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Good Customer Service Pays Off in Tough Times

The newspapers are full of stories lately about the woes of retailers during this holiday season. No one is buying, stores are empty, prices are slashed (70% in some stores!). And yet, some retailers are doing quite well.

Check out a story in a recent Orlando Sentinel article titled, “Sales Aren’t That Bad.” The article highlights retailers who are enjoying a successful holiday season. There are a couple of quotes in the article that jump out:

“They credit factors such as knowledgeable sales staffs, unique offerings, and loyal customers for saving the season.”

“Those retailers that are competing (i.e. doing well) likely have done a good job connecting with their customers and carving out a niche.”

These companies are reaping the benefits of the work they’ve done all along to generate customer loyalty. When times are tough, we usually do business with companies we know, like, and trust. Price is certainly a factor, but trust is huge.

So, even though the economy is certainly challenging right now, it’s good to see that some companies are being rewarded for their long-term efforts.

I wish you all a very happy holiday, and I look forward to continuing our dialogue in the coming year!


Customer Service Mistake #5

This is the fifth in a series of five posts in response to a client’s question; “From your observations and consulting work, what do you think are the top customer service mistakes companies make?”

Mistake #5 – Tolerating poor service performance from employees at any level within the organization.

Companies allow poor performers to stay on the job for many reasons. First of all, if you fire them, you have to go through the hassle of hiring someone else. It’s easier to just ignore the problem. Second, some managers just don’t know about the poor performance. They’re not out there interacting with customers or their employees. They’re busy with other “important” things. Third (and this excuse is most prevalent), many managers think service performance is subjective, that it’s hard to accurately measure.

World-class service organizations don’t accept these excuses for letting poor (or even mediocre) service continue. They see the hassle of having to fill the slot vacated by the poor performer as preferable to the hassle of losing customers because of poor service. World-class organizations expect managers to know what’s going on and to coach employees who may not be living up to the company’s service standards. And world-class organizations recognize that while there is certainly some subjectivity in judging service performance, that’s not a valid excuse for ignoring problems. I often ask leaders if there is someone in their organization they would love to clone, and if there is someone they would be thrilled to have turn in his or her resignation. The answer is always an immediate “yes.” We know how to measure performance. We just need to be willing to address problems immediately, document outcomes, and hold people accountable for improvement.

Holding on to poor performers hurts our credibility as leaders. When I had to let somebody go as a manager at Disney World, I would lose sleep and agonize over it. Not only was I thinking about the person I was going to fire, but I also worried about the morale of the other employees. But, most of the time, when I finally did fire that employee, the others thanked me and asked why I had hung onto to the person for so long. Tolerating poor performance is good for no one.

There are five areas of accountability that have the greatest impact on service performance:


Whenever you see opportunities for improvement for an employee, take the time to coach. Word will spread faster than you can imagine if you do this consistently. If, for example, you notice an employee displaying negative physical posture or using a bored tone of voice on the telephone, taking a moment to correct the behavior and stressing why it is important to present a welcoming image is more effective in changing behavior than any training program. The immediacy of the feedback is the key (while remembering the old adage, “praise in public, coach in private).

When I was a relatively new supervisor at Walt Disney World, I received a call to meet then Walt Disney World Vice President Bob Matheison at a specific location on Main Street USA (such a call was rarely good news). As I walked up to Bob I saw him staring at one of the merchandise shops. “What do you see?” he asked.  I saw that a small pane of glass had been replaced, and that the installer had neglected to take the protective paper backing off of the glass. Although I did not install the glass, it was my job as supervisor to make sure that Main Street USA was “show ready” by the time the guests arrived. I missed this particular item. Bob talked about all of the effort Disney goes through to theme the show and that the “visual intrusion” I had missed compromised the show. It was a powerful coaching moment for me.

Peformance Appraisals

Preparing and delivering employee performance appraisals can be challenging, and the process is not usually a favorite leadership responsibility. But when done well, the employee performance appraisal can be a key tool in raising the bar of customer service. The problem I see most often is that the appraisal forms used in many organizations contain little or no reference to customer service.

Take a look at the performance appraisal forms used in your organization. Is service excellence merely a single rating point amongst thirty items, or is it clear that service is a priority? Do your forms for leadership appraisals require leaders to set specific service objectives for their areas of responsibility?

The forms, of course, are just pieces of paper. Leaders must be trained on how to conduct an effective performance appraisal in order for them to have the powerful impact they should have. It’s not easy to deliver an effective appraisal, but it’s vitally important.

