Lessons from The Overlook: Find the Right Partners

Note: Lessons from The Overlook is a monthly update on lessons learned from owning a vacation rental property in the Southern California mountain town of Idyllwild. It's a hands-on opportunity to apply some of the techniques I advise my clients to use. You can find past updates here.

Chances are you rely on partners to help serve your customers.

It might be a vendor, a supplier, or a delivery company. Your organization may even outsource the customer service function to another firm.

Choosing the right partners is essential.

My wife, Sally, and I own a vacation rental property in the Southern California mountain town of Idyllwild. Called The Overlook, our cabin is a two hour drive from our home in San Diego. 

Needless to say, we must rely on several partners to keep our guests happy.

We count on partners to book guest rentals, keep the cabin clean, make repairs, and keep the utilities running. 

Here's how we do it and how you can too.

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

But first, what's a partner?

I use the term partner to describe just about anyone who is not an employee that helps you deliver customer service. This could be a specific person or a company.

Here are just a few examples:

  • Delivery companies
  • Repair technicians
  • Suppliers
  • Contract or contingent labor
  • Marketing agencies
  • Business process outsources (ex: outsourced contact centers)
  • Cleaning and janitorial services
  • Technology providers (communications, software, etc.)

Great employees are essential to outstanding customer service, but your partners play an important role, too!

Now, here's how to find a partner that will treat your customers right.


Step 1: Identify Key Characteristics

It's helpful to decide what qualities make a great partner before you start searching.

Some people make one of these big mistakes when finding a partner:

  • Focusing solely on price
  • Exclusively choosing well-known companies
  • Picking partners because they are nice

There's nothing wrong with any of those qualities, but I recommend you dig a bit deeper. Look for partners who can align with your customer service vision.

The customer service vision for The Overlook is:

Welcome to your mountain community retreat.

So naturally we searched for partners who fit three criteria:

  • Are they welcoming?
  • Are they part of the Idyllwild mountain community?
  • Are they responsive?

That last part was key because we want our guests to feel like The Overlook is a retreat. To us, this implies relaxation. It's hard to relax when you need something and the owners are two hours away, so we need partners who can be responsive!


Step 2: Screen Potential Partners for Vision Alignment

The next step is to screen potential partners to see if they can truly align with your customer service vision.

For example, we contacted several companies to discuss managing our property. This is an essential role since the property manager oversees guest bookings, day-to-day customer service, cleaning, and maintenance.

One of the companies was a big-name property manager that had a centralized contact center and dedicated sales team. That's fine, but we wanted to know if this company was truly part of the local community, so we called the company's local office directly. The local manager never returned our call, which told us we'd probably get poor service from this person.

The property manager we did select, Idyllwild Vacation Cabins, was a different story. The owner, Martha Sanchez, agreed to meet us at the cabin to show us how she would manage the property and to give us tips to make it more appealing to renters. (Very welcoming!)

We also asked around the community and discovered she was well-known and had a good reputation.

And Martha is extremely responsive. She gave us her cell phone number and we soon found she is always quick to return a call or text.


Step 3: Develop a Partnership

Ditch the "customer is always right" mantra.

A true partnership is a two-way relationship. This means you need to invest in your partner's success just as much as they're investing in yours.

Go out of your way to be helpful. Make it easy for your partner to serve your customers. And be sure to live your customer service vision when it comes to working with your partner too.

That's why we try to be welcoming to our partners. We want them to accept us as part of the Idyllwild community, so we work hard to build positive relationships. And we're always responsive because we know our partners have a job to do too.

Jon Millhouse, our real estate agent at Town Real Estate, is another great example.

He went out of his way to give contractors access to the cabin so they could bid on a few upgrade projects without us having to drive all the way up from San Diego. And he did this even after the sale was final and he was no longer obligated to help us!

It turns out Jon is also an incredible photographer, and he let us use his photos for our website. You can find Jon's photography here.


Bonus Tip: Don't forget your neighbors

The Overlook is located in a quiet residential neighborhood. The people who live on both sides of our cabin live there full time.

This makes them essential partners!

Not long after buying the cabin, we went over to each neighbor's house to introduce ourselves. We brought some homemade fudge and a card with our contact information.

Lucky for us, our neighbors couldn't have been nicer! 

They immediately realized how we could help each other. Our neighbors offered to keep an eye on our place and let us know if anything seemed amiss. In return, we told them it was our intention to ensure our guests didn't cause any problems and asked them to let us know if there were any issues (noise, damage, etc.) so that we could address it immediately.

Many businesses have neighbors who share an office building, a retail center, or some other space. It's always a good idea to build good relationships with your neighbors so you can help each other.

Discussion Question: Who are the partners that are essential to serving your customers?

Insider Perspectives: UL's Nate Brown on Implementing a Vision

Nate Brown, Director of Customer Experience

Nate Brown, Director of Customer Experience

A customer service vision is essential to customer focus.

If you've not heard this term before, a customer service vision is a shared definition of outstanding customer service that points everyone in the same direction. You can read this backgrounder for more information.

Implementing a customer service vision can be tricky.

