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The first customer I ever served resulted in a service failure.

Some of it was my fault. I said the wrong thing to a customer and he stormed off, grumbling about the sorry state of customer service these days.

Some of it was not my fault. I was sixteen years old and this was my first job. I hadn't yet been trained and didn't yet have the experience to know what to do. The person who was supposed to be training me had gone on break and left me to fend for myself.

It all worked out in the end. I learned from the experience, discovered a passion for customer service, and eventually learned how to train others. 

Things don't always go this way. Many employees develop bad habits as a result of insufficient new hire training. The results is poor customer service, low engagement, and high attrition.

We need to take responsibility for giving new hires the right kind of training if we expect them to deliver our brand of exceptional service. 

You can hear my story in this short video:

The Woeful Lack of Training

A 2018 study by the research firm Ipsos revealed that 31 percent of employees get no formal training.

This statistic is even worse for low-wage jobs (earning <$50,000 per year), where 36 percent of employees report they received no formal training. This group encompasses a majority of frontline customer service employees. 

Even the training that does occur may not be sufficient.

I routinely ask customer service leaders whether their company has a customer service vision, which is a shared definition of outstanding customer service. Typically, 40 percent or more admit there is none.

A vision is critical because it provides a common framework for training that describes your organization's unique brand of customer service. Without one, new hire training must focus on tactical procedures and generic customer service tips.

The best companies know this. 

New hires at In-N-Out burger are trained around a vision of quality, service, and cleanliness; you can see that vision in everything they do. Guests at The Ritz-Carlton naturally expect a different type of service than at In-N-Out, so Ritz-Carlton associates are trained on that company's vision, We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.


Key Elements of Culture Training

An entire chapter in The Service Culture Handbook is devoted to training employees to embody the culture in their daily work.

Here are a few highlights.

Element 1: You need a customer service vision. Your training will be generic and unfocused if you skip this step. You can use this guide to create one.

Element 2: Create learning objectives for your training. Think about what you want your new hires to know and be able to do. I recommend setting an objective that employees will be able to answer three questions by the end of the training:

  1. What is our customer service vision?
  2. What does the vision mean?
  3. How does I personally contribute to the vision in my daily work?

Element 3: Develop activities to achieve your learning objectives. This is your chance to get a little creative, but make sure you can verify the learning objectives have been achieved by the end of the training.


New Hire Training Examples

Here are two sample training plans that have both been effective. Both training plans share the learning objectives described above (i.e. participants have to answer those three questions).

Sample #1: The Scavenger Hunt. I ran this exercise for new managers at a parking management company. 

The training started in the classroom, where participants were introduced to the customer service vision. We had a group discussion around its meaning and talked about the answers to the three questions.

Next, participants were split into small groups and each was given a list of locations to visit near the company's downtown headquarters. Each group was asked to take pictures of scenes that showed the vision in real-life. This included signage, employees interacting with customers, etc. The entire assignment could easily be completed in less than an hour, with the teams walking from location to location.

Finally, we gathered in the classroom again to look at everyone's pictures. The teams took turns walking us through what they saw and explaining how each image connected to the vision.


Sample #2: The Thank You Letter Challenge. I did this exercise with Clio, the winner of the 2017 ICMI Global Contact Center award for best culture

Employees were first asked to identify places where they saw the customer service vision before coming to class. This one was easy, since each person had a small sign hung at their workstation.

Next, employees were asked to describe the answers to the three questions in their own words. 

Finally, each person completed the Thank You Letter challenge. They started by writing a thank you letter to themselves from an imaginary customer. The letter reflected service that aligned with the company's customer service vision. Then participants were asked to read the letter each day for two weeks and try to earn feedback from a real customer that matched the letter.

At the end of the two weeks, we reconvened and participants shared their experiences. It was amazing how they were able to generate so many success stories! (You can try this exercise here.)


Take Action!

Start today by asking two questions:

  1. Do we have a customer service vision? (Y/N)
  2. Do we train new employees on the customer service vision (Y/N)

If the answer is "No" to either question, you'll see immediate results by adding that element to your training program.

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There are probably two desires for every company's Twitter strategy:

  1. Get people to love us so they buy more
  2. Avoid public complaints

Unfortunately, many companies inadvertently nudge customers to complain via Twitter. Case in point is a recent experience I had with a consumer products company.

