Most of us can cite examples of a positive customer service experience that left us with the satisfaction and knowledge that we had made the right purchase decision, that the company understood us, and perhaps as a result of the experience, we had an even greater affinity with the product or service we purchased.
All of us can cite examples of poor customer service that left us gasping for air, exasperated by the arrogance and ignorance of the company with which we were dealing, left wondering, “How can they do business that way?” Many of us probably took the step to tell a family member or friend about the negative experience, and in today’s environment of real-time information flow, where the Web can serve as a force multiplier for bad news, we might have sent an e-mail to the company or even blogged about it.
When clients need support or assistance, an organization’s ability to address and resolve those matters consistently, in a quality manner, is a key component in the total value delivered and to the retention of an increasingly fickle client base. Whether your clients are consumers or businesses or both, your brand and the value behind it highly depend not only on what you deliver but also on the post-sales experience.
Customer issues should be viewed and treated as opportunities. Although customer service organizations are frequently treated as cost centers, increased investment in the customer service function can help them become areas for opportunity. One way to gain improvement is through increased investment in learning and decision support, with chief learning officers taking the lead.
Simply put, well-executed learning provides the basis to make a positive impact on many key benefits that come with good customer service. The key benefits of improved training include:
- Improved customer retention. It is well-documented that the cost of acquiring a customer far exceeds the cost of retaining one (in some cases, as much as five times the cost). It is also clear that there is an explicit connection between a positive customer service experience and customer loyalty.
- Reduced employee churn. By their very nature, customer service positions, whether contact center-based or in the field, have high churn. Depending on how you choose to calculate churn’s cost, it can run anywhere from 20 percent to 50 percent of an employee’s base salary. Employee retention typically is driven by several factors, including compensation, perception of management, opportunity for growth and satisfaction with one’s job and contribution to the business. Investments in learning demonstrate a genuine commitment by the organization to the individual, and the corresponding positive impact on customer service metrics promotes greater pride with your customer service employees. This, in turn, has a significant influence on their desire to stay with the organization.
- Improved client intelligence. The customer service function is effectively an extension of marketing — it’s the front line in the battle to retain clients. And from marketing’s perspective, there is no greater opportunity to learn than when you have direct access to a broad base of clients and their explicit permission to engage in a dialogue, and when the conversation takes place one on one, with another human being who can adjust, record and analyze that interaction.
- Increased revenue and margin impact. Repeat purchases of your products and services by existing customers have a lower transaction cost and are therefore more profitable. The reality is that well-executed customer service not only leads to better customer retention in the form of repeat business, but it also should manifest itself in up-sell and cross-sell opportunities as part of the issue-resolution path.
Traditional customer service learning programs limit their focus to quickly onboarding employees and providing them with product, service and response-handling training. This is often accomplished through a combination of classroom training, observation and a study program.
Some organizations will provide continuous learning, particularly those that support products or services with short life cycles. Other organizations conspicuously skip that step. In fact, according to a report by the Service & Support Professionals Association (SSPA), just 27 percent of service and support staff spends more than five days on annual ongoing learning.
Times are changing — there are specific tactics outside of more-common learning approaches that help realize the benefits that come with well-executed customer service. Although many organizations embrace some of the following approaches, few employ them all, and many are unable or unwilling to make the commitment and invest.
A study completed by Professors Bill Withers and Patrick Langan, both of Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, determined that 78 percent of employer respondents said they provided some customer service training, but 65 percent of those said they would provide more if it were available.
Perhaps the easiest place to improve is by exposing employees in the customer service function to a broader curriculum of learning modules that might (or should) already exist in the organization. Service representatives typically aren’t trained on anything other than service. Employees hired for their technical expertise might not have innate customer service abilities, just as those hired for the service skills might lack selling abilities.
If these employees are expected to generate revenue, then aspects of sales training (including negotiation, presentation skills, selling skills and even account management) should be introduced. The reverse is also true — customer service modules and learning methods should be extended into other field and customer-facing units.