Employees may struggle to relate to it, remember it, or incorporate it into their daily activities. Leaders don't always realize the thoughtfulness that goes into creating a great vision or the effort and commitment required to make it stick.

Nate Brown is facing this challenge head-on, and is making great progress.

He's the Director of Customer Experience at UL EHS Sustainability, a company that provides software to help organizations manage environmental health and safety in the workplace. Brown also writes the excellent Customer Centric Support blog and is one of ICMI's Top 50 Thought Leaders to Follow on Twitter.

Brown shared some of his insights and lessons-learned with me.

Q: Why did you decide to create a customer service vision for your team?

"I attended your workshop on getting agents obsessed with service at ICMI's Contact Center Expo conference in Long Beach last May (2016). You talked about the importance of creating a customer service vision, and it sounded like exactly what we needed.

"I had thought a lot about making my team's day-to-day work in the contact center relevant to the company's mission. UL EHS Sustainability is a division of the safety science company UL. The mission statement is Working for a safer world, which makes sense because we're a global safety science company that provides a wide range of services such as consumer product testing and helping manufacturers build safer products.

"UL EHS Sustainability provides software to help employers create healthier, safer and more sustainable workplaces and my team provides technical support, so my team was initially focused on the technical aspect of their jobs. We needed a way to connect our work to the mission."


Q: What did you come up with?

"Our customer service vision is Supporting our customers and each other in a manner that is effortless, accurate, and friendly. 

"The thinking is if we can do these things, our customers will be able to use our software better which ultimately contributes to UL's mission.”


Q: How did you develop the customer service vision statement?

"I initially thought about what I'm trying to drive through our quality management program. Those three words, effortless, accurate, and friendly described what we were already doing. So I took those concepts and put them together in one clear and concise statement.

"For example, I'm a big fan of The Effortless Experience and we've been trying to implement concepts from the book in our contact center.

"Once I developed an initial draft, I shared it with the managers on my leadership team to get their input. It really resonated with them, so we then rolled it out to the entire team on a conference call.

"We talked through the vision and I asked everyone to tell me what they thought. I didn't get any pushback or suggested changes, which I think is because the customer service vision is grounded in what we were already doing."


Q: What are you doing to integrate the vision into your employees' daily activities?

"This is definitely a work in progress, because I'm still working on getting it out in front of employees on a regular basis. We've only had this vision for eight months and it needs to be more widely adopted, but here's what we've done so far:

"We now introduce it to all new hires and then include it in one-on-one coaching. We're trying to get people to see how they can put each part of the vision into practice.

"For example, one part of the vision is effortless. In the past, an employee might answer a customer question by sending a knowledge base article. Now, that same employee might include the article in the email along with some commentary that customizes the solution to the customer's needs. We also are striving for ‘next issue avoidance’ which takes the resolution beyond the surface level issue and resolves that question the customer may not have known to ask.

"Another word in our vision is accurate. We have a big initiative right now to upgrade our knowledge base so that it's fully up to date and easier for our employees to use. If we support the team with the right tools, we can make it easier for them to support their customers with accurate information. I’m starting to see more and more that a great indicator for the health of a support organization is their ability to collect, share and curate knowledge.

"Our marketing department has just gone through a huge re-branding process and one of their guiding factors was trying to create an even more approachable brand, so this naturally ties into the friendly aspect of our vision. We're encouraging agents to develop rapport with their customers to help create a better experience."


Q: What advice would you give to other leaders who are trying to implement a customer service vision?

"The toughest lesson for me is to be more patient. Awhile ago, my boss challenged me to be more of a marathon view versus a sprint mentality. What he meant was that we all want to achieve immediate results, but it takes time for these initiatives to take hold. I've only been in this role for a year now and we've accomplished a lot during that time, but there's still a lot more left to do.

"I've really been influenced by John Kotter's book, Leading Change. It explains that change is a process and you have to have checkpoints along the way to keep things moving. You also have to clarify the benefits of what we're trying to accomplish so everyone will get on board.

"One of the things I'm doing now is creating our 2017 strategy. The customer service vision is the glue that provides consistency from one year to the next. It's wonderful for our contact center to have that ever-present north star."


Q: You mentioned strategy. How has having a customer service vision helped you become more strategic?

"Organizations generally don't look to the contact center to be strategic, but it's so important for customer service leaders to control their own destiny.

"Our customer service vision tells us we need to fight for both a better customer and agent experience. We're going to advance that vision in 2017 in a variety of ways, including a customer experience program that includes all functions of the business.

"I can also show our executive leaders how we're aligning with our brand. The new corporate brand identity focuses on being a friendly brand that feels young, energized, and engaging. That's exactly the way we're supporting the customers who use our software. It’s going to be an awesome year!"

Follow-up: After our interview, Nate wrote his own blog post describing the value a customer service vision has created for his team. It's a good read and highly recommended.

Discussion Question: If you implemented a customer service vision (or are in the process of doing so) what lessons did you learn from the experience?

How to Share Customer Service Tips with Your Team

A customer service leader recently asked me for some best practices for sharing my Customer Service Tip of the Week with her team.