It had been three days since I had emailed the company and it still had not responded. I wanted to send them a direct message (DM) via Twitter to gently nudge the company and request a response. For the uninitiated, a DM is private, meaning the world can't see it.

But wait! The company hadn't configured its Twitter account to accept DMs (i.e. private messages). So I couldn't message the company privately. I opted to send a public tweet instead.

Here's how companies can prevent this.

Why Private Messaging is Important

The key difference between a public tweet and a private DM is who can read it.

Anyone can read a public tweet. A private DM, however, is similar to email, chat, and other written customer service channels. The conversation remains private.

The key is starting the conversation in private.

The social customer care platform Conversocial recently released some interesting data based on two years of tweets from its enterprise clients.

Nearly all conversations that start in private (i.e. via DM) remain there. So the key is making it easy for customers to send you a DM.


Make It Easy to DM Your Business

Let's go back to the consumer products company. Twitter aside, the first and most obvious move is to respond to customer emails! My own research has uncovered two things:

  • Email response time standards should be 1 hour
  • Most Twitter complaints are escalations

So a fast and effective email response will likely prevent an escalation to Twitter. When you don't handle your business in other channels, customers will complain in public.

OK, so how can the company make it easier for me to DM them?

Right now, the company's Twitter settings are set up so only customers the company follows can send them a DM. One simple change to the privacy and safety settings on the company's Twitter account can fix that:

This setting allows anyone to DM the company, making it far easier for customers to start a conversation in private. Notice the difference between the @Comcast and @ComcastCares Twitter profiles. You'll need @Comcast to follow you if you want to send the company a DM, but you can send @ComcastCares a DM immediately.

Take Action!

The best thing you can do is make it easy for your customers to contact your company, and make it easy for your agents to respond properly.

Twitter offers a slew of more advanced features for businesses. These include:

You can learn the basics of serving customers via Twitter from my training video, Serving Customers via Social Media.

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The exact words the restaurant manager used were, "I'm not arguing with you."

Funny, because arguing was exactly what he was doing. My wife and I were celebrating the wrap of filming for my latest training video at a nice steakhouse. Both of our first steaks were overdone and the manager had offered to prepare us new ones.

Sally's steak was prepared correctly the second time, but my replacement was very rare, even though I had ordered medium rare. I sent it back to the kitchen once more, but the steak still came back rare. 

I wasn't going to send it back a third time.

The manager checked on our table. He seemed frustrated with me that I wasn't happy and insinuated that I was being too picky. In our ensuing conversation, he revealed he had asked the kitchen to prepare my second steak rare because he didn't think I understood what medium rare really was.

"I'm not arguing with you," he said, "but your first steak was medium rare."

That statement cost him a customer. Taking my steak off the bill wasn't enough at this point to repair his rudeness.

The worst part was our server was handling the situation just fine until the manager stepped in. The manager was setting a poor example for his staff.

The Impact of a Negative Role Model

Leaders set the tone through their actions. In this case, the manager did several things that sent the wrong message to his staff.

  • He undercut trust by intervening when our server was handling it fine.
  • He displayed rudeness by jumping into our conversation without first introducing himself.
  • He exhibited selfishness by putting my replacement steak in as rare without telling our server.

I asked a community of hospitality professionals on the I'm Your Server, Not Your Servant Facebook group to weigh in on their experience working in similar situations.

People generally shared that these types of experiences made them want to work someplace else. A few also suggested the drama and mistrust created by the manager was likely to continue well past our evening at the restaurant. Several also thought it might create tension between the servers and kitchen staff.

All of this came from the manager's poor reaction that unnecessarily escalated what should have been a minor situation.

We noticed a change in our service level after our interaction with the manager. Our server avoided our table as much as she brought us the check as soon as our meal was finished, as if she could not wait to be done with us. 

There was no final apology or a confirmation of any deductions from the check (my steak was removed). She didn't make an effort to resolve the situation on a high note by asking us to come back again. She simply processed our check and wordlessly dropped it back off at our table.


Positive Role Model Actions

There are many things you can do to be a positive role model.

The first thing you should do is model customer service skills when interacting with both customers and employees. Treat people exactly the way you want your employees to treat customers. Your team is looking to you for guidance and your actions will speak louder than words.

