A contact center supervisor was reviewing a call with an agent where the agent's lack of friendliness seemed obvious. She had replied to the customer's questions in a monotone voice with short, clipped responses, and didn't acknowledge the customer's frustration.
The agent's response was to the supervisor's coaching was to flatly disagree. "Well," said the agent, "that's friendly for me."
Customer service leaders often face this dilemma. How do you get employees to embrace feedback, when they don't agree their performance needs to improve?
I was lucky to have a mentor show me a technique that works.
Step 1: Identify Observable Behavior
One of the challenges faced by the supervisor is that friendliness is surprisingly difficult to define. You might know friendliness when you see it, but describing it isn't so easy.
The supervisor couldn't explain what exactly the employee was doing wrong or what specifically she needed to do to improve. "You weren't friendly," was ultimately a subjective assessment.
Leaders often struggle getting employees onboard with murky concepts like friendliness.
My boss, Debbi, was a mentor to me when I supervised a contact center training department many years ago. She taught me to overcome this challenge by focusing on observable behavior. These are behaviors you can actually see, rather than inferences.
For example, let's go back to friendliness. What specific behaviors did the agent display that led the supervisor to conclude the agent wasn't being friendly?
Short, clipped responses
Did not acknowledge the customer's frustration
So what does friendly look like? Here's an experiment you can try. Observe an employee you know is being friendly. Try to identify the specific behaviors they display that tell you they are friendly.
You can see an example in this short video. Skip ahead if you’d like to 1:20 to see a poor example and then a good example at 1:58.
Your intent in a feedback conversation is critical to getting that surly employee onboard.
The supervisor's intent with the unfriendly contact center agent was to get the employee to acknowledge she hadn't been friendly. Ultimately, the supervisor hoped the agent would accept being marked down on the quality monitoring form that was used to evaluate agent performance.
That feels pretty adversarial. And right or wrong, it's human nature to get defensive when confronted by an adversary.
I once made the mistake of confronting an employee about her bad attitude. She immediately became defensive and it didn't go well. That's because my intent was to get her to accept that she had a bad attitude.
My mentor, Debbi, gave me some advice that helped me change my intent with this employee. I started my next meeting with the employee by explaining that five different people had complained about working with her, and I wanted to work together to help her change that perception.
This time, I didn't try to get my employee to admit she was wrong. We focused instead on identifying specific behaviors she needed to display to convince colleagues she didn't have a bad attitude. It was still a difficult conversation, but we were now on the same side.
The next time you want to give an employee feedback, make sure your intent is to help them deliver a great performance the next time.
Step 3: Provide a Good Example
People can still disagree despite the best of intentions and seemingly clear, observable behavior. This makes it important to have an example of what good performance looks like.
There are a few ways you can do this.
One way is to share a visual. For instance, a chain of pizza restaurants has a poster showing two employees standing side-by-side. One is wearing their uniform correctly, while the other is not. This makes it easier to see what a "good" uniform presentation should look like.
Supervisors can also demonstrate the expected behavior. A hospitality manager who wanted his employees to give friendly greetings had employees observe him greet several guests.
Still another approach is to use your employee's past performance as a model. The contact center supervisor could have found a previous call where the agent was friendly, and played them for the agent back-to-back so she would better understand the difference between the two.
Debbi consistently coached me to set a positive example for my employees. So when I made suggestions to help an employee convince colleagues she didn’t have a “bad attitude,” I could show her examples of what I was looking for.
Okay, here's the caveat.
These steps won't work 100 percent of the time. Some employees just aren't open to feedback, no matter how you approach them. In those cases, a poor performer should be told to improve or move on to another position.
Yet I've found that most employees will improve if you approach them the right way. My “bad attitude” employee made the adjustments she needed to make and completely changed how her colleagues perceived her. I made sure to acknowledge her progress and continued to communicate that I was on her side.
Note: Lessons from The Overlook is a monthly update on lessons learned from owning a vacation rental property in the Southern California mountain town of Idyllwild. It's a hands-on opportunity to apply some of the techniques I advise my clients to use. You can find past updates here.
