people and he’s fair.”

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Voice of the Customer – Who’s Listening?

It‘s important to know how your customer feels about your product or service.Your customer’s voice bears paying attention to, as the success of your business depends upon your willingness to listen to how your customer feels about your product or service. It’s also important to monitor your operation for issues that may create negative experiences for your customer. While companies have attempted to adopt Voice of the Customer (VOC) methodology, a 2007 Technical Assistance Research Program (TARP) study showed that only about half of companies have a coherent VOC process with over half of those companies consistently unable to get management to take action on identified issues. This means that at the time of this study, seventy-five percent of companies did not have an effective VOC process. In his book, Strategic Customer Service, John Goodman defines VOC as “systematic efforts to gather and analyze data on existing customers’ wants and needs and to translate the results into action and increased profitability.” A critical component of the process is the accumulation of data via three different methods. While the most companies tend to focus on one common method; customer service surveys; this is but one data collection component of the Voice of the Customer system. Let’s discuss all three components.

Internal metrics – Internal metrics are characterized as leading indicators due to their nature of providing information to operations personnel. In other words, leading indicators, when monitored properly, allow time for addressing the issue with the hope of eliminating or minimizing the negative impact to your customer. Your operation provides this data simply by reporting what is currently happening within your company. You are usually aware of this data before your customer. Examples of this might be low inventory which could result in missed buying opportunities for the customer, increased absenteeism in the call center which could mean more customer time spent in the call que or the identification of a faulty part that will increase warranty workload. When one considers the financial impact of an internal metric issue, the need to pay attention may be greatly elevated. In regards to a warranty issue, identification of the faulty part may lead one to ask – How many of our products currently under warranty contain this part and how many of our products currently being built contain this part? Are our customers experiencing issues with all of our products containing this part or is it isolated to one particular product (customer warranty requests should help you with this one)? If you determine if the issue is isolated to one product, is there another component within the product that’s contributing to this part’s failure? After this investigation one can simply do the math to determine the cost of not addressing the faulty part issue. Should you determine that it’s just a faulty part within one specific product, then warranty replacement is certainly in order. Proactive notification may assist in slowing inbound customer communication regarding the issue. The next issue is to find a replacement part for inclusion on the production line so as to eliminate future warranty requests for products containing this particular part. If your company produces 1,000 widgets with the faulty part per week with your facility producing this widget for 45 weeks per year and warranty costs are $125.00, that’s a cool $5.62 million dollars in possible future costs if that faulty part is not addressed and removed from the production line.

Customer contact – This data is gathered during employee interactions with the customer. When the customer contacts your company in person, via phone or through your website and when personnel such as field support visit the customer, vital information can be obtained during these interactions. The customer’s conversation provides information regarding issues they may be experiencing with your product/service. The key is to have a system into which the customer and contact personnel can log this information. It’s very critical for this system to exist as it creates an avenue for data analysis which is key in one’s ability to determine what issue should receive primary focus.

This component provides a high quality level of customer experience information as it is gathered as the customer talks about their experience when utilizing your product/service. In keeping with the fact that only a small percentage of customers bother to call, write or email to complain about your product/service, one would need to consider how many customers are experiencing the same issue yet not bothering to complain. TARP studies have shown that this multiplier can be 200 to 1 and in some cases as high as 2,000 to 1. The need to quickly identify complaint patterns and calculate the financial cost of not addressing the issue is primary.

Surveys – Survey data assists in determining your customers’ level of satisfaction and loyalty with your product/service. Of the three components, it’s considered as the best source for compiling this information. The survey must be properly designed and administrated to insure accuracy and effectiveness. The cost of $20 to $200 per completed survey can be a drawback when making the decision to utilize surveys. I’m a proponent of designing the survey so that the customer first responds to statements regarding what the customer expects of a product or service – say a vacuum cleaner or air conditioner repair service. I then like to get the customer to respond to the same statement but make the statement relative to a Hurricane vacuum Cleaner or Joe Jones AC Repair Services. For example:

It’s important that an AC repair person thoroughly explain the problem and the recommended solution.

Disagree Somewhat Agree Agree Strongly Agree

My Joe Jones AC Repair Services repair person thoroughly explained the problem and the recommended solution.

Disagree Somewhat Agree Agree Strongly Agree

Just my preference.

As stated earlier, the key to gathering all of this data is to have a robust system where the information can be entered in a consistent manner by all users, with identifiers so as to allow sorting for analysis. Without this function, your VOC efforts will be thwarted by non-global data reporting and analysis. The ability to incorporate all three components of data gathering is crucial to successfully implementing your Voice of the Customer system. In our next post, we’ll discuss a few attributes of an effective VOC process.

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Customer Service in the Healthcare Industry

As one of America’s “baby boomers”, I often think about the healthcare industry’s role in meeting the medical needs of this group of citizens. Current statistics indicate that this group represents 26% of the U.S. population. As much as we don’t like to think about it, health issues are more likely to arise as we begin to age. The healthcare industry faces a daunting task when you think about providing services to such a large section of the population. Some have said that the healthcare industry can be somewhat cold and uncaring towards its customers. This may be somewhat true, but there are examples of healthcare organizations providing great patient service. I believe that applying the basic principles of customer service when servicing patients (customers) can make for a great patient experience.