Positive role models also take the same training they require employees to take. This move brings three benefits:

  1. You'll have the same skills as your employees, so you can model them.
  2. Your presence sends the message that the training is important.
  3. You'll be better able to coach employees after the training.

Finally, it's critical to support your employees.

One of the worst things the restaurant manager did was undercut his server by stepping into the situation she was already handling and then blind-siding her by deliberately putting in my replacement steak at the wrong temperature.

Here's how I've seen other restaurant managers handle a similar situation.

They start by talking with the server off to the side to get the story and see if there's anything they need to do. Then they come to the table, introduce themselves, and confirm the server is rectifying the situation.

This action supports the server while still sending a positive message to the guests that the manager is monitoring the situation and is there to help. 

Work on these role model actions and you'll likely see higher levels of service from your employees in response.

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This is a lost week for many people.

Wednesday is Independence Day in the United States, which means many employees (and customers) are taking the week off. Those still at work are likely to be obsessed with the World Cup.

Then there's you. You are at work and reading blog posts like this one in an attempt to continue building your customer service skills and somehow use this week to get ahead. 

So here are a few suggestions to make the most of the week.

Do a System Reset

One of my favorite business books is Getting Things Done, by David Allen. It's details simple ways to maximize your daily productivity and I follow many of the principles on a regular basis.

A useful suggestion for weeks like this is to do a system reset. This is where you review your entire time management system and look for loose ends. Here are a few examples:

  • Clean out your email inbox
  • Review your project list and re-prioritize key actions
  • Update your calendar with meetings, appointments, and due dates

I find whenever I do this exercise that I catch something important I might otherwise have missed. 


Start a New Book

There are several terrific customer service books that have come out in recent months. Here are a few of my favorites:

Fusion, by Denise Lee Yohn. This book is a wonderfully practical look at how leading companies integrate their brand and culture. It resonates with me because the interactions customers have with your company form a huge part of their brand perception. 

Be Amazing or Go Home, by Shep Hyken. I really like this book because it focuses on how we can take individual responsibility for our own performance at work. You must commit to delivering amazing service every day.

Would You Do That to Your Mother?, by Jeanne Bliss. This book introduces the "Make Mom Proud" standard for customer service. It essentially asks you to consider whether you would be okay with your mom receiving the service you deliver.


Take a Training Class

Why not use this time to invest in your own development?

You can access a vast library of customer service training videos on LinkedIn Learning or Lynda.com. You'll need a LinkedIn Premium or Lynda account to get started, but 30-day trials are available.

Another option is the daily email format. You can try Highbrow, which serves up courses on a wide range of topics via one email per day for 10 days. (The company offers a 30-day trial, too.) My new course, How to Serve Upset Customers, just launched on this platform and I'd welcome your feedback if you get a chance to try it.

You can also try my 21-day Thank You Letter Challenge. There's no cost on this one and it's a lot of fun.



It's always a great idea to unplug.

Take a break from social media, keep email to a minimum, and take some extra time to get outside. You'll end up feeling mentally refreshed and ready to go when things get into full swing again!

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Can you spare five minutes a day to improve crucial skills?

That's the premise behind Highbrow, a service that features more than 2,500 training courses on topics ranging from personal growth to business skills. Each one is delivered via a series of 10 daily emails.

I've recently partnered with Highbrow to launch a new course, How to Serve Upset Customers.

This post is an overview of the course along with what I see are the primary benefits of the daily email format. I've also included some tips for maximizing your learning and a link to try Highbrow for free.

Course Overview

Serving upset customers is one of my most requested training topics.

We all encounter challenging customers from time to time. It can be frustrating and even exhausting. It can also be one of the greatest feelings in customer service when you are able to help an upset customer feel better!

How to Serve Upset Customers can help you build your skills in three key areas:

  • Defusing customer anger
  • Recovering angry customers
  • Preventing customers from getting angry in the first place

The course is delivered entirely via email. You'll receive one email per day over the course of ten days, with each email containing a new lesson.


Benefits of Email

I'm was already a big proponent of email-based learning before I discovered Highbrow. 

Thousands of customer service professionals around the world subscribe to my Customer Service Tip of the Week. Subscribers receive one customer service tip per week via email and they are able to immediately put that tip into action.