I went to change the air filter on the heater while visiting The Overlook recently.
Normally, there's an extra filter on hand to make this an easy chore, but I discovered I hadn't re-ordered filters the last time I'd used one. So I drove into town to buy one, but the size I needed was out of stock at both hardware stores in Idyllwild.
(Side note, I'm a big fan of Idyllwild's True Value, Forest Lumber. They pack a lot of merchandise into a small store, and the friendly staff are always very helpful.)
In the end I had to order a new filter online and have it delivered to our property manager for installation later that week.
Changing the air filter was a minor hassle this time. It was also a terrific reminder that I had fallen out of habit of doing something very important: using a checklist.
Here's how a checklist is (usually) a timesaver at The Overlook, and why you should be using them, too.
An inspection revealed a pipe under the spa deck was missing some insulation. We asked our property manager to have it fixed before it caused any real problems.
Using a PM Checklist
When my wife, Sally, and I first bought The Overlook in October 2016, we created a preventative maintenance (PM) checklist.
Our plan was to use the checklist when inspecting the cabin on our regular visits. It would help us remember what to inspect while identifying some maintenance items that had to be done on occasion. We've updated the checklist as we've discovered new requirements or added a new feature, like a game room.
We've found the checklist to be extremely useful.
There's been some minor maintenance to be done each time we've visited the cabin, which is usually once every six weeks. Glasses are missing, lightbulbs are burned out, guests leave personal items in drawers, furniture has been moved, you name it.
The PM checklist also contains a lot of helpful reminders, such as pumping the septic tank, trimming trees, and checking our propane consumption. We also use it to identify when to re-order supplies such as spare glasses, dishes, lightbulbs, and cleaning supplies.
Forming a Bad Habit
We've strayed away from using the checklist during the past few months. The excuse was busyness.
A day trip to the cabin in September was a whirlwind of chores. We returned in October, but storm knocked the power out and put a damper on our plans. Another trip the first weekend in December was nice, but there was also a long list of chores that needed to be done.
In hindsight, these were precisely the times when a checklist would have been handy. It would have helped me remember to order new air filters for our heater or inspect the piping under the spa deck (see photo). I allowed myself to get so busy focusing on whatever task was right in front of me that I neglected to follow our own procedure.
Fortunately, the only fallout was a little wasted time from not having replacement air filters on hand. I know it could have been worse, such as a frozen pipe!
We'll definitely be using our PM checklist on the next visit.
Build Your Own Operations Checklist
A checklist is great to have if there's something you want people to inspect or a list of chores you want people to do on a regular basis.
Retail shops use them for opening and closing the store.
Contact centers use them when evaluating phone calls.
A home repair technician uses them to inventory parts on the truck.
A mechanic uses them when inspecting your vehicle.
Restaurants use them for cleaning the kitchen.
There are probably multiple ways to build a PM checklist. Here's how we built ours.
Start with an initial walk-through.
Capture any items to add to your checklist.
For the first few times you use it, identify any needed adjustments.
Review and update the checklist periodically, at least once per year.
Another consideration is how people will access the checklist. This should be a function of who is using it, when they're using it, and where they're using it.
For example, you've probably seen an inspection checklist posted in a public restroom. This makes it very easy for the janitorial crew to identify what needs to be cleaned or inspected, and mark down the work that has been done.
We keep our PM checklist on a Google Doc, so it's easy for either of us to pull it up on an iPad and update it as we walk around the house.
A Final Reminder
Our experience taught us that it's easy to use busyness as an excuse to stop doing things the right way. In the long run, not using the checklist cost us more time than it saved.
Many companies that sell a product or service to customer service teams have a corporate blog. It's part of a content marketing strategy that brings visitors to the company website, establishes some brand awareness, and hopefully generates sales.
A lot of those blogs are hard to read.
They're overly self-promotional. Content is generic and written with no real viewpoint. Some become a dumping ground for poorly curated guest posts.
