Posted by: Andy Porter | June 21, 2013

Transparent Customer Service

Gather customer feedback; share it openly with all employees and together make any needed changes 

The first step is to provide multiple channels for customer feedback. Have a page on your web site with pointed questions and a blank box for answers. Make sure that anyone can answer anonymously. Send out emails asking about service, directly ask customers what they like or don’t like, hand out customer service questionnaires if you have staff on-site or mail surveys out through the post. And always be sure to note unsolicited comments customers made to staff, ANY comments, good or negative.

At the weekly meeting read each comment aloud. Not just the good ones, all of them.

After each comment invite the staff to make comments. Discuss what was done right, or what mistakes were made. Most of your comments, by far, will be positive. Reading these aloud acknowledges all of the group’s hard work. Acknowledging rightness is a powerful tool! It gets ignored too often. Take the time to collect and share any and all good comments.

If the comment is a complaint of some sort, invite the employees to figure out what can or should be changed. It may be clear from the discussion of what happened (in the case of a complaint) that you (the staff) did everything right and there was nothing that you could have done differently that would have avoided the complaint. Great! Or maybe there needs to be a new protocol for relay of messages, or changes to customer orders, or a better system for keeping track of appointments or a change in what’s being promoted and advertised…

In this system management just reads the comments, asks what happened and stands back. The staff will decide if anything was done wrong and what needs to be changed, if anything.

Every complaint is an opportunity for improvement. Any customer feedback is welcomed, good or bad, smart or silly, it’s all valuable.  Too often groups (and individuals) avoid looking for feedback. They feel that a negative comment is hurtful, or take it as a criticism, a slap in the face. Maybe they equate a negative comment with being wrong, or it reminds them of some past upset. But the proper view is to welcome any and all comments, invite them, embrace them, seek them out.

Unfortunately here is the “system” used in many groups:

  • Comments are not sought and are sometimes actually avoided
  • Negative comments create immediate upset or concern
  • “Correction” or discipline is often meted out before the details are known
  • The employee or department is often not made aware of the complaint, or just a part of it.
  • Changes of policy or procedure (in response to a complaint)are implemented without first truly discovering what happened and/or obtaining understanding and agreement from staff.

Customer service, to be consistently exceptional, must be a truly transparent, group effort. A lot has been written about getting employees involved with decisions, making them stake holders in the process. But in the realm of customer service this is sorely lacking. A common purpose is a powerful thing in a group. Loyalty, dedication and pride flow from a feeling that one is contributing to some bigger, common purpose. Work itself can sometimes be tedious, stressful or arduous, but having a purpose sets all these consideration aside, at least most of the time, and keeps the fires stoked.   Providing fast, friendly customer service can and must be a purpose that unifies the group.

Fear is a factor when dealing with customers. The old mantra of the customer is always right sits smack dab in the mind of employees causing them to worry about the consequences of any complaint. Too often management reacts to any complaint before taking the time and effort to discover the exact details of the interaction.  Proper handling of any complaint requires a thorough understanding of what happened. The simple fact of having received a complaint does not necessarily mean that the employee or the company were at fault. A certain percent of the population are rarely satisfied and relish the prospect of being unhappy and loudly voicing their discontent.

Competent management carefully hires staff, sees that they are trained and trusts that they will deliver great customer service. If you don’t trust the employees then they shouldn’t be working for you. Trust is an important part of a tight group. Management trusts that the employees will do their best to service customers. Employees trusts that when and if there are complaints that management will take the necessary time to look into what happened and decide if any corrective actions are needed.

Incompetent management does the opposite: the hiring process is arduous and bumpy, training spotty and not supervised, customer complaints reacted to with irrational changes and/or staff discipline. And when there are truly incompetent staff who DO deliver poor service, incompetent management does nothing, or makes excuses and fails to re-train or replace them quickly.

A few last pointers:

  • If there is a particularly negative comment which names a specific person this would be addressed in person with the individual named in the complaint. The details of the event must be understood before any action taken.
  • The goal of having no complaints or 100% customer satisfaction is unachievable. Someone will say your prices are too high, another that their hair was cut too short or that the eggs are too runny. You can have one quality (service or product) that 88% of your customers rave about, but 12% don’t like one bit.
  • Make sure that no team member is ever disciplined or chastised for writing a complaint in the comment log.
  • For the system to work it must be followed consistently, every week.

 Improving the Internal Atmosphere

When conducting a job interview it’s common to ask “Why did you leave your last position?” And one of the more common answers is that they left because of an unfriendly or even toxic internal environment. Too much gossiping, back-biting and complaining; too many petty squabbles or disagreements between departments; all of these make it not fun to work somewhere. And when it stops being fun the company will usually lose it’s best staff first. This is not only a situation related to hiring and HR; it is also a major underlying cause of poor customer service.