Highbrow courses offer a few distinctive benefits:

Fast. The courses really take just five minutes a day. Each lesson is 500-700 words long, which is the length of a short blog post. Many include links to additional content and resources in case you want to dive deeper.

Convenient. The one thing I guarantee you'll do today, tomorrow, and the next day is check your email. That makes email lessons so easy, since they're delivered to a place where you'll already be looking. You don't have to drive to a classroom or remember to logon to a website.

Action-Oriented. You don't learn when you consume content. You learn when you take action! That's what I love most about email training. Each Highbrow lesson includes a specific activity you can use to immediately apply the concept.

The best part may be the cost.

A Highbrow membership will get you access to the entire library. You get one month free when you sign up, and then a membership will cost just $48 per year ($4 per month!)


Best Practices for Email Learning

Over the past few months, I've been experimenting with a 21-day email course I designed called The Thank You Letter Challenge. It's designed to help you receive positive feedback from customers by visualizing the type of service you'd like to provide.

Along the way, I've collected feedback from participants to identify best practices:

  1. Do the exercises! The training won't help you if you don't apply it.
  2. Make a habit. Set aside five minutes per day to read each lesson.
  3. Reset! Life happens, so don't be afraid to restart the training if you get hung up.

Another feature I really like is Highbrow courses include a short quiz to test your learning. 

If you do take my course, please leave a comment or contact me directly to let me know how it goes. This is a new course and a new platform for me, so I'm eager to get your feedback!

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Let's be honest with each other for a moment.

We rarely take immediate action when we read blog posts. Most of the time, we read something, decide if we like the idea or not, and then move on. The most many of us do if we're really inspired is share the post with someone else.

I hope this post is a little different. Here are seven simple customer service tips you can go use right now. Your challenge is to pick one and try it.

Tip #1: Visualize Great Service

Successful people in many professions—from business to sports to music—prepare themselves mentally by visualizing themselves succeeding.

Here's how you can do it, too:

  1. Write a short thank you letter to yourself from an imaginary customer.
  2. Read your letter every day for 21 days. (Get daily email reminders.)
  3. Try to receive customer feedback that matches your letter.

Here's what I wrote when I recently did this exercise:

Thank you for helping us get our employees obsessed with customer service.

Here's an actual message I received via email a few days later:

There is no question in my mind that we are becoming a better company in part because of your teachings. Thank you very much.


Tip #2: Break the Ice with the Five Question Technique

We know a little small talk can help put customers at ease, but many of us are not natural conversationalists.

The Five Question Technique can help change that. Just think of five different questions you can use to break the ice and possibly learn something about your customer that could help you serve them better.

Here are the five questions I created before I recently facilitated a two-day workshop. I used the questions to break the ice as I greeted arriving participants.

  1. What brings you to the workshop?
  2. How did you discover this program?
  3. What is the biggest challenge you are working on?
  4. In what city are you based in?
  5. What do you do for your company?

The questions helped participants feel more comfortable talking about themselves and the answers told me a little about their needs.


Tip #3: Listen for Emotional Needs

Customers often have underlying emotional needs that need to be met for them to feel they've received extraordinary service. 

For example, a customer may describe a problem they've had with your product or service. A good customer service rep will try to fix the problem. An outstanding customer service rep will understand the customer also has the emotional need to be acknowledged for the time they've wasted and the disappointment of experiencing the problem.

You can uncover emotional needs just by listening carefully. The next time you serve a customer, pay careful attention to how they are feeling and try to identify the emotions they are expressing.

Understanding someone's emotions can lead to far better service. 


Tip #4: Give "Preferential" Treatment

Repeat customers like to be acknowledged. One way to do this is by learning their preferences and incorporating them into your service.

For example, I often go to the same local coffee shop. Lupe is usually at the register taking orders in the morning, and it seems like he knows everyone's name and regular order. His knowledge speeds up the line while still making every customer feel special.

You can start learning about your customers' preferences by observation. Take mental notes about what your customers like. If you use a customer relationship management (CRM) system, you can even record those preferences in the computer so they're easier to remember.


Tip #5: The Partner Technique

You'll have better luck serving angry customers if you make them feel like you're on their side. This is called the Partner Technique.

