Watch Out For The Blame Game

When something goes wrong, there’s rarely a shortage of blame to go around.  Self-protection mode engages and people end up wide eyed and pointing in both directions like The Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz – and that’s a tame response!  There are also people who will happily hop on their soap box and fashion a scarlet letter for every individual who can be charged with the crime.  For example, just the other day I bought a bottle of water from a mini-mart at a gas station when the woman making change for me ran out of dollar bills.  She had more in the other register – it was no big deal at all, but I got the deep breath, eye roll, slam the drawer shut routine as she explained that the situation was due to her atrocious co-worker, Lauren.  I think she was trying to make me feel better because it was going to cost me a full 30 seconds of my day – but the truth is she just seemed unprofessional and drew attention to something I wouldn’t have even noticed.

This is just a teensy peek into a big world of blame – but I suspect you’ve just conjured your own memory of a situation similar to the one I described. The funny part about it is that it usually comes from really well-intentioned people!  Those who really care what customers think sometimes get nervous about causing disappointment or let-down and they miss the memo about embracing the “we” and instead go straight for the excuses and blame making things worse.  Any of these sound familiar?

  • Sorry you had to wait so long, we’re really short staffed – 3 people called in sick today!
  • Sorry we’re out of coffee, the delivery guy is always late on Wednesdays!
  • Sorry we don’t have your hotel room available, my boss always overbooks us and makes me deliver the bad news!

Ownership is a really big concept with a lot of moving parts – this concept happens to be a big one.  The more you can do to instill ownership, the less likely this sort of behavior will pop up and degrade your hard work.  This is a hard one to train – it’s more of a coaching/culture combination.  If your people feel confident about the teamwork, the management, and the processes – you’re off to a good start.  From there, be a good example of accepting responsibility – if you make excuses internally, your people will take their cues and do the same with your customers.

Employees sometimes forget that to a customer, a disappointment is rarely with an individual, but lies with the organization as a whole.  Customer facing people have the honor and chore of accepting the accolades and complaints on behalf of the whole organization – so it’s important to remember the responsibility and ownership piece.  What are you doing to encourage ownership instead of blame?

Can’t Buy Me Loyalty!

Properly compensating for mistakes in the customer service world is essential; it can also be quite a quandary.   The art of finding a solution that both delights the customer and allows you to operate in the black can be tricky at best.  Obviously an ounce of prevention is the best method to go with.  The smoothness of your processes and people will help you focus on fixing the one-off situations with great service skills, smart business sense, and grace as they pop up.

With that said, let’s bring the balancing act into the light.  Sometimes a simple, “sorry about that” is exactly what is needed and expected.  Other times, you may need to write off the cost of your product or service completely.  In addition, there is an extremely long road full of choices that run the gamut between these two solutions.  A smart examination of where this fits within your organization will have a pretty dramatic effect on both profitability and customer loyalty.  A key point is to establish 3 or 4 categories/levels of problems that each has 2 or 3 solutions to provide guidance for your customer facing employees.

I’ve experienced both sides of this as a customer and as a manager of customer service.  Do you know what happens when you don’t provide enough compensation to a disappointed customer?  They get mad, they sometimes make a scene, they tell everyone they know, and they never come back.  Do you know what happens when you over-compensate?  Often, the customer feels insulted that you would throw money at them instead of offering an apology and a resolution.  So what should you do?

  1. Provide a meaningful, sincere, and empathetic apology – no matter what.
  2. Let the customer know that you would feel the same way if it had been you – this is a great way to show that you mean it and connect.
  3. Tell them your goal is to fix it – seriously, sometimes all they need to know is that it isn’t going to take 12 phone calls, 7 emails, 4 managers, and a Yelp to make it better.
  4. Provide 2 or 3 choices (no more) that fit the level of concern – and execute.

In the end, you will find that you can’t buy the love or loyalty of your customers – in fact, you’ll probably find a sweet spot that will help you determine where to draw the parameters within your organization.  You’ll likely see that on the months with the least amount of compensation and the months with the most compensation correlate to your lowest service scores.  Have a look – let me know if my assertions are true within your workplace!

