In an age when a customer’s unhappy experience with a company can go viral mere minutes after it occurred — as customers regularly take to the Internet to publicize their great and not-so-great experiences — most companies understand the importance of providing superior customer service. That’s why they budget hundreds of thousands of dollars for customer service initiatives and put new and old employees through frequent training programs. But far too often the results of these programs are only average and short-lived. The problem is that companies are just training their employees to deliver customer service when they should be educating them instead.
Training plays an important role when a defined, job-specific function is taught. For example, it is completely appropriate to provide employees with safety and security training where specific procedures and protocols are needed. Whether the training is provided online, in a classroom or on the job, leaders must know an employee has been properly trained to do the right thing at the right time, every time.
However, the problem with training employees in customer service is that the situations service providers must respond to are often unprecedented and unusual. Whether it’s because of new technology, because customers are more sophisticated from doing their own research or because a company’s competition is providing more sophisticated offers, leaders can’t anticipate all the possible issues that their customers will bring to their service providers. If a learning leader’s focus is on trying to train employees to know the right procedures and do the right thing in all these situations, the learning leader will be forever behind an accelerating curve.
The differences between training and educating result in two distinctly different types of service. Trained employees will usually provide customers with consistent and scripted service. They’ll do what is needed to fulfill normal customer requests, but they may not make the customer feel good about the company in the process. Training someone to make another person feel good is like trying to create a gourmet meal with a charcoal grill, a hamburger spatula and two plastic forks — it’s the wrong approach with an insufficient set of tools.
In situations where education is required — and service is certainly one of them — leaders must fully engage employees. Service education shifts people’s point of view and enables them to truly see the world from the customer’s perspective. This is achieved by applying fundamental service principles to observe and appreciate the customer’s experience from the outside in. Leaders must give employees opportunities to work out problems with each other and to discuss various approaches and options. Doing so develops a higher level of thinking and a greater degree of thoughtful problem solving and leads to a genuine attitudinal shift.
Infusing service education into your company’s culture is a vital process, requiring dedication from the top down and action from the bottom up. Here are a few important points to consider as you learn more about service education:
Learn and apply a common service language. Most fields of human activity have well-developed and widely accepted terms that practitioners use to coordinate and improve their actions. The domain of service has no such common language.
The field suffers from weak cliches, poor distinctions and inaccurate common sense. “The customer is always right” is often wrong. “Go the extra mile” is bad advice when someone wants precise fulfillment of exactly what was promised. “Serve others the way you would like to be served” is well-intentioned but misguided; good service is not about you, it’s about what someone else prefers.
Effective service education breaks through this hazy thinking and offers well-grounded service language to enable and connect service providers with customers, across departments and throughout large organizations.
Carefully select your service education leaders. These individuals should be carefully selected for their understanding, attitude and orientation to new action. This role calls for patience, clarity of thinking, commitment to uplifting service and boundless generosity in the encouragement of others. This unique role is course leader, educator, facilitator, coach, encourager, problem solver, consultant and provocateur all in one.
Focus on long-term results. Short-term thinking is another common reason why so many customer service training programs don’t produce substantial or sustainable results. Your goal is more than short-term improvements in a few problem service areas. You want to build an organization with an internal capability to solve problems today and create great successes in the future.
Engage everyone. Remember, uplifting service means creating a culture shift at your organization, and that means everyone has to be on board. Service education will not take root unless everyone at your company has dedicated themselves to this change. And everyone means everyone. Your board of directors, C-level executives, managers, supervisors, warehouse staff, janitorial staff, new hires — everyone must be involved and dedicated to this ongoing learning adventure. The ultimate goal is to create a culture that earns and retains many loyal customers while building pride and problem-solving passion in every service provider. When team members are confident that everyone is committed to this cause, they will work enthusiastically to deliver uplifting service.
Don’t expect instant change. Becoming skillful in service does not happen all at once, just as mastering math or learning a new language cannot be accomplished in a single session. Service education must be frequent, repeated, reviewed and renewed for everyone on a continuous and uplifting basis.
New learning happens when principles are put into action, new insights are discovered, new skills are developed, and new understanding and competencies are secured. Well-educated service providers enjoy applying the principles and practices they learn. It’s not just a question of people coming up with the right answers — it’s that leaders want to develop employees’ abilities to make good decisions because it’s great for the company. People stay with companies that provide these development opportunities. They stay with companies that make them think and empower them to think.
Ron Kaufman is the author of Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues, and Everyone Else You Meet. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.
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