Here are some examples of using partner behaviors:

  • Shift your body language so you're both facing the problem together
  • Listen carefully to customers so they feel heard
  • Use collaborative words like "We" and "Let's"

It's hard to be upset at someone who wants to help us. Most customers naturally calm down when they realize you are listening to their issue and trying to be helpful.


Tip #6: Take a Deep Breath

We experience an instinctive reaction to angry customers.

Called the fight or flight response, we either naturally want to argue with an angry customer (fight) or try to get away from them (flight). The trouble is we aren't supposed to do either.

You can counteract this natural instinct by recognizing the symptoms and then taking a deep breath. That deep breath gives you just a moment to pause and make a better decision.


Tip #7: Give it Some Extra Shine

I learned this tip from one of my clients, a plumbing company whose plumbers use a very effective customer service technique. They always take care to clean up the area surrounding their repair work so it has a little extra shine. This small step creates a positive impression for three reasons.

  • Plumbing repairs are often necessary because of a leak or some other mess, so this extra service saves their customers some effort.
  • Plumbing problems can be very stressful, so putting some extra shine on the repair helps the customer quickly feel better.
  • Cleaning up the area spotlights the plumber's high level of workmanship, giving the customer the confidence that the repair was done correctly.

Not all of us regularly clean up messes as a part of our job, but there are ways we can put some extra shine on the work we do. Find that opportunity and you'll stand out too!


Take Action

Now it's time to pick at least one of these tips and try it! Please let me know how it goes. You can leave a comment or contact me with your feedback. 

You can get more tips like these by signing up for my Customer Service Tip of the Week newsletter. It's exactly what it sounds like: one tip via email, once per week.

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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.

Last month, I wrote that guest bookings had suddenly slowed at The Overlook. Our property manager called at the beginning of June with a new problem.

The Overlook was too hot inside and she was having trouble renting it to guests. The cabin can get to 80 degrees or hotter inside when the weather turns warm. Even worse, the cabin develops a distinctive, "musty cabin" smell when the inside temperature rises too high.

Our cabin doesn't have air conditioning, so our property manager wanted us to consider adding central air. As an alternative, she thought we could add window ac units to each bedroom.

If this problem sounds familiar, it's because it is. We went through the same exercise last year. At the time, we thought the problem was solved.

Many businesses encounter recurring problems. Here's how we handled this one.

Step 1: Know Your History

Start by checking to see if the problem has already been solved.

Harried employees quickly forget decisions made last year, last month, or even last week. Do you remember what we decided at last Monday's meeting? Yeah, me neither.

Employees come and go, too. New employees often think they are the first ones to encounter an issue, without realizing their predecessor kept copious notes on how to handle it.

And some managers are too eager to put their own stamp on something. They change for the sake of change, without first understanding why something was done a certain way.

Forgetting your history can be expensive and wasteful. 

For example, it would cost $600 (on the low end) to put window ac units in each bedroom at The Overlook. Adding central air conditioning would cost at least $5,000. Given our recent sales slump, it might be tempting to spend that money on a quick fix without verifying we'd get a reasonable return.

We knew we had already found a solution to the heat problem at The Overlook last year. So we decided to check on that first before deciding to spend any more money.


Step 2: Check the Procedure

It's always a good idea to ensure the existing procedure is being followed before implementing anything new. Existing procedures can represent a known solution to a problem. 

Unfortunately, procedures aren't always rigorously followed. People develop poor habits. A new employees comes onboard and isn't properly trained. Infrequently needed procedures are simply forgotten.

We had an existing procedure for dealing with the heat at The Overlook:

  1. Close the blinds during the day to keep the hot sun out.
  2. Turn the ceiling fans to summer mode. 
  3. Put window fans in the bedroom windows.

Two of the three steps were not being followed when we checked. The blinds had been left open and the window fans were still in the closet where we had stored them for the winter.

Our property manager followed the remaining two steps and the cabin quickly cooled. The inside temperature was a nice 72 degrees on a recent weekend when we had guests.

Better yet, we quickly picked up several more guest bookings. This puts us back on track after a slightly slow May.


Step 3: Follow-up

If an existing procedure breaks down once, it's reasonable to assume it will break down again without reinforcement. You can help prevent this with some timely follow-up.

Sally and I need to accept some responsibility for the heat issue at The Overlook.