Job Descriptions

Like the performance appraisal process, all job descriptions must evolve to significantly reflect the critical elements of the service improvement effort. Management job descriptions must reflect expectations regarding leading a service-driven organization. I’m not talking about a casual mention of service. It must be clear from reading your organization’s job descriptions that service excellence is a core expectation. Reviewing and changing job descriptions is mind-numbing work. Few organizations are willing to do it. Only those organizations willing to make a long-term commitment to service excellence will take on such an effort.


Who is moving ahead in your organization? There is probably no single decision that more clearly communicates what an organization values than deciding who gets promoted. It is one thing to say that those employees who live the values of the company are the ones who will move ahead. It is something else to ensure that “living the values” is truly a part of the promotion decision.

There are, of course, many factors that go into a promotion decision. If, however, being a customer service role model isn’t ingrained in the process, you are leaving to chance a powerful factor in developing and sustaining a culture of service excellence. In your company, what is the process for selecting individuals for promotion? Is it a carefully orchestrated process that ensures that those with the right mix of talents and skills are promoted, or is it a process that relies on contacts and connections? Instituting a rigorous system for succession planning is difficult, but it is another action that separates those companies that are truly committed to service excellence from those that simply want a quick fix.


Although this post is about not tolerating poor service performance, I would be remiss not to mention the importance of acknowledging excellent service performance by employees.

Organizations are always on the lookout for the reward/recognition program that will maximize employee performance. While these programs can be effective, it is important to know that a program can never take the place of a sincere thank you from the boss. If you want employees to exceed the expectations of your customers, it is vital that you recognize them when they perform in a manner that exceeds expectations. If you want employees to perform in a manner consistent with your service standards, it is vital that you notice when they do so and recognize their performance. There is a very real behavioral phenomenon called “extinction.” This occurs when we ignore performance of a desired behavior. If you desire responsiveness from employees, yet ignore them when they demonstrate excellent responsiveness, the behavior will eventually become extinct and performance will revert to previous levels (not necessarily bad, but not at the desired, higher level).

Studies have demonstrated that recognition has its greatest impact when it takes place immediately after the behavior. When employees do something special for a customer (external or internal), their emotions are elevated because they know they did something good. If the leader recognizes the employee while the emotion is still high, it dramatically increases the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated. The more time that passes, the less impact the recognition will have (although it may still be appreciated). The point is, don’t lose the magic of the moment when it comes to recognizing performance.

Concluding Comments

In previous blog posts I’ve mentioned my favorite leadership quote; but I think it bears repeating:

“Intolerable service exists when intolerable service is tolerated.”

If I had to pinpoint the number one reason many service improvement initiatives fail to achieve the desired objectives, it’s due to a lack of accountability. While the whole subject of holding people accountable has kind of a “controlling” ring to it, in reality a culture of accountability is liberating. When I know exactly what I’m held accountable for, I can focus my attention on what really matters and know how I’m doing. When accountability is unclear or non-existent, I’ll either make it up as I go along or do everything I can to stay off the radar screen. And both of those options are uncomfortable and limiting.

To avoid Customer Service Mistake #5, make sure that poor service performance is not tolerated.


Customer Service Mistake #4

This is the fourth in a series of five posts in response to a client’s question; “From your observations and consulting work, what do you think are the top customer service mistakes companies make?”

Customer Service Mistake #4 – Not making customer service a significant part of new-hire orientation as well as a part of ongoing training.

George Miliotis was the General Manager of the California Grill restaurant from the time it opened in 1995 until he left in 2002.  The California Grill is an upscale restaurant located at Walt Disney World.  George was (and still is) a big believer in training and education. Every new cast member attends the Disney “Traditions” orientation. George recognized, however, that it was his responsibility to support and supplement the education his cast members received. George spent 15-minutes every day educating all California Grill cast members (front-of-house and back-of-house). If he wasn’t there, the Assistant Manager conducted the training session.

Three topics were covered in these short sessions; wine, food, and service. George trained servers from all walks of life to be world-class food and wine experts. Every cast member on every shift knew how to describe all menu items in a way that highlighted the reason that it was special (menu items varied depending on season). George’s servers knew the perfect wine to accompany the meal a guest had ordered. Servers could describe the freshness of the tomatoes used in a way that would literally make your mouth water. George also discussed guest service issues, which included recognizing performance, providing showmanship tips (how to describe the wine list is truly an art), or anything else he felt deserved attention. The impact of these daily educational moments was impressive:

  •  Wine revenue represented 30%+ of total sales at the California Grill. Beverage sales in similar restaurants average only 10-15% of sales.
  • In 1999, the USA Today food critic wrote that the single best meal he had that year in the United States was at the California Grill.
  • 65% of the original staff (7-years at the time George left) were still with the restaurant. This is in an industry that averages nearly 200% turnover per year.

