This month’s book is Getting Service Right: Overcoming the Hidden Obstacles to Outstanding Customer Service by Jeff Toister.
“I believe the fundamental mission for every customer service leader is to help their employees serve customers at the highest level. This involves identifying and removing the obstacles that stand in their way. It takes patience and understanding, because even the best of us sometimes falter.”
Most of us can tell a story about the time we were treated so poorly we walked out of a restaurant, cancelled a subscription, wrote a damning Yelp review or worse. With real-life examples and scientific research, this book reveals the systems and decisions that led to that experience. Our disastrous interactions didn’t have to be that way and author Jeff Toister outlines the sometimes counterintuitive path to getting it right.
We often view our interactions with customer service in a simplistic light. Either we had a good experience or we didn’t and it’s up to the representative to make it right. But Jeff Toister makes clear that your interaction is the tail of the dog. What happens to you is the result of leadership, culture, technology and a host of hidden factors. It’s fascinating to discover what goes on behind the curtain.
But Jeff Toister makes clear that your interaction is the tail of the dog. What happens to you is the result of leadership, culture, technology and a host of hidden factors.
Why Customer Service Isn’t Great
Most of the book is dedicated to overcoming obstacles but in Part One he shares what he sees as the root causes of poor service. Although “most people inherently want to do a good job” there are things that get in the way:
- Companies underestimate what it takes to deliver excellent customer service
- Industry ratings are averages which hide what customers actually experience
- There can be a disconnect between stated company values and the way leaders behave which impacts what employees interpret as the actual values
The author recognizes the reality of inertia when faced with doing something about all the obstacles, so in Part Two he dives into how to tackle each barrier.
The 10 Obstacles and How to Overcome Them
- The Customer Is NOT Always Right
Although “The Customer Is Always Right” has become a knee-jerk rejoinder, we all know that the opposite is often true. The problem is that although they might be wrong, the customer is still powerful. The author sites research revealing that “20 to 30 percent of customer dissatisfaction is the fault of the customer.” But pointing that out doesn’t result in good service (it would more likely result in the “storming out” mentioned above).
The problem is that although they might be wrong, the customer is still powerful.
The solution, the author maintains, is tasking customer service with the job of “making the customer feel right.” It’s an interesting distinction and means that company policies must be designed to facilitate that effort.
Three steps that help:
- Make trade-offs — do a few things well like Trader Joe’s, a company that gets high customer satisfaction ratings but has limited offerings
- Set expectations — let customers know what to expect which is why servers ask customers if they’ve been to a particular restaurant before
- Adapt service to suit customer needs — treat them the way they want to be treated (as opposed to how we want to be treated)
The author outlines many ways to handle difficult customers. It begins with advice to “train employees to avoid placing blame when a customer makes an error, and instead focus on finding a solution.” He concludes with the wonderful encouragement to “invite abusive customers to take their business elsewhere.” You can feel the relief and satisfaction in that statement.
Train employees to avoid placing blame when a customer makes an error, and instead focus on finding a solution.
- Conformity Is Contagious
There are dozens of factors at work in a corporate culture. Employees react to how leaders and co-workers behave and they are impacted by social pressure whether they are aware of it or not. The company may have banners proclaiming, “The customer always comes first!” but culture is a product of behavior that might contradict the slogan. As the author points out, “culture is what we do.”
In order to build a more conscious service culture:
- Create a customer service vision—one that tells employees exactly how they can contribute
- Make sure the vision is clearly understood
- Make sure it’s focused on customers
- Make sure it reflects who you are as a company and who you want to be
This chapter reflects the necessity and power of good mission/purpose statements and how telling stories helps make those statements come to life, such as how customer service representatives saved a bad situation or tales that highlight customers’ reactions to a company living its vision. It has to start with employees being clear on, and buying into, the vision and purpose of the organization.
- They’re Your Customers Not Mine
There’s a disconnect that takes place when customer service personnel don’t see themselves as representatives of the company. The many reasons for this are listed throughout the book, but the remedies focus on reconnecting the employee to the company and keeping them from feeling like solo operators.
A few remedies:
- Give employees decision-making power over procedures—work against the waste of Non-Utilized Talent
- Recognize good behavior and avoid financial rewards—monetary rewards, especially for individuals as opposed to teams, eventually backfire
- Allow people to be authentic—don’t ask people to recite automatic, scripted interactions since nobody likes it, or buys it
- Your Employees Are Double Agents
Sometimes customer service is trying to do the right thing for the customer but their efforts bump up against a company policy. When there’s a conflict, the employee is forced to either frustrate a customer or knowingly violate a policy.
Some ways to overcome this obstacle:
- Don’t make rigid policies—trust employees to do the right thing
- Don’t say “no”—train employees to provide options which invite the customer’s cooperation
- Leaders should experience first-hand the impact of their policies—spend time on the front line (“Go to the Gemba”) to watch, listen and talk to employees
- Mutually Assured Destruction
Broken systems are major culprits behind the dysfunction in the customer service world. The author calls up the relatable image of a “customer yelling ‘human!’ in to the phone in the attempt to get a live person.” We’ve all been that customer. He quotes the estimate that “60% of customer dissatisfaction is a result of poor products, service or process,” and the job of consoling those unhappy customers is left to frontline employees.
Broken systems are major culprits behind the dysfunction in the customer service world.
The author points out that this is a perfect opportunity to improve employee engagement. As with all successful continuous improvement, Jeff Toister recommends including employees in problem solving. Descriptions of process mapping and mistake-proofing illustrate how simple it is to engage employees in identifying and addressing systemic problems.