We learned long ago that adopting our property manager's standard procedures makes things run more smoothly. The company oversees more than 40 cabins, which makes it difficult to keep track of a procedure that's only used in one particular cabin for a few months a year.

It makes sense for us to remind our property manager about the heat abatement procedure the next time it starts getting warm.

Following these same steps can save you a lot of grief when things go wrong. It's tough enough to solve a problem one time, let alone solving it over and over again!

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Have you ever encountered a customer who had that "lost" look?

There's something about their facial expression and body language that tells you they are having trouble finding their way. You probably made a difference in their experience if you seized the moment and offered them assistance.

What if I told you there were many more opportunities like this, but we don't often see them?

There are customers who need extra help, but we don't realize it. There are opportunities to go the extra mile, but we don't see them. There are even clear signals that can help us prevent service failures, but we miss them.

I recently did an interview with Investors Business Daily to share some tricks for improving your powers of observation. Here is some more details on what I shared, plus another one of my favorite exercises.

Change Your Lens

It's easy to get locked into one perspective.

In her book, What Great Brands Do, brand leadership expert Denise Lee Yohn shares a story about a fast food chain with dirty stores that were a real turnoff to customers. Executives weren't aware of this issue because they didn't look through the lens of a customer when they visited various locations.

So Yohn gave the executives an assignment. Each one, including the CEO, had to visit one of their locations, go into the restroom, and sit on the toilet.

It was an eye-opening experience. The chain's executives suddenly realized exactly how dirty the stores had become. The exercise forced them to see the stores the way a customer would.

Experiencing your product or service the way a customer would is one way to change your lens. Another way is to literally move yourself to a different location.

Here's a picture I took from Badwater Basin in Death Valley, the lowest point in North America at 280 feet below sea level. 

From this perspective, there's not much to see. The landscape looks desolate, even boring, with the faint outline of some mountains off in the distance. What you can't see in the picture is it was also 113 degrees Fahrenheit.

Here's the same landscape from a different perspective. This picture was taken from a vantage point 5,000 feet above the valley.

The sweeping view is quite beautiful. The white swirls you see are salt flats, which create quite a contrast with the red earth. It's also nearly 30 degrees cooler up here.


Pause and Reflect

We can sometimes get locked in to a particular assignment, which causes us to miss something else entirely. 

Here's a short video that illustrates the concept.

selective attention test - YouTube

Most people who watch this video accomplish only one of two things. They either correctly count the number of times the team in white passes the basketball, or they observe the other thing. It's tough to do both.

This explains how servers in a busy restaurant can forget to refill our drinks, or a repair technician can forget to call us back. There's a good chance they got locked into other activities and missed something obvious.

You can learn more about selective attention from The Invisible Gorilla, by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. Their research is truly amazing.

The cure to the selective attention problem is to take periodic breaks where you step back from whatever you are working on and look at the big picture.

For example, I review my calendar and project planner on a daily basis to identify my top priorities. I also do a more comprehensive review once per week where I update all of my action plans. This prevents me from missing an assignment that's about to come do or forgetting to follow-up with a client.


Find Something New

My wife, Sally, and I visited a well-known winery in Napa Valley last November. The tasting menu featured a grape we had never heard of, Sauvignon Black.

Our host gave us a puzzled look when we asked about it. "Do you mean Sauvignon Blanc," she asked?

No, we really were asking about Sauvignon Black. It turned out the tasting menu had a typo and it really was supposed to be Sauvignon Blanc, a popular grape used to make white wine. Our host sheepishly admitted the same menu had been in the tasting room for two months, and nobody had caught the error!

You can help avoid situations like this by playing a little game.

Take a walk through your store, office, or wherever you work. While you are walking, try to spot something you've never noticed before. You'll be surprised at what you see!

I like to do this exercise in my neighborhood. I'll take a walk around the block or down to my neighborhood park, and try to see something I've never noticed. I notice something new every time I try this exercise.


Additional Resources

You can learn more about improving your powers of observation from this short video on LinkedIn Learning. 

Improving your powers of observation from Innovative Customer Service Techniques by Jeff Toister

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The International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) held its annual Global Contact Center Awards party this past May.