A few corporate blogs stand out from the crowd. They pair excellent writing with real advice that's both thought-provoking and actionable.
Here are four corporate customer service blogs I consistently read. Full disclosure: I know people at each of these companies. I also respect the work they do and really do subscribe to their blogs.
The HelpScout blog has a nice mix of product how-tos, insights from real customer service leaders, and posts that address topical issues such as working with remote teams. What I like about this blog is the articles are well-written and often contain a lot of helpful examples. For instance, a recent post about making content more inclusive was really thought-provoking.
This is what you get when you mix real journalists with industry thought leaders and consciously create distance between the blog and the corporate agenda. Though run by Zendesk, Relate almost feels like a separate entity. Heck, Zendesk even has a separate Zendesk blog. Relate is packed with highly relevant topics that don't get enough attention, such as an interview with Jenny Dempsey about self-care in customer service or this post on how to be a good Airbnb guest.
Posts on the FCR blog are primarily written by FCR's Director of Customer Experience, Jeremy Watkin. Since FCR is an outsourced contact center, Jeremy gets to work with a wide variety of client organizations, and he shares many of those insights in his practical, often folksy posts. A good example is this post about creating a voice and style guide for your customer service team.
Data nerds rejoice! The Thematic blog weaves compelling data and solid storytelling to share some unexpected conclusions. For instance, a recent post on using customer feedback to prevent churn showed how one Thematic client was getting most of its customer churn from happy customers. There's a huge lesson there about not taking your best customers for granted.
What Blogs Are You Reading?
These are all blogs I subscribe to and actually read, but it's by no means an exhaustive list. Please leave a comment or drop me a line and let me know which corporate customer service blogs you read on a regular basis!
Years ago, a company hired me to conduct customer service training that showed employees how to align their service with the company's corporate values.
One of those values was integrity.
I interviewed several employees and managers to prepare for the training. None of them explained integrity the same way. Some employees were aware it was a value, but hadn't given it any thought.
"It's just some corporate thing," explained several people I talked to.
To put some context in place, integrity has been a buzzword for corporate values statements for some time. A 2004 study by Booz Allen and the Aspen Institute found that 90 percent of corporate values statements listed ethics or integrity. Even Enron, the company made famous for a massive accounting scandal that sent executives to prison, listed integrity among its core values in the company's 2000 annual report.
Herein lies the challenge for customer service leaders. So many buzzwords that guide our decision-making are murky.
Common Murky Buzzwords
Here's an experiment you can try. Share the following terms with your leadership team. Ask each person to write down a brief definition of each one. Then compare what people wrote.
My guess is you'll get a lot of great definitions, but they'll all be slightly different.
This creates a real challenge. For instance, most leaders I speak with agree that employee engagement is important. Yet they have wildly different ideas of what it really means. It's pretty hard to improve something if we don't agree on what we're trying to improve.
I once sat in on a conversation between an IT director and the two managers that reported to him. He was frustrated with the department's performance, but was having a difficult time articulating what he felt was going wrong and what needed to improve.
Finally, the director blurted out, "You need to be more managerial, or... you're fired!"
Nobody in the room, including the IT director, had any idea what "be more managerial" meant or how one could go about doing it.
You can't improve something if you don't define it.
I don't want to leave you high and dry, so here are some sample definitions for the five terms I shared above.
Keep in mind these aren't the only definitions. You're free to find another source or even come up with your own. What's important is you establish a common frame of reference with the leaders and employees in your organization.
Employee Engagement: An engaged employee is deliberately contributing to organizational success. (source: Jeff Toister)
Customer Success: An organizational function that helps customers get maximum value out of a product or service. (source: Hubspot)
Customer Experience: The sum of all the interactions that a customer has with an organization over the life of the “relationship” with that company… and, especially, the feelings, emotions, and perceptions the customer has about those interactions. (source: Annette Franz)
Leadership: A leader is someone who inspires people to take action. Leadership is the skillset or tools they use to do so. (source: Grace Judson)
Empowerment: a process of enabling employees to deliver outstanding service to their customers. (source: Jeff Toister)
The Power of a Common Frame of Reference
If you've read this blog before, you may know I'm a proponent of companies adopting a unique customer service vision.