When the “front staff” don’t like or get along with the “back staff” you’re goose is cooked. Whether it’s in a restaurant, an auto dealer or a doctors office, too much friction amongst staff ruins everyone mood, makes it harder to retain good staff and lowers your overall level of customer service.

There are three primary ways that a toxic internal atmosphere hurts customer service:

  1. The majority of customer complaints at any company stem from dropped communications. A key piece of information was not passed along. This could be anything from a food order at a restaurant to a schedule change for an appointment. When the employees, or worse, entire departments go out of communication there is a MUCH greater likelihood that communications will get altered or lost.
  2. When staff are embroiled in who said what about who and the drama of petty squabbles it is a distraction. When people are distracted there will be spelling errors, details missed, flubs on billing, etc.
  3. A toxic atmosphere brings the overall mood of the group down. The employees aren’t as bright and cheerful.

The possible causes for a toxic internal atmosphere include: poorly trained employees; non existent channels for interoffice communication, missing or not known protocols, procedures or policy; lack of competent management and many more.

One the most vital roles of management is to ensure that the internal atmosphere IS friendly, calm, conducive to team work and having fun. An internal atmosphere filled with drama and friction cannot be ignored or put off for handling later. However the majority of businesses, both large and small suffer from this malady.

The most common and simple cause of a toxic internal atmosphere is this: Susie in the back sees that an appointment made for one of the doctors was not scheduled for the right amount of time. Instead of simply looking to see who scheduled the appointment and going to speak directly with this person to sort it out, Susie makes a disparaging comment about the person, or worse, about the “incompetent receptionists” in the front.  This comment inevitably finds its way to the front staff and so, causes a rift between employees and/or entire departments.

This practice is unfortunately all too common. I have never seen a business, ever, where this did not occur. In most businesses, both private and public, it is rampant. If you asked Susie :”If you made a mistake, and someone at work noticed it, would you rather the person come see you directly, or make comments to another employee about your error?”, she will for sure tell you that she’d rather have the person come directly to her.

If Susie does go out to the front and speak to the receptionist, Amber, and asks about the appointment in question she may discover that Amber was specifically directed to make that appointment for that amount of time by a doctor or other technical staff. And so that would be the end of it. Or maybe Amber DID make an error in the schedule and Susie can give some simple instruction of proper scheduling. Either outcome is perfectly fine and the problem is solved.

At least 80% of any internal friction can be resolved by simply engaging (and enforcing!) a policy that says: If you have a problem with Joe, talk to Joe. If that doesn’t work, go to management. Telling Alice about your problem with Joe is grounds for immediate dismissal.

If this one simple policy is in force, the staff speaking directly to each other and resolving issues, handling errors or mistakes and having the self discipline to follow the protocol, things will smooth out fast.

The primary reason that Susie does not speak directly to Amber is fear. Susie has some trepidation about Amber’s possible reaction. Maybe Amber will be upset. So it’s easier to talk to Alice about Amber than directly to Amber.

When getting started with this you’ll probably hear some grumblings about it. “But Amber is the boss’s friend” or “I spoke to Amber about this before and she is still making the same mistake.”

People will often try to weasel around the corner on this point and dream up all sorts of excuses to avoid simply communicating to Joe. Don’t buy them, simply insist that there be direct communication.

If direct communication does not result in change or improvement, then by all means speak to the manager.

Of course there are exceptions: if you observe Joe committing a crime of some sort, then directly to the management you would go. There are other obvious exceptions.

Management has to itself follow the policy. This is vital. If a manager, say for instance, a Sales Manager in a auto sales business, has issues with the service department, he or she should NEVER make any comments about this so that any of his staff can hear it. The Sales Manager would address this issue with the Service Manager, or someone above. If the Sales Manager is overheard by any sales staff to make negative comments about the Service Department , or any specific employees in that department, then he has set in motion this virus and helped create a toxic environment in the dealership. The Sales Staff will follow his lead and start bad-mouthing the other staff and/or departments.

When I hire new people and explain this policy to them I inevitably hear: “Oh, god bless you, that’s why I left my last job…” People very much want to have someone come speak directly to them if they make a mistake. They would rather have some one communicate directly to them rather than behind their backs.

Its true that some people react poorly when corrected. I have done this myself, someone came to let me know that I needed to do something differently and I sort of went off muttering to myself…but then I made the needed changes and was grateful that they told me.

There are two sides to this: one is that if you mess up someone will speak directly to you, not behind your back. That’s cool! In reality there may be a few people who get upset with you no matter how nicely you say things. They SAY they would rather have you speak directly to them, but then they get upset when you do. A person needs somewhat thick skin to work in an environment where they get corrected.

But in the end it is always better to just go talk to the person. Help them do better and you help the entire company. Once this is accepted as the normal culture of your business the atmosphere will greatly improve. And that will be good for everyone!

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