Learning From “Bad” Customers

I recently read a delightfully sarcastic article in the Huffington Post, Maybe You Get Bad Customer Service Because You’re a Bad Customer by Matt Walsh.  It was as entertaining as it was true, and naturally got me thinking about the topic.  Being in and managing customer service my entire adult life means I have certainly seen my share of obnoxiousness and have had to let customers go on occasion – so the article was pretty cathartic as well!  While some things are beyond our control, I did get to brainstorming on what could be done to prevent and diffuse these situations when there is still a chance to recover the situation; sometimes you can and sometimes you can’t – but I like improving ratios.

The problem with being ill prepared and/or doing nothing is that the scenes are embarrassing, they instill doubt in other customers, they demoralize your staff, and they are a tremendous waste of your time. So why not add some processes and skills that help manage these situations rather than letting them manage you?  My disclaimer here is that some people really are impossible, but I think that using this excuse too much is a slippery slope that provides rationalization for lazy customer service.  Maintaining that “impossible” situations are few and far between is the higher and truer road – and remember, it’s not personal – it’s business.

1 – Tweak your processes. The article I mentioned talks about a fast food restaurant that put ketchup on a hamburger when woman requested none, which she claimed had happened multiple times.  If you are in an industry prone to human error, consider posting something that tells customers their feedback is welcome and that you’ll do all you can to correct errors.  Don’t wait until a customer is demanding the moon to provide a solution – and make sure that complaints are logged.  Processing issues are usually far more consistent than you’re willing to admit – so commit to reviewing and correcting regularly.

2 – Consider the human psyche.  Most people aren’t actual psychopaths looking for people to beat up on.  They suffer from far more common and annoying personal issues like entitlement, bullying, anger, fear, and control.  Understanding this is half the battle because it’s easier to stay calm when we recognize that the situation has little or nothing to do with us personally.  Switching off the anger will always be a challenge, but it is often within our control and demonstrates tremendous professionalism.

3 – Prepare your people.  Employees are more likely to handle bad situations with confidence and professionalism if you arm them with information and help them practice.  It is awful to get beat up by customers and the morale in your organization will show it.  Empowerment and education, on the other hand, help people feel poised to handle difficulty.

I am a firm believer in solutions – so while I accept that there are bad customers, I think they still provide lessons.  Would you agree?

A Lesson in Graciousness & Diplomacy

Have you ever had customers break the rules or otherwise misbehave?  The other day, I was accidentally among a group of “bad” customers.  We were enjoying a day of being tourists in Niagara Falls, which is an absolutely lovely place by the way.  After touring the falls and buying trinkets in the souvenir shop, we made our way through the other shops in town.  By mid-afternoon, the day had turned chilly and overcast with a few drops of rain.  We had a couple of hours to kill before our train was scheduled to leave and all came to seek reprieve in the outdoor patio area of the Hard Rock Café where a fantastic artist was performing acoustically.

To set the stage, this tourist town was pretty dead as it was about 3pm on a Thursday – and we were the only people hanging out on this patio.  4 or 5 of the 14 of us had eaten lunch there a couple of hours earlier, another 3 or 4 ordered a beverage from the outside bar, and a couple of souvenirs were purchased from the gift shop.  A few of us also had warm beverages from the Starbucks next door.  We were all dressed nicely and had several shopping bags – a good indicator of money to spend.  The woman serving us was lovely; she seemed to understand that although our large group was not going to be a huge revenue generator – there wasn’t a line of people needing our seats either.

Everything changed when one of the group members returned from shopping with a bag of fast food from down the road, which she intended to eat on the train ride home.  She happened to wander back to the patio as the server’s manager walked through – and here is where this story turns sour.  The manager came storming onto the patio, arms flailing, and announced loudly, rudely, and in an exasperated tone that we were not welcome to sit there with outside food or drink.  The group member with the food apologized immediately and let the woman know it was intended for the train ride and that she didn’t plan to eat it there – but there was no convincing the manager, who rolled her eyes, let out a deep breath, and proceeded to read the riot act to the server who had permitted such intolerable customer behavior and then drove us away with an impressive glare.

Here’s the thing – we were being unknowingly inconsiderate.  We had overstayed our welcome after having taken advantage of an empty patio and great music without considering that we weren’t spending much money.  We were, however, preventing the server from falling asleep and the musician from playing to an empty patio – so we were understandably without guilt.