This is a shared definition of outstanding customer service that gets everyone on the same page. It binds the group with a common purpose, and establishes a common frame of reference when it comes to delivering great service.
Some companies, like the client I mentioned at the start of this post, choose to use corporate values as the customer service vision. That's fine, so long as everyone has a shared understanding of what they meant.
Which brings us back to integrity.
Through a series of workshops, my client's employees decided that "integrity" should mean doing the right thing for the customer by trying to be the customer's advocate. Together, we brainstormed real workplace stories that were examples of serving with integrity.
Suddenly, the word had meaning. Employees could use integrity as a guide when handling tricky situations. Managers could use it when giving employees feedback. Everyone was on the same page.
Identify some of the buzzwords that are floating around your workplace. Take time to define them, and make sure everyone shares the same definition.
This exercise not only gets everyone on the same page, it can greatly influence your next steps.
For example, if a company is blindly pursuing employee engagement without defining it, leaders might conduct a survey, form a committee, and be done with it. But if leaders understand that an engaged employee knows what makes the company successful and is committed to helping achieve that success, leaders might first make sure every employee understands the company's vision and goals.
Do you have employees who work from home or in a remote office?
This arrangement is increasingly common in customer service. There are many benefits for employees and employers alike, such as eliminated commute times, lower office expenses, and greater flexibility.
There's also a big challenge—keeping remote employees engaged.
By engaged, I mean they understand what makes the business or team successful, and they're committed to helping achieve it.
The challenge faced by many virtual employees is they often miss out on critical updates, or don't get to participate in "water cooler" discussions around the office where important decisions are made. And it's easy to feel left out of the natural camaraderie that develops when people work together. That office potluck is a huge bummer if you’re eating cold cereal at home while everyone else is enjoying Victor’s famous lumpia.
The good news is you can overcome this challenge with a little planning. Here are some key insights from leaders with experience managing virtual teams.
Promote Face-to-Face Contact
If feasible, promoting periodic face-to-face contact works wonders. It strengthens relationships and many people find it easier to communicate via other channels, such as email, once they’ve met someone in person.
Michael, a client experience team lead, has one remote employee. She works in the office once every two weeks. "I intentionally try to schedule these days when there will be key times for her to connect and interact with the rest of the team," says Michael. "For example, last week, she came to the office on the day of our office Thanksgiving potluck."
Jeremy, a contact center manager, cautions leaders to be respectful of remote employees' time when asking them to come into the office. "We’ve historically had a tendency to try to force them into the office when they may not want that in the name of engagement and inclusion when really, we should be figuring out how to engage and include while at home rather than forcing a drive into the office they’ve likely been avoiding. Periodically coming into the office is fine if it’s mutually agreeable vs. company-sided."
Diana, a customer support team lead, suggests focusing in-person time on relationship-building. “That actual in-person time together should also be more for bonding than getting work done, so don’t plan meetups to be packed 10 hour work days with no down time.”
Meeting in-person isn’t always feasible, but video can still bring you face-to-face with your remote team. Chelsea, a client experience leader, has weekly video calls with each person on her team.
Establish Communication Channels
Using the right communication tools is critical to keeping everyone informed.
Holly, a marketing vice president, suggests virtual teams adopt effective communication tools and establish some team norms around using them. "Slack is such a great way for a quick chat and I love Zoom for longer or more complex conversations. Being able to see someone's face makes a HUGE difference in really connecting to them as a person rather than treating them like an email address."
Michael adds some similar ideas. "Our Team uses a chat page (similar to Slack) and we keep her in the loop on as much as possible. If any key conversations have occurred at the office, I'll send her a message to fill her in. We're messaging and/or speaking with her on the phone each and every day to make sure she feels plugged in to the Team."
Mario, a support manager, echoes the importance of keeping people in the loop. He cautions managers against assuming that remote employees will proactively search for information. “You’ve gotta show them and remind them. If there’s a demo, record it.”
