Tom is the best customer service person I know. He cooks and serves at a place in the food court of the mall where I work. He always smiles, always waves when he sees someone he recognizes, and is always immaculately polite. I’ve seen him ask the same five questions to every customer he sees, every time I walk by for the last year. I’ve never heard him use the same phrase twice in a row. A while ago I asked him how that came about and he said he had developed the habit years ago, and couldn’t seem to get rid of it.
It got even more amusing when he came into my store a few days later, and I noticed that his manner was identical in person to the person he portrayed behind the counter at his own business. For most people, this wouldn’t even get a notice; Tom is a polite guy, soft-spoken, always with a small, courteous smile. But I make a business of noticing things about people, and the very preciseness about Tom that makes him a great person is what makes him a great customer service person. It’s not the other way around.
You can argue that people in call centers have the best phone manners. I’d agree, to some degree, because most of the way I approach people over the phone comes from having done market research surveys for a year. It gets into you. Once you stop using the script, your acceptance goes up, so you foster the most real, most human manners you can to be successful. This only works, of course, if you’re the kind of person willing to do the work. People in outbound are good at this. We’ve all had our bad experiences with the intractable fops on inbound service. They are not what this is about.
This is about interpersonal skills. The ability to make real, fast, transparent connections is being downplayed in the new culture, in part because of the automated veil the internet places over our sense of communication (even though the veil is a paper tiger), and in part because we’re changing our habits on the outside to match those we see online. Teenagers are saying “lawl” and “Oh em gee” outloud, rather than learning to take their expressiveness to the net. Instead of learning to engage maturely online, we’re learning to bring digital body language and netiquette out into the rest of our lives. It’s counter productive.
Developing great interpersonal skills isn’t just useful as a human being, it’s useful to you in business. If you want another good example of this, look at the death of Circuit City. One of their many bad moves was to fire the top third earning commissioned salespeople on staff, and bring in lower paid people who didn’t care. When you hire people who can, but for the grace of HR, find another minimum wage job two doors down, you’re not hiring good customer service, you’re hiring a trainable bank of low engagement labourers. The kinds of people actively attracted to these jobs – I’m not talking about people who fall into them en route to better things, I mean the kind that actually want a low intensity job with no life impact – they’re not interested in your business, or in customer experience. And if they are, do what you can to keep them, because they are your greatest asset, and they don’t even realize it.
So few businesses encourage the growth of interpersonal skills it’s frightening. For all the hubub about the new human business, down in the trenches (read as: on the sales floor) many front line customer service reps are still being coached into using inane catch phrases from a booklet and watch their individual statistics with no understanding of why these key point indicators (KPIs, in the right circles) are useful to either the company, to their customers, or to themselves. It’s ludicrous, but we’re convinced it’s the best way.
We, as businesses, think that because our low-earning staff are unwilling to invest in us, that we can get away with not actually investing in them. But we, as businesses, have the trend entirely backwards. We’re doing the same thing those teenagers are. Our inability to demonstrate meaningful investment in the bottom ranks (even calling them the bottom ranks) is what’s creating a lack of loyalty, engagement, and ingenuity in our people. It’s not them, forcing us to streamline. It’s our constant streamlining forcing them to flee in mortal terror from emotional and cultural investment in the business that employs them. They don’t care about us, entirely because we never, ever, demonstrate real care about them.
Back to Tom. People like him stand out because, whether or not he’s the business owner or a front of house clerk, his built in reaction to everything is “Give if your guts.” Tom couldn’t stop asking people if they’d like the combo meal if he tried. He’s made himself aware of exactly the reasons why it’s important to his business, and is aware that determined people won’t be offended by his asking and will say no if they wish to. The real brilliance behind Tom’s attitude is that he refuses to make a judgement of need or want on behalf of another person, choosing instead to ask direct, simple questions, and get every piece of information he needs without allowing room for omission, presenting in such a way that infers neither opinion, threat, or pressure.
Generosity of intention. Economy of information. Aware, detached participation in your experience as a customer.
I’m declaring Tom as one of the new demigods of business. I’m going to try to be more like him. Why don’t we all? I’m sure it would solve a lot of nagging problems.
Photo by mindfulness.