At the end of the day, we were in the wrong, but the manager handled the situation with absolutely no diplomacy and lost customers because of it.  When she noticed our outside food and drink at her establishment, she should have put on her happy customer service face to deliver the bad news graciously and humbly to us.  She should have said something like, “Hi everyone – we’re so happy you’re here and enjoying our patio, but we actually don’t allow outside food and drink here.  If you can finish them up, maybe we can get you something from our menu?”  We’d have gotten the hint and either ordered something or left without feeling like evil villains; I wouldn’t be writing about it and spreading the word about the poor service either.

Customers are often in the wrong, but unless they’re threatening bodily harm, handling them with dignity and respect is a requirement for any organization that intends to claim good service.  As a manager this young lady should have known that.  She handled the situation very poorly – and I suspect that if corporate had witnessed it she’d be explaining herself to someone.  What is your confidence level with your managers?  Will they handle customer mistakes with grace, or will they make you the subject of someone’s blog?  Teaching this skill is something I’d suggest you consider putting on your agenda!

Keeping it Positive

Something that might sound familiar if you’ve frequented my blog is how strongly I believe that organizational culture affects the likelihood of delivering exceptional customer service.  In addition to their high correlation, I frequently discuss the roles of leadership, trust, empowerment, and my very favorite – empathy.  The reason empathy is my favorite is that I see it as the universal indicator of great customer service; those who have it or can learn it will execute customer service strategy with it and will succeed.

One very telling sign of a troubled customer service culture is when employees regularly say bad things about customers once an interaction is complete.  If when the customer leaves or the phone call is finished, employees say things like, “what a jerk,” or “how is that our fault?” or “she’s the one who signed the contract,” you have a classic case of this cultural dilemma within your organization and it is likely void of the empathy I speak of.  Being able to handle a crisis or fix a situation is one thing; but if handled disingenuously, because deep down they believe the customer is a jerk, no amount of disguise will help.

It’s dangerous to permit an environment where employees can unapologetically lack empathy or place blame on customers.  It’s also not rational or logical to think that frustrations can be eliminated because customer service isn’t necessarily easy.  My thoughts here are designed to be an awareness piece for managers who might think it’s just “venting” and may not be conscious of the potential toxicity of allowing it to go on.  Here are a couple of ways to combat it:

1 – Shape it through leadership and management.  This type of cultural belief has to be a constant guide where employees feel that doing right by customers is “who” the organization is.  I know that this is often said – but is it said with the intent to convey empathy and understanding?

2 – Never miss an opportunity to coach.  Don’t focus solely on formal trainings to teach behaviors; they are best learned through guidance, coaching, and mentorship.  Overhearing a situation you want shaped into something better is the best opportunity you have.  Being able to pause a situation and help your employee understand that it doesn’t make someone a “jerk” because they didn’t know the rules or requirements – but that it’s an opportunity to teach, can be very eye-opening to your front line employees who may otherwise develop hard to break habits of customer-bashing.

These are not paradigm shifting thoughts.  We all want/expect to see genuine service, empathy, understanding, and respect as our employees work with our customers; my point is that you may not have enough emphasis or the right execution strategy to shape the culture you want.  This is a reminder to take a look and help your people not only show but feel empathy so that they deliver the exceptional customer service you expect.

Making Great First Impressions

First impressions happen whether you are prepared or not.  We are constantly processing the things we see, hear, and feel and making judgments about how we think those things are going to impact our experiences.  This is exactly what our customers are doing from the moment they begin working with us, and there are a million ways we’d like to make those impressions go well.  Rather than to get overwhelmed, I’d like to suggest a few that I think will make the most significant and favorable impact on their experiences.

  1. Personal appearance.  While much of this will be dictated by the organization’s standards, there are a few universal aspects of appearance to adhere to.  Cleanliness, tidiness, and fit are important whether you are wearing jeans and a t-shirt or whether you’re wearing a suit.  Wrinkled clothing, forgetting a belt, dingy shoes, pants that should be hemmed to the correct length, etc. are little things that will chip away at your image and erode your customers’ confidence.  Also, individualism is a fantastic characteristic – but at work, it has to come secondary to customer expectations.  Curb the enthusiasm for self-expression because it’s not about you, it’s about the customer and their desire to return.
  1. Office cleanliness.  Not just vacuuming and dusting; I’m talking details again.  Wiping fingerprints off of glass an door handles, polishing shiny details, etc.  We lack the fresh perspective of our customers because we are used to how things look – make sure you are cognizant of what the customer sees; including behind the scenes if they were to use your restroom which must be stocked and cleaned regularly.  In the cleanliness family is lack of clutter – no sticky notes, no knickknacks, and keep the notices and posted rules to a minimum.
  1. Vehicles.  Whether your organization has company vehicles or whether your employees are using their personal vehicles for work – consider the image presented.  It’s always important to drive courteously, but maybe never so much as when there is a company logo involved!  Cars must be well maintained, clean, and free from bumper stickers.  Bumper stickers lack professionalism, and alienate people – especially the political and religious ones – so steer clear of controversy!

