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Three Tips for Starting a Service Improvement Initiative

Starting a customer service improvement initiative is challenging for most organizations. I’ve seen countless leaders so frustrated over where to begin that they don’t begin at all. The question of how to get things started freezes some initiatives in their tracks, and what could’ve been a successful improvement initiative never gets out of the gate.

Here are three ideas for getting started:

  1. Decide what metrics you want to affect with the initiative – A bank might focus on “share of wallet” metrics, or customer retention. A hospital can focus on patient satisfaction scores or market share. A restaurant might look at average ticket numbers or customer referrals.The point is to decide what business results you’re trying to achieve with the service initiative. The metrics provide you with a North Star for decisions you make, and they keep you on course when things get rough (which they will).
  2. Define the desired customer experience – Without defining what the customer experience is supposed to be, you are left at the mercy of each individual employee’s opinion of what it should be. There would likely be significant differences in those opinions.A good place to begin crafting a definition is to determine what you would want customers to say to a friend or family member after any experience with your organization. “They were so efficient;” “They made me feel safe;” “Everyone was so knowledgeable” are all potential statements that would indicate you’re creating the experience you want to create.Then (and this is vital), determine what behaviors need to occur in order for customers to say those things. If a healthcare organization wants patients to talk about how efficient the organization is, then employees had better keep patients informed, manage expectations, and show respect for the patient’s time.
  3. Review the success factors of previous successful initiatives – Most organizations have had success in implementing new processes, standards, or approaches. Your company might have created and sustained a safety culture in response to problems that had plagued the organization in the past. How was that initiative successfully executed? What were the steps? Follow the same path with your customer service improvement plans. Reviewing past successes can at least get you started with creating a plan.Some might say, however, that an issue like safety is easily measurable, whereas customer service is a bit (or a lot) more subjective. While this is true to a certain extent, the organization still had to take certain actions to improve its safety record and, therefore, change the culture. While the initiative may be different, the process can be the same.

Certainly there are other actions that can help with launching a successful service initiative, but these three are a good starting point. Looking at these three elements help you to define what you’re trying to accomplish and to determine what can be done to increase the likelihood of success.

And, most importantly, these three elements can unfreeze you and get things moving forward.

The Price of Poor Service

A few weeks back, I posted an article titled, Customer Service and Twitter, in which I focused on how our customers can instantly let people know about their experience with us.

A recent example of the power of social media is the popular YouTube video, “United Breaks Guitars.” If you don’t know the back story, here’s the condensed version:

Musician Dave Carroll was on a United flight and he, along with other passengers, watched as baggage handlers manhandled bags and threw Carroll’s $3,500 Taylor guitar on the ground causing about $1,200 in damage. United initially refused to pay for the repair, inspiring Carroll to compose a song about the experiece.

The video went viral and to date has been viewed 3,691,735 times.

United eventually handled Carroll’s claim, but look at the cost in bad press, mistrust, embarrassment, and increased scrutiny from passengers. What could’ve been handled quickly and professionally turned into a PR nightmare for United. For more on the story, check out an early article on the situation as it appeared in the Orlando Sentinel.

Similar to the way I ended the post about Twitter, it’s worth reflecting on this question in every contact we have with every customer: “How would I feel and how would my company feel if this interaction ended up on YouTube?”

By the way, United Airlines is now using the video in their customer service training!

Respond Verus React

I just finished a series of customer service programs for the employees of TWC Services, a commercial equipment service company. A branch manager made a comment during one of the sessions that made me stop and think about how businesses and employees deal with challenging situations – customer service issues or otherwise.

The manager, Jim Oakley, said to the group, “When dealing with any situation, it’s important to understand the difference between responding and reacting. When we respond,” Jim continued, “there is some thought behind our actions. When we react, we’re just making it up.”

Great stuff!

Jim’s comments made me reflect on those times when I handled a problem poorly. In those cases, I may have panicked a bit, grasping at solutions that might work or maybe saying something I shouldn’t have said (or not said in the way I said it). Those times that I handled a problem well was usually due to responding in a way that included some thought, consideration, or experience.

For an extreme example of the difference between responding and reacting, let’s look at the example of Sully Sullenberger, pilot of the plane that made the extraordinary water landing on the Hudson River, resulting in 155 passengers saved from what could’ve been a tragic end. His actions provide a great example of an effective response. Listening to the cockpit radio dialogue, it’s clear that Captain Sullenberger responded with calm, well-trained, experience-laced, actions. Although he had to make quick decisions, he didn’t lose control of his emotions or of the situation.

On the other hand, most of us have heard replays of 911 recordings in which the caller was obviously reacting to an emergency situation. The caller’s panic is evident as the 911 operator attempts to get pertinent information in order to assist. Valuable time is lost as the operator tries to calm the caller down.