Gopher Sport won the 2018 award for Best Small Contact Center. (Contact centers with fewer than 75 agents are eligible.) It specializes in selling sports equipment to schools for physical education and athletic programs and prides itself on friendly service.

The company is a client of mine and I've been consistently impressed with the customer care team and it's commitment to service. Beth Gauthier-Jenkin, Gopher Sport's Vice President of Customer Care, shared some insight into what makes her team so special.

Q: What is Gopher Sport’s customer service vision?

"Our CEO established the service vision about 5 years ago, which is to 'be the easiest company to do business with'.

"Our plain-language vision has served us well because its meaning is clear. As a company, we often use it in day-to-day conversations as we’re making decisions, asking each other: 'Does this direction, decision, etc., make us the easiest company to do business with?' Sometimes the answer is 'no,' and we have to rethink our plans."


Q: What do you believe sets your contact center apart in winning this award?

"We’ve had a customer-focused mindset for 70+ years.

"Our previous CEO, now Chairman of the Board, Joel Jennings, instilled a deep sense of customer commitment in our organization before differentiating with customer experience was the hot topic. 

"Company DNA aside, we’ve gotten good at balancing most aspects of contact center effectiveness. We’ve recognized the diverse gifts, skills, and aptitudes within our team and aligned them with key areas of performance and leadership. We’ve been able to lead, coach, and educate team members well. We’ve optimize resources through workforce management. We’ve used continuous improvement and performance management methods effectively. Many wins in these varied areas due to this diverse group of gifted people. 

"Lastly, we’re committed to continuous learning. That’s why we’ve soaked up so much knowledge from you Jeff!"


Q: How has the rest of the organization supported the contact center (and vice-versa)?

"The entire organization supports our Unconditional 100% Satisfaction Guarantee. 

"Unified support of this customer-focused philosophy, although the right thing to do, isn’t always easy on other teams. For example, large returns and product replacements can be negatives for our Product teams when it comes to maintaining margin targets. Our Quality team works to minimize quality issues and returns, but when customers can return product for any reason, at any time, this can be difficult. So as a company, we recognize and support the greater good, which is taking excellent care of our customers, versus maintaining team standards and KPI’s.

"The contact center supports others in the organization by working to balance customer needs with business needs. For example, we’ve partnered with our Distribution Center to help balance their workload when it comes to order fulfillment. If we only complete order entry after inbound calls and emails are handled, they’d have no orders to ship until 2PM each day. We continuously look at how what we do impacts others and balance the best interest of the customer with business needs, when possible."


Q: What are some challenges you are working on now?

"We are really interested in ensuring customer insights and feedback are communicated across the organization to keep improving the experience.

"In the past, we’ve sent information to other teams in hopes it’s digestible and actionable, with little success. This is our biggest challenge right now. We have to find ways to ensure the customer is heard, across the company. It seems like this should be easy, unfortunately, technology limits and resource constraints sometimes get in the way. We have to figure this out!

"We also continue to focus on attracting and retaining talented team members. The insights you’ve provided on an improved approach to onboarding and training our newest team members has been a game-changer. Modifying our approach has helped us take better care of these hard working people who want to be successful. This will continue to evolve. We have to keep improving in this area so we have the best people caring for our customers."


Q: How has the customer service assessment we did helped your contact center? 

"This could be an entirely separate discussion!

"It helped us understand our strengths and opportunities in such a clear, straight-forward way. Considering how we grow and improve can be overwhelming, so the prioritized list provided in the assessment was key. The assessment also provided a clear line of sight to key areas which ensure we’re aligned with our service vision.

"In areas we’re missing the mark, the assessment gave us practical, easy-to-implement action items so we become better aligned with the vision. The focus on hiring for culture fit is our biggest priority, and implementing your suggested improvements will continue to yield positive results and transform how we hire."

(Note: you can find more information on the assessment here.)

Winning this prestigious award was a big achievement for Gauthier-Jenkin and the rest of the Customer Care team. What's most striking is they aren't about to rest on their laurels. The entire team is focused on continuously building its service culture.

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I have the honor of speaking at the NorthEast Contact Center Forum conference in Foxborough, Massachusetts later today.

My first contact center job was in Massachusetts. In fact, I worked at three in total while living in Mass, so this conference is a homecoming of sorts for me. The experience taught me a lot of lessons that are still useful today.