These are 3 manageable ideas that will make a lasting impression on your customers whether you mindful of them or not.  So take the preventative route and make sure they are impressions you can be proud of!

It’s Not Personal – It’s Business

It’s all about perspective.  I was recently flattered by a friend who came to me for advice about a difficult customer service situation he had recently been in.  He had a bit of a guilty conscience about how the situation had gone, but was still angry with how the customer had behaved toward him.  He felt like the customer had deliberately provoked him – but what he didn’t realize was that he’d taken the bait.  When he came to me, he was between a rock and a hard place because he now owed his company an explanation for the complaint written in by the customer.

My friend helps hundreds of people each day in his customer service position, and he’s very good at his job.  As we’ve all experienced, there is occasionally that one customer who challenges every fiber of our being – my friend definitely found his kryptonite customer.  The customer accused my friend of something, and then flexed his “the customer is always right” muscles when my friend didn’t back down – and they basically antagonized each other.  You see, my friend fell victim to a common issue in the customer service field; he let his ego take over.

I’m pretty sure that when he came to me for advice, he was secretly hoping I’d back him up and blame the customer – but I couldn’t.  Instead, I had to break the sad news to him that I thought he’d won the battle but lost the war.  The battle was making it out without apologizing for something he didn’t feel he did.  However, no one witnessed the situation, so when the customer complained to the corporate office, it made my friend look pretty terrible and created a documentable situation – the customer won that war and my friend is paying the price.

I had to ask him whether he thought it was worth it.  I estimate that only 5% of customers are “tough,” and that the other 95% make our jobs pretty great – so why let that occasional situation put your professionalism in question?  Knowing you’re a big enough person to apologize for something (whether you did it or not) for the good of the company is something you can be proud of.  Preventing a complaint, avoiding the company having to dole out cash or coupons in apology, and saving your reputation are the best ways to combat this sort of situation – even if you nearly bite your tongue off.

At the end of the day, it’s not personal – it’s business.  Make that your mantra!

10 Telephone Differentiators

When it comes to great telephone skills, it’s important to think about both the mechanics and the semantics behind what defines great.  For businesses who manage a bank of phones or a call center, this is their reason for being and they generally have excellent skills due to their laser focus.  For the rest of us, the phones may be a much smaller segment of our overall process and may need some attention to be handled well.

With that said, use these 10 differentiating methods to guide your efforts and leverage your telephone skills into exceptional customer service.

  • Smile – you’ve heard it before, but because it can be heard and sensed over the phone, it’s definitely worth mentioning.
  • Show Patience – while this might seem obvious, we often underestimate it.  Our phone handlers often hear the same questions and concerns repeatedly, so rushing or interrupting sometimes happens accidentally and as a result of their ability to predict what the customer is going to say.  Just be mindful of this and remember to listen.
  • Be Attentive – in particular, keep in mind that the keyboard can be heard over the phone.  You should only be typing when the customer believes you are doing something for them.  If they are mid-story and hear you typing, they will know they don’t have your full attention.
  • Ask Questions – show engagement by asking follow up questions as the customer chats with you.
  • Be Conversational – avoid the awkward silence while you are looking something up and ask a thoughtful question about weather or plans the customer might have for the weekend.  It helps put them at ease and shows that you are considerate.
  • Acknowledge – use words and sounds of affirmation so that the customer can hear that you are engaged and understand what they are saying.
  • Listen and Repeat – summarize what a customer has described to make sure you have understood and to show them that you were listening.
  • Show Empathy (my favorite thing!) – let them hear you laugh or cringe or groan.  Make the same expressions and gestures you would if they were in front of you because they can hear it over the phone!
  • Provide a Warm Handoff – make sure that if the customer’s question or concern requires the help of another person that you explain the situation to that person, and that they acknowledge that understanding the moment they hop on the line with the customer.  Making a customer repeat and relive an annoyance or a question is rude and silly when you can instead show consideration and be prepared to resolve when back on the phone.