Crystal, a client success manager, recommends getting the right tools to make communication easier. “We’ve invested in special microphones for our stand-ups, because our remote team couldn’t hear well if someone wasn’t speaking loudly enough. Investing in that hardware shows the remote team members that we really do care about their experience.”
One word of caution here is to be mindful of timezones. "Someone working remotely doesn't always work 9-5, might be in a different time zone, or could be a night owl," says Holly. "Talk with them from the beginning about what hours they will be working. If you need them to work certain hours, mention that."
Involve Your Remote Employees
Years ago, I attended a conference for contact center professionals. There was a day of site tours, so I took advantage and visited a Starbucks contact center.
One of the things I saw on the tour was pretty amazing. We were all given a tutorial on how to taste coffee. The mini-training showed us how different brews produce different flavors and smells.
The most impressive part was the tasting was led by a remote employee!
Keeping your virtual team involved is a key responsibility for customer service leaders. The old saying "out of sight, out of mind," definitely applies here if you let it!
Jeremy suggests planning to include your remote employees in team meetings. "If a small percentage of the workforce is remote it’s easy to forget about them while presenting. They can’t see all the content, can’t hear questions being asked, etc. Plan on how they will participate in things like breakout sessions and ice breakers."
Holly suggests being intentional about creating places for fun. "We have a few minutes at the beginning of team meetings for talking about family, travel, and just life in general. We also have a Slack channel where we share photos of our children, food we cooked, restaurants we tried, sports games we went to, and so forth. It's our water cooler."
Kev, a customer support manager, holds all team meetings via Zoom. “Even where people are co-located, they join individually on their own computer. This ensures everyone in the meeting is present in the same capacity, and prevents remote employees feeling they are second class in the meetings.”
Celebrating big events doesn’t have to happen exclusively in the office. Camille, a former client success vice president, made a practice of sending treats to people when they hit major milestones. “Remote folks seemed to appreciate receiving tangible things.”
Ultimately, keeping your virtual team engaged comes down to good management.
Make sure your employees know what's expected.
Communicate regularly to keep them on track.
Provide assistance when necessary.
Recognize good performance to let remote employees know they're appreciated.
That last one is important.
Nobody likes a micromanager, but a micromanager can really be annoying in a remote situation. I know a remote employee whose boss used to email her at all hours, even late at night, and expect an immediate response. It was frustratingly annoying, and her engagement suffered.
Be thoughtful about the relationships you create with your virtual team, and engaging them should become much easier.
Get the latest posts plus 10 Customer Service Activities to Supercharge Your Team.
A training manager recently called me to talk about empowerment.
She explained employees often worked in silos, and didn't reach out to collaborate with other teams. When there was an issue that required inter-departmental work, employees would just dump it on their supervisor.
The training manager had been tasked with finding an external trainer to help. She found me after watching one of my training courses on Lynda.com.
Unfortunately, I quickly discovered the team wasn't ready for training. This is really a common situation—leaders send their employees to training too early, and they don't get the results they want.
Here's how I determined that from a short conversation, and here's how it can be fixed.
Where Traditional Training Falls Short
You may have had a big bowl of candy once the dust settled on Halloween.
It's a big temptation. You know you aren't supposed to eat the candy, but it's right there. Staring at you. Tempting you. I’m not going to lie—I ate way too much candy.
The knowledge that you shouldn't eat the candy can be gained by training. But it's your environment, i.e. the candy bowl in plain site, that tempts you to eat some anyway. The solution is to change the environment. Remove the candy bowl and you will eat less candy.
The customer service team in the training manager's company faced a similar environmental challenge.
Whenever employees would bring a challenge to their supervisor, the supervisor would simply take on the challenge. She never spent time showing employees how to handle these issues. After awhile, employees embraced the inevitable and just dumped work on their supervisor whenever they could, knowing that's what would happen anyway.
I walked through this with the training manager. She laughed a bit and admitted the last time they had brought in an external trainer, the training had been well-received by it didn't stick.
