When the Customer Service Teacher Becomes the Student
I’ve been living and breathing customer service for as long as I can remember. First, in the way that all teenagers are introduced to customer service – through our first jobs in retail or hospitality – and then, for the last twelve years with Belding Training. Over the course of my time with Belding I’ve had the opportunity to work with a wide variety of organizations, all with the goal of helping them grow their business and standout in a competitive market as a result of their outstanding customer service. I’ve seen a lot, I’ve heard a lot, and it has only been on very rare occasions that I haven’t known what an organization needs to do to see the change they’re hoping for.
At home, my husband is the General Sales Manager of a Volkswagon dealership, which means we spend many weekday evenings, on the couch, talking about the unique customer experiences that he faces every day, as well as discussing strategies and best practices for engaging his sales reps and ensuring that they are delivering outstanding customer service any time someone walks through the door. Last, but certainly not least, I am also a mother to three little munchkins, all under the age of 6. While many would argue that this doesn’t relate to customer service … I would beg to differ! I use my power of positive thinking, conflict resolution and TalkJudo strategies many times a day!
So naturally, as a smart person does when they’re already living a busy, full life, I’ve recently taken on a new business venture. This one, while very different from my past experience in a lot of ways, is right in my wheelhouse when it comes to customerservice. Except this time, I’m right at the front line, interacting with our customers on a regular basis. It’s only been a few short months since I launched my new business, but I can say for certain that it did not take me very long to learn two very important lessons. One – Customer service is hard. And two – the best practices and strategies that we have been teaching our clients for all these years really do work!
Let’s start by looking at the first thing I learned: As with many things, the phrase ‘easier said than done’ can often be applied in the customer service world. One of the most common complaints I hear from managers when it comes to poor customer service is, “Good customer service is common sense! Why don’t they just do it?!” While yes, I will agree that most customer service technique and strategies appear very straightforward when they’re being discussed in a training program, it can often be forgotten that the ability to execute them in real life requires not only knowing what to do, but being able to do it in amongst the other daily demands of your job. Emotions can run high when you’re interacting with a customer, especially when you feel passionately about the service or product you sell or you feel like you’ve done everything right already, only to have the situation still go sideways. Job stress is a real thing, and managing the disappointment that one can feel when a sale or customer interaction doesn’t go the way you had hoped can be a hard to navigate. At the end of the day, when you’re the person talking to that customer, it doesn’t matter that you know all the right things to do … sometimes it can be hard to actually do them.
But that brings me to lesson number two: When you DO use the strategies and best practices that customers service experts talk about, and teach in training programs, is really does make it so much easier! Challenging situations can still be hard and emotional, but do you want to know a secret? I don’t have many of those! I can count on one finger the number of difficult situations I’ve had to navigate, but I could list a dozen that had the potential to go that way, had things been handled differently. And it’s not about how I handled the situation when things went wrong either, it’s about how I created a good relationship with that customer before anything happened.
As I compare my experience teaching customer service vs. delivering customer service, here are the top 3 things that have helped me be successful and avoid challenging situations:
The words I choose
How you say something to a customer really does matter, and in fact, can set the stage for the rest of your interaction together. When a customer asks me a question, or inquires about having something in stock, the answer is always “Absolutely!” or “Wonderful!” Right off the bat my customers know that I’m happy to help them, and that working with me is going to be a positive experience. Half of it is about avoiding negative word choices, but the other half is just about choosing the best of all the options you have available. While there is nothing wrong with saying to a customer, “Yes, I can do that”, why not instead say “Absolutely! I’d be happy to help you with that!”? Same answer, same amount of effort, but one has a much more positive impact than the other.
Interact in person
As much as possible, I always chose to interact with my customers in person. Let’s be honest, things like e-mail and quick pick-ups always feel easier, but how can you create a relationship with your customer when you don’t actually talk to them in person?! How do you build rapport if you can’t ask questions and engage in a little bit of small talk while they wait a minute or two? Having the chance to ask customers about their purchase, how they heard about me or even just chat about the weather goes a long way when it comes to creating loyalty and turning me into someone that they want to do business with again. Customer service is all about human interaction and connections, and no amount of technology or streamlined processes will ever be able to do it better than good, old fashion, face to face interactions.
As I mentioned earlier, despite my best efforts, there have been a few hiccups along the road that I have had to navigate with my customers. This is to be expected in business. But these hiccups have rarely turned into negative interactions, or resulted in the loss of customers. Why? Because the first thing I say to them is “I’m so sorry.” I take ownership of the issue, apologize (even if it isn’t directly my fault) and I tell them how I will resolve it. Mistakes happen and things go wrong. That is life. But how you chose to handle it, whether or not you chose to take ownership of it, and how quickly and effortlessly you work to resolve it will go a long way in how your customer perceives your business, and you.
Every once and a while it’s wonderful to step outside your comfort zone and look at something you have been doing for a long time, from another perspective. Realizing (all over again) how hard customer service can really be, has been a great eye opener for me as I go into meetings with corporate clients and design training programs and initiatives for their organizations. More importantly though, it has made me more confident than ever in what we teach and the power of outstanding customer service. With it, your business can thrive, without it, that outcome isn’t always as positive.