“Gallup estimates that disengaged employees in the United States alone cost companies as much as $605 billion annually in lost productivity.” Working to build the kind of problem-solving cultures that result from methods like Lean Six Sigma seems like a customer-service no-brainer.
Gallup estimates that disengaged employees in the United States alone cost companies as much as $605 billion annually in lost productivity.
- Attention Is In Short Supply
There’s a great activity outlined in this chapter that takes the “Myth of Multitasking”…to task. A lot has been written to debunk the myth, but the activity produces data that illuminates why switching from responding to emails, to answering phones to completing other tasks lowers productivity and leads to more errors.
“A little bit of time is lost whenever we move from one task to the next, because our brains refocus.” It’s important to set employees up to focus on and complete only one task at a time. Use electronic reminders as alerts for things like responding to customers and embrace the fact the multi-tasking is an enticing but ultimately time-wasting myth.
- What Role Will You Play Today?
This reinforces the need to understand an organization’s “purpose.” The point is to focus less on completing the task at hand and more on the goal of delighting customers. He outlines a great activity where employees write the thank you letter they’d like to receive. It includes specifics like “what the employee did and how it helped the customer.”
Employees read their own letter every day for 30 days and reflect on what they would do in order to receive such a letter. The author offers a free daily reminder service on how to make these letters a reality. He ends by asking leaders to choose their focus: “Is your role keeping service costs to a bare minimum, or is it creating a world-class service organization that helps your business grow by retaining customers?” Good question.
Is your role keeping service costs to a bare minimum, or is it creating a world-class service organization that helps your business grow by retaining customers?
- The Problem With Empathy
Although it’s important to see things through the eyes of the customer, “many employees struggle to empathize with customers because they don’t have a similar experience they can relate to it.” The solution is to help employees “experience your product or service as a customer.” That’s a great place to start but depending on the industry that might be easier said than done.
Another avenue is to share stories from customers’ experiences. A medical device company printed posters telling stories about how their products impacted individual lives. That helped employees feel some connection to patients they had no direct contact with. It’s also key to let employees vent since being on the receiving end of customer anger results in some understandably negative emotions for employees. Let them vent first and strategize solutions second. Leaders need empathy too.
It’s also key to let employees vent since being on the receiving end of customer anger results in some understandably negative emotions for employees.
- Emotional Roadblocks
One paradox for someone in service is being told, “don’t take it personally.” If a customer is unleashing their anger and frustration at us, “our natural instinct is to take it personally.” The author points out that negative emotions easily transfer from customer to employee. Employees might be experiencing the fight or flight response while struggling to stay calm.
He outlines a three-part continuous improvement approach for managers to help employees through such an episode:
- Help them evaluate the situation—determine potential root causes
- Discuss future strategies—develop potential solutions
- Encourage them to try out the strategies—put solutions into action
Organizational relationships are critical. He advises managers to get to know employees at least two levels down. He recommends encouraging friendships between employees since positive emotions are contagious too. Lastly, he reminds senior leaders of the “need to make the company a place where employees want to work.” The workplace should be a refuge.
- Casualties of Cost Consciousness
Businesses often mistakenly view customer service as a cost center and a “necessary evil” instead of seeing it as an opportunity to form long-term relationships with clients. He gives great examples of the negative impact of cost-saving efforts on customer satisfaction.
He relates the familiar situation of dealing with a lower-tier, less experienced support person until the situation (or your demands) result in finally getting access to a more experienced (and higher-paid) representative who’s able to solve the problem. One remedy is to accurately measure the loss of customer loyalty from this technique. If organizations did a better job of tracking the true impact of what seem like cost-saving steps, they might realize they’re not always worth it.
If organizations did a better job of tracking the true impact of what seem like cost-saving steps, they might realize they’re not always worth it.
Putting Lessons Into Action
Jeff Toister is clearly a seasoned teacher because he references lots of simple, high-impact activities that help people “get” important concepts. A great one is where he gives participants one minute to list what they’d pack to take on vacation. Everyone feverishly complies until they realize they don’t know where they’re going. His point is “how easy it is to engage in action without having a clear objective.”
He recommends starting the customer service journey with three steps:
- Clearly define outstanding service
- Use this definition as a compass to guide everything you do, and
- Reinforce constantly
The book is rich with real and personal stories and the author is generous with guidance to get organizations on the right path. You can register on his website to receive a free customer service tip of the week—great for those who appreciate digestible advice “nuggets.” He puts appropriate emphasis on what leadership must do to make clear they see customer service as a priority. It’s leadership’s job to “make great performance easy.” This book gets it right.
About the Author:
Jeff Toister is an author, keynote speaker and president of Toister Performance Solutions. In addition to Getting Service Right, he wrote The Service Culture Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Your Employees Obsessed With Customer Service and Customer Service Tip of the Week.
More than 140,000 people on six continents have enjoyed his video-based training courses on LinkedIn Learning (a.k.a. Lynda.com). Jeff’s videos on LinkedIn Learning include Customer Service Foundations and Leading a Customer-Centric Culture.
He has been named one of the Top 30 customer service professionals in the world by Global Gurus and one of the Top 50 Thought Leaders to Follow on Twitter by the International Customer Management Institute. Jeff holds Certified Professional in Learning and Performance (CPLP) certification from the Association for Talent Development.
Practical Tools and Concepts Covered:
- Customer Service
- Voice of the Customer
- Problem Solving
- Process Mapping
- Cost of Poor Quality
- Purpose and Mission Statements
Who Should Read Getting Service Right?
- Front Line Customer Service Representatives
- Customer Service Leaders
- Call Center Managers
- Team Leads
- White Belts, Yellow Belts, Green Belts, Black Belts, Master Black Belts and Lean Practitioners