I hope these tidbits have helped you and have given you something to bring back to your organizations!  Is anyone out there teaching the warm handoff method?  I’d love to know!

Keep Your Promises

Keeping your promises is essential.  This might seem obvious, but organizations fail at it every day because they don’t have system that makes it possible.  They often depend on employees to figure out how juggle the regular service required within their role while saying yes to little customer whims that are out of the scope of the norm.  Teaching them to say yes is a fantastic idea, but without a secure process to help them follow through it can backfire miserably.

I had to stop by a well-known cosmetics, fragrance, and beauty store last night to find myself a new hair product because I ran out of my favorite and then found that it had been discontinued.  Ugh.  One of roughly 3 shoppers in the store, the other customers and I were actually outnumbered by the employees.  I walked to the back of the store where the products were organized by brand in 6 (yes 6!) full rows.  I was looking for descriptions similar to my old one when an employee stopped and asked if she could help me.  I was so grateful that someone was going to rescue me from this little hell I’d found until I realized she knew about as much about the products as I did.

To her credit, she called on her headset to a coworker to help find something that would suit me, but her coworker never responded.  She then said she’d go find someone and ask while I continued to look around.  Unfortunately, after 10 minutes had passed and I was not approached by her or another associate for help, I felt ignored and walked out.  On my way I passed 4 associates socializing, including the one who said she’d return with help.  Clearly no one had prepared this young woman with the product knowledge to help me or the process to find someone who could.  Too bad for them; I’m spendy on my hair.  Set up for success and avoid this hiccup by considering these three thoughts from someone who has failed at it, done it right, and been the customer of both:

  • Make sure following through is a priority throughout the organization.  It is not enough to presume that staff, at any level, consider the significance of this unless it is an explicit part of the organization’s customer service plan and values.
  • Make sure there is an operational plan that supports follow through for your customer facing employees.  Maybe they have promised to return a call or email a customer a receipt – or maybe a customer is patiently awaiting your attention; it could be anything.  As they continue to help customers the promises can be forgotten or reprioritized which reflects poorly on the employee and the organization.

What do you do to make sure promises are kept and follow through is a priority?

Embracing the “We”

Accepting responsibility and taking blame are hard on the ego!  They are especially large and bitter pills to swallow when the fault is not our own.  The problem in an organization is that if employees are carrying a score card and keeping a tally, your customer service is surely floundering.  To flip that coin, if the organization’s performance is unbalanced and internal corrections are being overlooked it’s only a matter of time before employees are fed up and want to keep score.  Great leadership and accountability will solve many problems, and this is one of them.  Since those are really big concepts, let’s break the concept of “We” down strategically and then tactically.

Strategically, building this concept starts with sharing.  Everyone from top to bottom and all the way around get to celebrate victories and recover from setbacks together; employee ownership and responsibility then drive behavior and culture.  Taking ownership means that your people see themselves as an important piece of your puzzle.  They can actually see how their contribution produces the widgets or innovates the technology that makes your company successful.  If they feel that their contribution is far away from the end result, you’ll get performance that matches that distance.  The companies that continuously make appearances on the lists of best companies to work for are companies that have nailed this concept.

Tactically, teaching your customer-facing staff to gracefully and humbly accept responsibility on behalf of the organization regardless of where the hiccup occurred is of paramount importance.  This isn’t an inherent ability for most people.  There are born people-pleasers who figure this out early – but for the rest of your staff you’ll need to shape this behavior regardless of the size of your organization.  You need to know that when deserved or undeserved fury is unleashed upon one of your people, they have learned the skills to neutralize and regain that customer’s confidence.  The absolute first step to this, at all times, across all organizations and lines of business, is accepting responsibility.  Admitting failure and showing the customer that there is a united front there to fix the problem is the ideal.

Maybe it is a receptionist that can smooth the feathers of a long customer wait for a meeting.  Maybe it is a server in a restaurant who handles your botched meal remarkably well even though they had nothing to do with the preparation.   When people like what they do and for whom, the “We” becomes ownership, which becomes return customers.  Please share a success you’ve had or witnessed.