This post is a look back on what I learned from those jobs.

This is likely what I looked like when I started working on contact centers.

Fawcett Energy: Hire the Right People

It was the summer of 1995, and I need a job—fast. 

A job offer fell through at the last moment. Desperate to find a way to pay my rent, I responded to a newspaper ad titled, "Talented Talkers." 

It was an outbound telemarketing job for Cambridge-based Fawcett Energy. My role consisted of cold calling families on Cape Cod and trying to sell them home heating oil. If the person said they didn't have an oil furnace, I next tried to pitch them on a new sealcoating for their driveway. "Gotta keep the boys working in the summer!"

When that struck out, my last pitch was a lawn greening service. It's amazing how many people don't have lawns, or so they say.

The owner, Red Fawcett, took me to lunch on my first day and I remember being impressed with him. He seemed like a successful business person who took an interest in employees.

But I was instantly miserable. Cold calling just wasn't my thing. I cringed before each call.

My first evening on the job, the computer dialed the home phone for one of Fawcett's competitors. Oh boy did I get it good from them. "Hey honey!" said the man who answered the phone to his wife. "Some kid from Fawcett is calling us. Do we need a new home heating oil supplier?!" 

I heard peels of laughter before they hung up on me.

The biggest lesson I learned is you need to hire people who will love to do what you ask them to do. A lot of people are like me in that they end up working in a contact center just because they need a job.

A coworker seemed like a natural. He shrugged off each rejection knowing it was just a matter of time before he got a sale. He was the type of person Fawcett needed to hire, not me.

Fortunately, I soon landed a three month contract doing market research for a company in Dublin, Ireland and left Fawcett after just two weeks. 


Aramark Uniform: Build Relationships & Be Resourceful

Two years later, I landed a job as a national account manager for Aramark's uniform division, located in Norwell.

My job was to grow sales within my assigned accounts and handle any customer service issues. We were also part of an inbound phone queue, so new customers calling our general line would get routed to whichever account manager happened to be available.

Here I learned the value of building relationships.

We were plagued by long lead times, uneven quality, and high prices. I had to soothe a lot of angry customers at first. Eventually, I learned how to anticipate my customers' needs and find ways to prevent problems and keep them happy.

I also built internal relationships, making friends in accounting, finance, merchandising, and other departments. This was essential because the fastest way to get things done was often to go straight to the person doing it. 

Resourcefulness was another lesson. 

Our factory embroidered logos on uniforms for customers. We had a minimum order size of six since our smallest machine handled six at a time. The production team wanted to maximize efficiency, but this also meant turning away a lot of small orders.

This was a problem for me, since my biggest account had many small offices that only needed one or two uniforms at a time. The solution I pitched to the production team was to hold orders from multiple locations for an extra day or two until we had enough to meet the minimum. This kept both my customers and the production team happy.

Unfortunately, long lead times, quality issues, and high prices caught up with the company. Quite a few of us were eventually laid off.


Chadwicks of Boston: Experiment

Training was my passion, and Chadwicks represented an amazing opportunity.

Two weeks after getting laid off from Aramark, I found myself managing the training team for two contact centers, one in West Bridgewater and the other in Taunton.

This was during the dark ages of contact center management, when every interaction was tightly scripted and the most important metric for agents was talk time. Employees knew they would get in trouble if their average call length went too long.

Fortunately, my boss let me try new experiments to see what worked.

One of my first projects was to re-write our new hire training curriculum. I had heard about some accelerated learning techniques, such as whole-task training, and I convinced my boss to try them out. We immediately saw decreased training time and improved performance.

Another project focused on getting our sales agents to offer a branded credit card to pre-approved customers. The average acceptance rate was just 5 percent at the start of the project.

Some agents were successful on 40 percent or more of their pitches, so I decided to see what they were doing differently. Those lessons helped us quickly boost the acceptance rate from 5 to 20 percent.


Applying Lessons Learned

A colleague once remarked, "There's a big difference between having twenty years of experience and having one year experienced twenty times."

Her point was that we should all be learning from our daily experiences. We risk getting stuck in a rut and watching the world pass us by if we don't.

I continue to share a lot of these stories and examples today, while continuing to learn from my new experiences as well.

If you are attending the conference, please make sure you say "Hi." It will be great to see you there.

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