In 2002, George was asked to be the General Manager of new Darden Restaurants concept, Seasons 52, located in Orlando, Florida. He brought with him his approach to service and training, and Seasons 52 quickly became one of the hottest restaurants in Orlando, with outstanding food and customer service. They’ve since expanded to seven locations. A commitment to training has certainly paid off for them.

World-class service organizations like Seasons 52 look at training as an investment, not an expense. They see training as an ongoing opportunity to reinforce and perpetuate the organization’s values. Customer service is part of every training experience an employee goes through. I’m often asked how long Disney World’s cast member training program is. The answer is that it begins during the interview process and doesn’t end until you leave the company.

One of the key points in my last post was to ensure that the interview process models the organization’s values, since the applicant picks up clues about the true culture throughout the process. In this post, I’d like to discuss three areas of training that should include significant content relating to customer service.

New-Hire Orientation

Many organizations see new-hire training as a chore; something to get through so the new employee can get out there and start being productive. The new-hire orientations for these organizations usually include three topics:

  • Here’s what you get fired for.
  • Here’s who your bosses are.
  • Here are a bunch of confusing forms for you to sign (when you are least prepared to understand what they’re all about).

Then the new-hire is sent out to learn under fire and admonished to “come to me with any questions because my door is always open.” Training is completed; put a checkmark on the list.

If service excellence is to be a competitive differentiator, all new employees must understand what is expected of them from a service perspective. Review your new hire orientation. How much time is dedicated to customer service issues? 5-minutes? 15-minutes? If customer service is supposed to be a critical component of the culture, doesn’t it deserve more attention than a 5-15 minute overview? Effective new-hire orientation ensures:

  • The new-hire is proud of the organization – A new-hire should understand the organization’s legacy. He or she should understand the company’s history and the blood, sweat and tears that went into building it. They should know that the legacy is on the line with each and every interaction the employee has with a customer. When employees are proud of what they do and the organization they work for, they will usually go the extra mile when opportunities present themselves. Tell the stories of what made the company what it is.
  • he new-hire understands the “true product” – In order to get the highest level of performance, employees need to understand the value of what they do beyond the mechanics of the job. Most people want to know their work is meaningful to others. This is why Walt Disney World’s true product is not rides; it is “happiness.” First Citizens Bank’s true product is not financial services; it is “life-enhancing relationships.” BMW Canada’s true product is not a car; it is the “ultimate driving experience.” These companies use their training programs to communicate the true product.Imagine, for instance, being hired as a mechanic with a BMW Canada auto dealership. It is one thing to be told, “you fix cars.” It is something else to understand that you are part of creating the “ultimate driving experience.” In the latter, you are encouraged to help customers get the most from these very special cars.
  • The new-hire understands what is expected – One of the reasons for poor employee performance is a lack of clarity regarding expectations. When people don’t know what it takes to be successful, they do their best to simply stay out of trouble, or they just make it up as they go along. World-class service organizations communicate clear, consistent and non-negotiable service standards. In these organizations, the new employee has no doubt what is expected in regard to the delivery of service and they know exactly what excellence looks like.

On-The-Job Training

Who conducts the on-the-job training in your organization? Are those employees selected to train others simply because they are working the same shift or are they truly role models of your service culture? Being selected as a trainer should be an honor. It should signify that, not only is the employee technically expert, he/she embodies the values of the organization.

Organizations that create and sustain a culture of service excellence carefully select their trainers using specific criteria that includes modeling excellent service. These trainers are, in fact, trained on training others. They are taught how to put together a training plan, how to adapt training to different learning styles, and how to incorporate the organization’s values in the training.

What about your organization’s training materials? Do instructor guides, training manuals, participant materials, etc, include specific content relating to customer service? Organizations that simply leave the content “up to the trainer” are taking the chance of the service message eroding over time. Make sure the service message is reflected (and up to date) in all media used in on-the-job training.

Ongoing Training

Formalized refresher training on customer service should occur yearly at a minimum. Such training can take place in a variety of formats such as best practice forums, e-learning, or simply straightforward training that continues to build on your organization’s service approach. Committing to ongoing formal training demonstrates that service is not a flavor of the month initiative, but an ongoing organizational strategy. If it has been a year or more since specific, formal customer service training occurred in your organization, it is time to bring the troops back together.