Utilize Common Courtesy – Exhibiting common courtesy – acknowledging the patient’s presence, making eye contact, showing empathy and exercising listening skills – will assist in making the patient feel like a human being versus just another body to push through the routine processes. During my high school days (that was a looong time ago!), I had a part-time job as a patient escort at one of the major hospitals here in Houston, Tx. It was my job to transport patients to various areas of the hospital for tests or physical therapy. I found that by showing common courtesy to the patients – “How are you today Mr./Mrs Jones?”, “Here, let me help you get out of the wheelchair.” the trip was more pleasant than one filled with silence. My personal physician’s office staff oftentimes appears uncaring when I visit for a routine physical. I phoned to make an appointment and the staff member sounded as though I was an interruption. “Name”, “middle initial” “and for what reason do you need to see the doctor”. Her demeanor was somewhat hurried. One way to make sure that staff members remain conscious of their voice tone and body language is to recommend that staff members ask themselves – ” How would I like for my own family members to be treated (hopefully they love their family members!) and am I treating patients in that same manner.” It’s also very important to apologize and offer solutions very quickly in the healthcare environment. When someone or their loved one is in a state of discomfort, the last thing they want or expect is to be treated in a non-courteous manner. Be proactive by apologizing for delays before the patient confronts staff members. This is one industry where I feel overcommunication may be a good standard to implement. Common courtesy gets the relationship started off on the right foot.

Become The Patient – See your service from the patient’s point of view. The patient’s experience starts when they arrive to visit your facility. What’s their experience when attempting to park at various times during the day? One large cancer hospital located in the humongous Texas Medical Center here in Houston, Tx provides valet parking in an effort to alleviate the burden of long walks for patients arriving for treatment. Is it easy to navigate the hallways of your facility? Is the signage adequate and easy to see/read. If your facility is large, are there adequate in-house transport options available? Does the staff communicate in a way that’s understandable by the patient and or the patient’s family? How long does it take to check in? How long does it take to be seen by the doctor? Remember, an inordinate amount of wait time is a major cause of customer irritation. Now add the additional factor of a person that may be in some form of discomfort. A little more than a year ago , I had minor knee surgery. My first visit to the orthopedic surgeon’s office ran like clockwork. My appointment was at 11:00am, my experience started at 11:00am. Electronic check-in. Ushered to the exam room. Given instructions on what to do to get ready for the exam. Doctor arrives within minutes and asks lots of questions then listens to my responses. I was blown away by the experience. After the surgery, the experience continued during the rehab process. It was clear that this facility was customer oriented!

Create The Proper Environment – The healthcare industry is somewhat stereotyped as cold, sterile and aloof – not very patient friendly. While this is certainly not true of all service provider facilities, that’s the general perception. Incorporate patient friendly aesthetics such as adequate/soft lighting, eye-pleasing wall paint or coverings and perhaps even a soft buzz of music. If you chose to utilize televisions in the waiting areas of your office or facility, give the patients a few channel options versus just the one showing the same healthy living promotions over and over and over! The goal is for the patient to be comfortable in your environment.

Teamwork is the Key – Your patients deserve consistent treatment in every area of your office or facility. Get everyone involved in understanding the necessity of the patient experiencing excellent customer service. Provide opportunities for staff to look at the internal processes in an effort to create a smooth service flow for both the patients and themselves. Encourage in-house courtesy among the staff. As most of you know, I’m all for leaders; in this case head nurses, departmental managers, etc. to spend time performing the duties of those whom you manage. This is an invaluable exercise when attempting to provide the best possible service to the patients and to create the best work environment. For example, in the hospital environment, food service departmental leaders should serve patient meals to gain knowledge about this process. Head nurses should perform routine duties alongside those whom they manage in order to stay abreast of what’s actually happening in their area of responsibility. Every department should practice this exercise on a regular basis as it’s good for morale which eventually flows out to the patient. Encourage and reward suggestions for improvement.

Healthcare is a vital industry – very necessary in providing the proper care for those with illnesses or those in need of regular checkups. Try not to lose sight of the fact that patients are customers. Even more important, they’re people. Examine your office or facility in search of opportunities to provide the best possible patient experience.

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Uh No! I Have To Go!

As most of you can tell, I love writing and sharing my customer service knowledge. I thought about approaching several business related magazines in regards to submitting articles for consideration. After an unsuccessful search of the website of a well-known national magazine for their article submission criteria, I decided to just call the publishing company. The person answering the phone was pleasant, listened to my reason for calling and advised me that it would be necessary to transfer my call to the appropriate person. The next person answered right away, listened to my request, then stated that the article submission criteria could be found on their website by entering Pitch To Us in the search area. I was in the middle of asking her if she could hang on with me while I followed her instructions on the website, but didn’t get the chance to finish my request because she stated “Uh no. I have to go! and disconnected the call. I sat in stunned silence for about a minute before sharing the ordeal with my wife who burst into laughter!

When a customer visits your website in search of information about your product or service, make sure that the experience is a pleasant one. Become the customer by utilizing your own website to insure its ease of operation for your customer. Don’t frustrate your customer with broken links or outdated information. Should your customer call asking for assistance with information that’s available on your website, patiently direct them to the location and stay on the line to verify that they have in fact successfully located the information. If possible, allow the customer the option to “chat” with your customer service department. Now imagine the backlash to this company had I tweeted or Facebooked my experience with the publisher’s name. I know some of you are asking “Hey Errol. Will you try again with this particular magazine?” My answer is yes. I won’t let the action of one employee speak for the entire company. Who knows, I might get an opportunity to turn them into a client. We can start with that website. Had I been successful in finding the article submission criteria or offered the option to chat with a customer service representative, a phone call to the publisher would have been unnecessary! Oh well, on to the next publisher!

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