Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Teaching Customer Service

Is customer service teachable?  As I posed this question to a coworker, she used a great word that I felt applied to customer service in the way that training or teaching doesn't.   The words training and teaching often have the implication of a one-time class.  While there may be follow up to a one-time class, an end to the training itself is usually very clear.  For most topics, by the end of the training period, learners should be able to perform the task.  But customer service is skill that is developed over time and is different for every individual.  Because customer service expectations are different for every individual and organization, teaching customer service may require a career-long effort.  My coworker, who has been in the profession for over 25 years, understands customer service and applied the more far-reaching term of coaching*  to this training topic.

It stands to reason that customer service may come more naturally to some than others - but that doesn't mean that expectations should be different for every employee.  There are a multitude of customer service faux pas (including apathy, laziness, etc.) but the most complex customer situations usually involve gray areas.  Any of these customer service situations can be resolved through positive coaching strategies throughout an employee's career.  The following is what I consider to be absolutely necessary in order to create a customer oriented environment.

Google defines customer service as the assistance and advice provided by a company to those people who buy or use its products or services.  It should go without saying that most organizations strive for good customer service outcomes in order to yield customer loyalty.  Libraries, too, have jumped on the customer service bandwagon, and for good reason - consumers go where they are treated well.  But customer service expectations and beliefs on how to achieve good customer service outcomes vary from organization to organization.  No organization is exempt from having bad days, but I suspect that there is a common reason why these companies are frequently reported as having the best customer service with an average of only 3.6% of negative feedback.

If you've been a customer of one of these companies, then you may be able to pinpoint their best qualities.  It's easy to make broad generalizations about giving good customer service, but I find that if you don't explain what your expectation of good customer service is, then the results will vary by employee.

Chik-fil-a has certainly had its share of bad publicity, but it consistently ranks high in customer service.  According to a former employee, their customer service standards are high and their expectations are very specific.  If you've ever visited one of these fast food restaurants, you may have noticed the "my pleasure" after every "thank you" or that employees come outside the building to work the drive-thru on busy days.  These specifics are what keep customer loyalty high.

But cookie cutter responses like "my pleasure" may not be your cup of tea.  Call centers have realized that, when it comes to good customer service, finding a common thread with the customer will increase the likelihood that the transaction goes smoothly.  Finding the common thread is what separates the good companies from the bad ones.  You know the bad ones; the call centers that stick to a script and get flustered when you ask a question that cannot be answered without veering from the routine.  If you've ever used a call center and heard "this call may be monitored for quality control," then there is a chance that your transaction is being used as a learning experience - a coaching experience, actually.

So where do libraries fall in all this?  It all depends on your library, the community standards, and the needs of the customers.  A customer service policy that works in one library may not work in another - but there should be a customer service policy that clearly defines the expectations of each staff member to ensure quality outcomes for each customer.

With customer service, you may choose to coach your staff throughout their career instead of training them once and expecting the best.  Here are some steps to follow to aid you in customer service coaching:

1.  Before you begin, make sure that you are a good role model.  If your customer service skills are lacking, then your employees will follow suit.  "Do as I say, not as I do" is never a good philosophy - ever.

2.  Make sure that no one is exempt from customer service coaching.  Those that give exemplary service may have some tips and tricks to share.  They may also enjoy learning something as well.

3.   Coaching can be done one-on-one (tailored to meet the needs of the individual staff member) or as a group.  If group coaching is not successful for some, work in one-on-one coaching sessions into quarterly meetings. If you are not currently meeting with your staff just to have a conversation with them once in a while, then now is a good time to start.

4.   Role playing is not really a good idea.  It is a false environment that generates fear when a learning environment should be safe.  Discussions are usually a good way to go.  You can use scenarios to trigger responses from the group and use the information to shape their ideas of how customer service should be.

5.  Rinse and Repeat.  A good manager will know the strengths and weaknesses of their staff and should be able to develop discussion topics and form appropriate groups to maximize a learning environment.

Quality customer service is a skill that one acquires through practice.  Occasionally, staff members may suffer from customer service fatigue and may become jaded.  The moment we stop thinking of our customers in a positive manner is the instant we begin to give poor customer service.  Coaching may be an opportunity to prevent that breaking point.

*I should mention that this coworker frowns upon overusing the word coaching due to the negative connotation that can be derived from repeated use.

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