Service content should be included in every training opportunity an employee experiences. If you’re training employees on a new piece of equipment, connect it to your service standards and describe how the new equipment impacts service. If you’re training employees on a new product offering, use your service standards as a foundation for the discussion. The important thing is to constantly reinforce the organization’s commitment to excellent customer service.

Concluding comments

If you want to build a service culture, service training plays a vital role. Of course, technical training is, and will continue to be, an important part of any training program. Most companies, however, focus strictly on the technical skills and ignore the service culture skills, thinking that employees will simply catch on. The poor state of customer service in many companies demonstrates that many employees don’t catch on. World class companies, on the other hand, ensure that employees:

  1. Are proud of the organization
  2. Understand the true product
  3. Understand what is expected

To avoid Customer Service Mistake #4, make customer service a significant part of new-hire orientation as well as a part of ongoing training.


Customer Service Mistake #3

This is the third in a series of five posts in response to a client’s question; “From your observations and consulting work, what do you think are the top customer service mistakes companies make?”

Customer Service Mistake #3 – Hiring the Wrong People

If an ideal employee is a company’s most valuable asset, then the wrong employee is its albatross, its anchor. So, why do companies often hire the wrong person? I think it is because they never really determine what they’re looking for, or wait until they need someone before they start looking, and therefore hire quickly from a panic mode. I’ve had hiring managers say to me, “I just needed the body.” And that’s exactly what they got. When a company hires the wrong person, everything gets harder. These same managers readily admit it would have been better to wait, pay overtime to cover the void, and ensure the right person is ultimately hired.

How do some companies get their people to be so friendly? The answer is that they hire friendly people. You can’t teach someone to be friendly, empathetic, detail-oriented, etc. Those are “talents” that someone either has or doesn’t have by the time they’re old enough for a job. Admittedly, someone might go through a life-changing experience that alters their life view, but it’s not a good idea to count on that happening. While skills, such as running a register, driving a bus, etc. can be taught, the applicant must bring the desired talents to the table. Through training, coaching, and experience those talents can be enhanced, but they can’t be taught.

I know what some of you are thinking – “There aren’t enough good people out there! I can’t find qualified candidates! I really do need that warm body!” That’s a cop out. In every industry there are companies who find and hire stellar employees (without paying any more than their competitors). The difference is that those organizations are committed to hiring right fit talent and they keep the applicant pipeline full. They are always on the lookout for potential outstanding employees and don’t wait until a position is open before they start looking. Now, you can’t legally interview someone for a job you don’t have, but you can certainly be on the lookout for talent. If you’re looking for a service representative and receive excellent service from someone in a similar position, offer your business card in case the person is looking for a career change. Anytime the local newspaper announces a business closing or layoffs, meet with the company’s HR department to identify potential, high performing applicants. Keep the pipeline full!

So, world-class service organizations hire for talent. They clearly identify the talents needed to excel in the job and are committed to only hiring those who possess those talents. They don’t rush, they don’t panic, they don’t settle – they find the right person.

Keep in mind that the person who can flourish in one business environment, though, may not be a good fit at another company with different values. I’ve been in wonderful high-end restaurants with quiet, decorous atmospheres where my server, though technically good, was off-the-wall bubbly and chatty. It just wasn’t appropriate for that restaurant. But he might be a wonderful employee at a less formal restaurant or business where that kind of behavior is appropriate. It’s all about knowing what talents you’re looking for and designing your recruiting and interviewing practices around those talents.

 What can you do to increase the likelihood of hiring the right person?

  •  Learn the unique qualities of your best performers – Identify those employees you would most like to clone (wouldn’t that be nice?). Spend time with those individuals in order to understand what makes them successful in their jobs and differentiates them from their peers. Observe their behaviors as they do the job and contrast those behaviors with those of average performers. Ask them about their thought process in accomplishing their duties.This information becomes the foundation for designing a thorough behavioral interview for the job. While there are some wonderful organizations that can help with this process, such as Profiles International and Gallup, it is invaluable for you as a leader to personally understand the qualities that lead to high degrees of success in those positions that directly report to you. It takes time and effort, but selecting the right people is the top responsibility of any manager.


  • Enlist the assistance of your top performers in the interview process – Since you want more employees with the qualities possessed by your top performers, let your top performers spend some time with candidates. You will clearly need to conduct some coaching with these individuals, discussing the questions you would like them to ask and the aspects of the job you want them to discuss with the candidate. The point is that they know what it takes to do the job in an excellent manner and can communicate the realities of the job to the candidate in addition to helping you decide if the candidate possesses the qualities you’re looking for.