The supervisor had always been too busy to help her team develop their new skills.
Here's the takeaway that applies to all of us: if you want training to stick, you must first adjust the environment and get leaders fully plugged in.
The 70-20-10 Model
There's a model that can help you address this issue.
It's called the 70-20-10 rule. The concept was first developed based on research from the Center for Creative Leadership that showed leaders developed their skills from a variety of sources:
70 percent of their skills came from challenging assignments
20 percent were learned from a boss or mentor
10 percent came from formal training.
Two caveats here:
The word "rule" implies it's hard and fast science, but it's really more of a guide.
While originally derived from leadership training, it's a good model to follow for other training topics.
So let's apply this to the customer service team that needs to collaborate with other departments:
Even if we sent them to a terrific training program, two factors would quickly override anything they learned. The boss (~20 percent of learning) would continue taking challenging assignments (~70 percent of learning) off their plate. Game over.
Now imagine what would happen if we could adjust the environment and got the supervisor to buy-in to some new behaviors. Here's how that might fit into the 70-20-10 model.
70 percent: Employees are asked to work through challenges.
20 percent: The supervisor coaches employees through challenges.
It can be challenging to go from an individual contributor to managing people who were once your coworkers. You've probably heard the advice that you should take time to re-establish positive relationships with new subordinates.
There's another group of people you should immediately develop solid relationships with after getting a promotion. These are your key internal customers.
An internal customer is an internal stakeholder who you provide a service to. Examples include:
Colleagues in other departments
Chances are you have several key internal customers who can really help you succeed in your new role. These customers may be willing to help you if they feel you are helping them.
Perhaps an influential executive will mentor you if she sees that you are supporting her initiatives. A finance leader might help you make sense of your budget if you provide timely updates to your variance report. Or a production manager may be able to get some of your orders out faster if you work with your team to reduce the number of errors in shipping addresses.
Whoever these key internal customers are in your organization, it's important you do three things after you get promoted.
Identify your key internal customers
Identify what they need from you
Proactively build relationships with them
Creating strong relationships with these key people can speed up your learning curve and lend you a hand when you make a mistake. And believe me, all new leaders make mistakes.
Here's a short, <3 minute video that can walk you through this exercise and provides more examples of key internal customers.
In 2014, activist investor Starboard Value identified a cost savings opportunity of $216 million at Darden Restaurants. The restaurant operator owns such iconic brands as The Capital Grille, Yard House, and Olive Garden. Starboard's management felt Darden was underperforming.
One of the more interesting conclusions in Starboard's analysis was that Olive Garden wasted $5 million annually on breadsticks.
Olive Garden is famous for giving customers free, unlimited breadsticks. It had a procedure to keep the breadsticks fresh, since they taste best within the first seven minutes of being served. Servers were supposed to bring one breadstick per customer, plus one additional breadstick per table. Customers could always request more.
What Starboard discovered was servers did not follow the procedure 57 percent of the time. They would instead give guests a large basket of breadsticks.
This resulted in a few problems. Breadsticks were wasted. Guests became full on breadsticks, so they bought less food. And servers had less guest contact since they needed to refill breadsticks less often.
All of this came from simple observation. Here's how you can save money and improve service by observing your employees and customers.
Image courtesy of Olive Garden
One of the best ways to fix a problem is to first verify existing procedures are followed.
Starboard's solution to the $5 million breadstick problem at Olive Garden was to get employees to follow the current procedure more consistently.
A contact center leader I know reduced calls directed to a more expensive outsourcer by 50 percent. He did this by spending time with his employees and observing that many were not using the phone system properly. Agents would inadvertently mark themselves as unavailable to take calls, which caused calls the agent otherwise could have handled to get routed to the outsourcer.
Sometimes, employees are following the existing procedure, but that procedure is not sufficient to solve the problem. Observing your employees can still reveal solutions.
I once worked with a contact center that responded to customer questions about the company's products and tried to convert those inquiries into sales orders. A short time spent observing employees revealed that many would rush through calls when there was a large queue of customers waiting on hold.