Astute learning organizations also will uncover learning requirements directly tied to customer service’s goals and objectives. For example, if the marketing organization truly wants to leverage the daily contacts that take place via the service channel, then the service organization needs background and learning in some of the techniques relevant to conducting market research and developing customer insight.
Performance simulation doesn’t refer to generic soft-skills simulation where a learner reads a scenario and responds. Rather, performance simulation is akin to applying a flight simulator to the business environment — it enables end-users to acquire near-job expertise while working in a low-risk, dry-run environment that allows managers and colleagues to observe, refine and improve individual performance.
Use of simulations in the customer service arena can drive substantial improvements to service metrics by improving individual performance and productivity. But proper simulation requires a heavy focus on content and a hand-in-glove partnership between those in learning and those who have the content: the front-line employees and their immediate supervisors.
An obvious challenge is gaining the access to these contributors, whose time is already at a premium. Another challenge is the potential requirement to invest in technology to support performance simulations.
Learning and Performance
There is typically a significant disconnect between what’s learned in the classroom (physical or virtual) and how it’s applied in the field. Learning must be configured specially and remain relevant to address specific service and business issues employees and supervisors encounter. Unfortunately, prepackaged soft skills training will get you only halfway there. Viewed another way, if 70 percent to 80 percent of content in the classroom is forgotten three weeks after it’s taught, what’s the implication of teaching material that’s only half-relevant to the end-user?
Adding to the challenge of creating and delivering customized content is the pace of change and volume of information flow, which are both greater than ever. To address this, learning on the job and more-formalized learning must evolve with the times and become more dynamic and more real-time.
This requires the learning organization to rethink not only the type of content being delivered to customer service employees but also the method by which it is delivered. To be truly effective, learning can’t stop after onboarding and initial skills training, yet most enterprises can’t afford to take people off the line once they are engaged in their support roles.
From an e-learning perspective, there was never a more appropriate job function that demanded real-time or just-in-time learning concepts such as contextual delivery of learning information that is delivered in smaller, digestible chunks. In this environment, employees need access to information support as they perform their jobs, not just when they are in “learning mode.”
Connecting Performance Objectives to Corporate Strategy
Although executives increasingly view customer service and support as competitive differentiators, drawing the connection between these functions and strategic objectives is incomplete. The learning organization can take a lead role in disseminating strategy and relating those goals and objectives back to specific tactics applied in the customer service environment. Broad dissemination of corporate strategy as it is renewed should take place in a timely manner — you can’t expect employees to support corporate strategy if they don’t know what it is — and it should be the CLO’s role to facilitate changes to learning required as a result.
Decision and Performance Support
Reinforce what’s been taught with technology. Nowhere in the organization are speed, efficiency and effectiveness more important than in the service and support functions. And although today’s Web-based technologies have made great strides in improved usability, in reality, all software look and feel a bit different.
Why is this important? Because most customer service employees interact with more than just one type of software to resolve client issues. The proliferation of specialized applications designed to support discrete processes, tasks and research makes it more challenging than ever for service employees to quickly resolve complex issues.
According to SSPA, the 30 percent of cases that require use of multiple systems on average take 4.25 times longer to bring to resolution. Training on these disparate applications is left to a combination of internal methods and vendor-specific learning, and it could be reigned in by having the learning organization take a more active role in the development of content, as well as the implementation of tools that provide a common interface to these often-disparate support systems.
Netting it Out
The cost of turnover is at a record high. The cost of training and onboarding a new employee is higher than ever. And although customer satisfaction is at historical highs, according to the most recent American Customer Satisfaction Index, customers are more fickle than ever, willing to change preferences and brands at a moment’s notice.
Learning that goes beyond standard customer service training programs brings with it enormous potential to influence corporate objectives and provide organizations with a competitive advantage. The ultimate goal of the customer service function is to develop brand loyalty that translates into an impact on the bottom line and the top line. If every client issue is viewed as an opportunity, and you treat your customer service employees well and give them the knowledge and tools to perform their jobs, they will treat your clients just as well.
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