The challenges most of us face in our businesses are rarely life and death as they are with an aircraft in trouble or a 911 emergency call. But, how we handle challenging situations can mean the difference between a loyal customer and one who vows never to do business with us again.

So, what does all of this mean? It means that we need to set ourselves and our people up to respond instead of react. Here are a few questions to ask:

  • When an employee is unsure of the answer to a customer’s question, does he or she feel confident in how to get the right answer? How to get the right answer quickly?
  • Do our employees know exactly what to do in a service recovery situation? Do we have a service recovery strategy?
  • Have our employees been trained in ways to calm an upset customer?
  • Do we discuss “what if?” scenarios in team meetings, so that employees have an opportunity to consider challenging situations while in a safe environment?
  • If a customer situation seems to be spiraling out of control, do our employees know how to get a supervisor immediately involved?

And by the way, if you’re an employee in an organization, simply change the wording of the questions so that they focus on your own ability to deal with the issues. If your answer to any of the questions is “no,” take responsibility for rectifying that knowledge gap – if for no other reason than your own peace of mind.

Not too long ago, I was on the receiving end of an employee’s reactions to a situation. I was in an electronics store looking for portable speakers for my laptop computer. “Can you tell me where to find portable laptop speakers?” I asked. “I’m not sure if we have them,” was the employee’s curt reply. I took a deep breath – “If you did, do you know where they’d be?” In a bit of a huff, he stopped what he was doing (stocking a shelf) and led me up and down several aisles as he looked for the speakers; something I could’ve done myself.

Stumbling upon a small display of portable speakers, I discovered quite a price difference in the various brands and asked the employee what the difference in quality was (I don’t know why I asked – I should’ve known better). “Well,” he said, “the more expensive ones are obviously better.” He clearly didn’t know; he was simply reacting to my question.

I ended up finding another employee who knew something about the speakers, and I made an informed purchase of speakers that did everything I needed them to do. He was able to effectively respond to my needs with two well thought out questions and a knowledge of the differences in the brands. I’ll definitely look for that helpful employee if I visit the store again.

While the difference between the words “react” and “respond” might appear subtle, the difference is actually quite profound. It’s a difference that leads customer frustration or leads to customer delight.

Getting Back to Basics

When I first meet with a client organization’s executives to discuss a planned customer service initiative, it’s not uncommon for the group to be overwhelmed with the scope of work to be done. I often see the “deer in the headlights” looks on their faces as the leaders wonder what they’ve gotten themselves into.

The problem is that most people (including me) tend to overcomplicate things by thinking that all of the elements of the initiative need to be done right now. They don’t. Like Stephen Covey says in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, we need to put first things first.

And the first thing is to agree to keep things simple. If you overcomplicate a service initiative (which is easy to do) or try to rush things, you’re setting yourself and your organization up for burnout and disappointment.

One way to keep things simple and on track is to continually reflect on what the service initiative is all about. It’s like taking a step back and taking a few deep breaths as you put everything into perspective.

At the risk of oversimplifying things, I’d like to provide a perspective of customer service from a customer’s point of view. While simple, I think you’ll find that this perspective applies to pretty much any organization’s customers when you get to the essence of what they want from you.

 As your customer, what do I want from you?

1. I want you to know what you’re doing.

2. I want you to be efficient while you’re doing it.

3. I want you to be nice to me.

Really, that’s it. Peeling away all of the stuff that confuses the issue, these are things I want as a customer. Let’s look at each one (again, from the customer’s perspective):

Know What You’re Doing – I expect you to do the job right. And if for some reason you do the job wrong, I expect you to fix it with little or no inconvenience to me. I expect that you’ve had the proper training and that you can accurately answer my questions (or find someone who can). I expect you to do what you said you would do.

Be Efficient – My time is valuable. I shouldn’t have to put up with processes that are designed for your convenience at the expense of mine. Please understand that it’s inconvenient for me to be on hold for 20 minutes as I listen to a recording that says my call is important. Leaving me sitting in the waiting room 30 minutes past my appointment time just isn’t right. And waiting at home for a delivery that might occur sometime between noon and 5 PM takes me away from my job. I understand that things don’t always go as planned, but I want to see a sense of urgency if something does go wrong.

Be Nice to Me – I’m giving you (or already have given you) my hard-earned money. Please act like you appreciate it. It just takes a smile or sincere tone of voice to show you care. I feel much better when I deal with an employee who clearly enjoys his or her job and seems happy that I’m there.

I know that this view of customer service is stripped down to its essence, and it’s meant to be. I’d ask you to look at your operation through the lens of these three elements and I think you’ll find that the service behaviors you’re trying to achieve fit nicely in this stripped down view.

Whether you’re at the beginning of a service improvement initiative when everything appears daunting, or you’re in the middle of an initiative that’s gotten confusing or bogged down, it helps to be reminded of what you’re trying to accomplish and to weed out the stuff that takes you off target. Getting back to the essence of the initiative is re-energizing and makes it all seem doable.