The problem was the contact center's schedule didn't match call volume. When the schedule was re-aligned to better match demand (without adding staff), the team improved its sales closing rate by 36 percent.
If you want to save money and improve service, invest some time in observing your employees.
You can often improve customer service and reduce waste by observing your customers.
I first learned this lesson when I worked in a retail clothing store in high school. My manager explained that paying attention to every customer yielded two benefits. The first was customers were likely to buy more if I was there to help them. The second benefit was being observant reduced theft.
One day, a coworker wandered away from her department and left it unstaffed. Within just a few minutes, a team of shoplifters stole approximately $5,000 worth of clothing.
Restaurants like Olive Garden can save money by observing what customers eat, and don't eat.
My wife, Sally, and I recently saw an example while dining out. Sally ordered a taco plate that came with two heaping scoops of guacamole. She ate about 25 percent of the guacamole, meaning the rest of it went to waste. A quick look around the restaurant revealed Sally wasn't the only one who left a mountain of guacamole behind on their plate.
An observant restaurant manager would notice the large number of plates coming back to the kitchen with a mound of guacamole still left. Guacamole is expensive, so the restaurant could easily save money by serving less and bringing more to the occasional customer who requests it.
Here's another simple example.
The next time you visit Starbucks or another coffee shop or fast food location at a busy time, observe how customers react when they enter and see the line. People entering the store will turn around and walk out when the line gets to a certain length, costing the company revenue.
There are aspects of the customer and employee experience you probably won't capture in a survey. That's why it's important to observe and listen.
Here's a summary of what to look for:
Verify employees are following procedures.
If employees are not following procedures, find out why.
Look for obvious obstacles that get in the way of service.
This question came up during a recent conversation with senior training leaders. If you are developing a leader, should you first focus on growing their leadership or their technical skills?
It's also a challenge that I often hear from Customer Service Tip of the Week subscribers, many of whom are customer service leaders, both experienced and aspiring.
The answer is crystal clear, and it's not even close.
But first, let me share a little about my background and how I've come to see firsthand what works and what doesn't.
I was the Director of Training and Development for a mid-sized company with 4,200 employees prior to starting my own business. The biggest part of my role was preparing supervisors and managers for promotion, and helping to guide them once they got there.
Working with hundreds of leaders helped me see what enabled people to be successful in leadership positions.
Today, I'm obsessed with service cultures. The leaders I interviewed and researched for my book, The Service Culture Handbook, came from many industries and backgrounds, but they also had a lot in common in terms of their skillsets.
So back to the question. Should you focus on leadership or technical skills first?
The hands-down answer is technical skills. The answer may surprise you, but I've learned there's good reason why technical skills must come first when developing a leader.
Think of technical skills such as how to run payroll, write a schedule, or evaluate performance as the machine that runs the business. Leadership skills such as building trust, inspiring employees, and giving feedback are the oil that lubricates the machine and helps it run smoothly. There's no question that the machine will run much better with oil (i.e. good leadership), but without a machine you have no business.
Here are some practical examples.
If I had to choose between teaching a manager to run payroll or build trust, I'd first focus on payroll. Employees come to work to get paid (at least in part), and nothing erodes trust faster than a paycheck that's missing or short.
Things do occasionally go wrong or questions arise when it comes to payroll, which is when building trust is critical for leaders. Knowing technical procedures to resolve those issues provides important context for leaders to develop their trust-building skills.
Vision is another example. There's the technical component, which is actually writing a customer service vision. There's also a leadership component, which is communicating the vision and inspiring employees to follow it.
There's nothing to inspire people if you don't have the technical know-how to write a good vision in the first place.
The vision writing process I use with my clients includes seeking input and buy-in from employees, which naturally combines both technical and leadership elements. It's the vision creation process itself that provides critical context for leaders to develop and exercise their leadership skills.
Learning of any kind happens best when there's context. When you give leaders technical skills, they establish a very important context to develop their abilities as leaders.
Without those skills, there's no context for leaders to apply any leadership skills they try to learn.