Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Happy Customer Service Week - sort of

This week, Oct. 5-10, is National Customer Service Week, as established by a Presidential proclamation a few years ago. It was created to recognize that "highest quality customer service must be a personal goal of every employee in business and industry" in the United States.

So, as someone who makes a lot of his livelihood doing customer service training, and the author of a national #1 customer service bestseller, you would think I'd be all over this sentiment, right? Well, kinda sorta. I was recently part of an interesting and spirited debate on this point on LinkedIn.com's Customers 1st group, and if you are a member you can view it here.

You see, I am not just an author/trainer/speaker type. For many years I was a working customer service manager and executive, leading call centers on both coasts to dramatically "turn around" both our own performance and the company's. So I know what kinds of things work at improving customer service. And more important, I know what things don't.

Here is what doesn't work, in my experience: the kinds of slogans and banners you often see during Customer Service Week. I have been at many companies who go this route, only to be met with rolled eyes by front line employees. Not because they have a bad attitude, but because lectures to be "nice" generally last until your next bad hair day, and slogans won't change a corporate culture that preaches service quality once a year and shipping product twice a day.

Now, here is what does work: communications and coaching skills. For example:

-Knowing what to say to defuse an angry person, using the same kinds of techniques that hostage negotiators and psychologists use.
-Learning how simple changes to your words build strong connections with people in the first 30 seconds of a conversation.
-Understanding the mechanics of things like respect, empathy, and acknowledgement so they become second nature, no matter what your personality.
-And most important, learning how to coach people without ever putting them on the defensive.

This is my "schtick," and the reason I make a very nice living at it is that it works so well. As in clients writing me back a month later and telling me their customers AND employees are in fact much happier. That's why I'm so passionate about this.

So back to Customer Service Week. Too many companies frankly use it as a week of balloons, sloganeering, and motivational speeches, followed by a return to Business as Usual. But I also see some great organizations using it to celebrate the great people on their front lines, as part of a year-long program of skills and leadership development. Hope your Customer Service Week is a great one!

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