  • Model the organization’s service philosophy during the interview – Training actually begins the moment an applicant says, “I’m here to apply for a job.” Throughout the interview the applicant is picking up clues regarding the culture of the company. There are no second chances with this. You can discuss your corporate culture with the applicant, but if it doesn’t match their actual experience, the experience will prevail. For instance, if responsiveness is said to be valued, and an applicant is treated as an interruption or the interview process seems disjointed and inefficient, this will tell the applicant the true culture regardless of what you say. The process must be carefully orchestrated, and everyone must know exactly what to do and say when someone announces, “I’m here to apply for a job.”

While the actions outlined above are time consuming, they are far less time consuming than being in constant crisis mode due to an “employee revolving door.” The big payoff comes over time, when consistent application of a disciplined selection process results in a reputation for hiring individuals who possess the qualities that deliver on the promise of your organization’s brand.

To avoid Customer Service Mistake #3, create an interview process designed to identify those applicants who possess the talents you are looking for.


Customer Service Mistake #2

This is the second in a series of five posts in response to a client’s question; “From your observations and consulting work, what do you think are the top customer service mistakes companies make?”

Customer Service Mistake #2 – Designing processes for the company’s convenience, not the customer’s.

How many times do you find yourself shaking your head in frustration as you deal with a company’s non customer-friendly processes? My guess is you can name at least five frustrating experiences you’ve had in the last week. Too many organizations design their processes for their own convenience with little regard for the inconveniences their customers suffer.

Furniture delivery is my favorite example of this issue. When you buy a new sofa, the company gives you a window of time for its delivery – Friday between noon and 5 p.m. So, how many of us are able to sit around for five hours waiting for the delivery truck to perhaps arrive (because sometimes it doesn’t)? Imagine if you told the company, “Just have the truck wait in the driveway for me, I’ll be home sometime between noon and 5 p.m.” How open do you think they’d be to that suggestion?

Doctor appointments provide another frustrating example most people can relate to. Physicians and schedulers stack appointments, so if you have a 1:00 appointment, you’re not getting anywhere near the doctor until at least 1:45 or 2:00. The process is designed around the physician, not the patient. No wonder so many people’s blood pressure tests high. They’ve been sitting in the waiting room being ignored, not told what is going on, and getting more and more stressed.

On the positive side, let’s look at the airline industry. What? A positive airline example? One airline processes that has dramatically improved is the flight check-in process. Years ago, all travelers had to wait in line, sometimes for hours, to check in. Now, we have the option of checking in quickly at kiosks or completing the entire transaction in our offices or homes using online check-in. Airlines have a long, long way to go to improve overall service, but the convenience of the check-in process certainly works in favor of passengers. Having to pay for checked bags; well, that’s another story!

Many banks are now extending their hours, recognizing that 9-5 isn’t always the most convenient time for customers to do their banking. Opening earlier, closing later, offering weekend hours, and online banking are all positive approaches to looking at the banking experience through the customer’s lens and focusing on the customer’s convenience.

Where do improvement opportunities lie? I find that many companies know exactly which of their processes are designed for their own convenience. The problem is that they choose not to do anything about them. The most important element of dealing with Mistake #2 is a firm commitment to eliminating customer frustrations. If you really don’t know what frustrates your customers, you likely have all of the tools you need to find out:

  • Go back through your customer surveys. What themes are there regarding customer frustrations? Lots of organizations do customer satisfaction surveys; few companies use the data for improvement.
  • Hold employee focus groups about what processes generate customer complaints. Your employees usually take the heat for those complaints and are only too happy to share them with management.
  • If your company has a call center, spend a couple of hours listening in on customer calls. It’s an eye-opening experience that will generate plenty of information about what customers like and don’t like.
  • Talk with new customers; talk with regular customers. Get their opinions on what processes can be improved.

Most importantly, take action. Start with one process and focus on improving the customer experience and the customer’s convenience of dealing with your organization. When you’ve improved that process, go on to the next one. With a clear focus and unwavering commitment to improvement, you can differentiate your organization from all of the others that cause customers to shake their heads in frustration. Imagine if after dealing with your company, customers ask, “Why can’t other organizations do it like you do?” And imagine if you can honestly answer, “Because we’ve designed our operation through your lens, and for your convenience.”

To avoid Customer Service Mistake #2, design your processes for the customer’s convenience.