If you aren't familiar with this, the Customer Service Tip of the Week is one tip sent via one email once per week. Here's an example of one tip, The Five Question Technique.

The customer service leader shared a few potential challenges:

Her intended audience was too large to use the "Forward to a Friend" feature that's included in each email.

She thought about having employees subscribe themselves to the tips, but worried that many wouldn't read them.

Does this sound like you?

I shared a few suggestions and I think she ultimately came up with a good plan. Here's what I shared with her plus some additional ideas I've received from other customer service leaders.

Ask Your Employees to Subscribe

People are more likely to pay attention to something when the same message is reinforced in multiple ways.

So a natural starting point is to ask employees to subscribe themselves to the Customer Service Tip of the Week email, even if you plan to share it with them as well. It's fast, free, and easy.

How easy? Just click here.

You can also ask your employees to visit www.toistersolutions.com/tips to sign themselves up or go to the website yourself and do the sign-ups for them.

Will everyone read every email? Probably not. But many employees will read many of the weekly tips, and that's a good start.


Discuss the Tips in Team Meetings

Many customer service leaders have daily, weekly, or monthly check-in meetings with their teams.

Customer service leaders often tell me the Customer Service Tip of the Week makes a great discussion topic. Here's how it works:

  1. Introduce the current tip.
  2. Lead a conversation to discuss how it can be incorporated.
  3. Review success stories at the following meeting.

Discussing the Customer Service Tip of the Week with the team makes the weekly email more valuable to your employees. 

They're more likely to read it before the meeting if they know it's going to be a topic of conversation. They'll also be more likely to reference it throughout the week if they know you'll be looking for success stories at the next meeting!


Share Tips on a Case-by-Case Basis

Let's say you've been coaching an individual employee on rapport-building skills.

Can you keep a secret? My weekly tips have a pattern that rotates every three weeks:

  1. Week 1: the topic is rapport
  2. Week 2: the topic is exceeding expectations
  3. Week 3: top topic is solving problems

That means every third Customer Service Tip of the Week focuses on building rapport! 

So you can wait for the next relevant rapport-building tip and use the "Forward to a Friend" link in the email to send the tip to the employee along with some of your own suggestions and commentary.

What if the employee receives the tips already? No matter. Your additional email reinforces the concept.

Tip from the pros: Never click on "forward" in your email client (Outlook, Gmail, etc.) to forward a Customer Service Tip of the Week email. 


Because each email contains an active unsubscribe link that's attached to the original recipient. That means your recipient can unsubscribe you from the email by clicking that link. 

The "Forward to a Friend" feature in every email eliminates this problem.


What Did the Customer Service Leader Do?

She asked me if she could include my weekly tips in her division's monthly newsletter. 

Of course I said yes and simply requested that she cite my company, Toister Performance Solutions as the source and include my website (www.toistersolutions.com/tips) in the newsletter as well.

You can do the same thing to if you'd like to share these tips with your employees!

Insider Perspectives: Keynote Speaker Teresa Allen on Executive Buy-in

Teresa Allen, Keynote Speaker

Teresa Allen, Keynote Speaker

Customer service initiatives won't go anywhere unless your company's top brass gets fully behind it.

That can be a tall order for many customer service leaders. Executives don't always feel they have the time or see the value of fully committing company resources.

I asked Teresa Allen, a veteran customer service trainer and keynote speaker, to share her perspective on getting executive buy-in.

Allen is the author of Common Sense Service and the owner of Common Sense Solutions, a national customer service training and consulting firm. She currently ranks #1 on the Global Gurus list of the top customer service experts in the world. She's also one of ICMI's Top 50 Thought Leaders to Follow on Twitter.

Q: What do customer-focused companies do differently than other organizations?

"The common thread is a fearless leader who considers customer service part of the company mission and culture. 

"Providing great customer service gives you permission to sell to your customers. It's marketing, not an expense, but senior leaders need to believe that. It's got to be a top-down approach. 


Q: Why are these fearless leaders so scarce?

"I generally see two different types of organizations.

"In one type of organization, the top executive is out there every day talking to customers, soliciting feedback, and leading the charge for exceptional customer service. They have often risen from the sales side of the business and have seen the link of service to sales revenue and profits.

"In another organization type, executives are not keyed into the value of a customer service culture.  They look at it as an expense item instead of a revenue generator. In some cases, this is because customer service has never been their world. They may have come from a finance or legal background and thus have never been directly exposed to the customer side of the business.  In this environment, building a service culture can be a real challenge, because a customer service initiative will never be fully successful unless top leadership of the organization are supporting it and driving it.

"Developing a customer service culture can't be a revolution. It has to be an evolutionary process. Executive buy-in combined with hiring of service minded individuals is key.  Training should be designed to support the company’s service objectives across all departments and positions until gradually everybody in the company is on board."


Q: What are some ways that customer leaders can encourage more executive buy-in?

"Customer service leaders in organizations are often not able to prove outcomes, particularly as that relates to the bottom line. If I invest in improving customer service, can I show that it's driving sales and profits?

"Net promoter and customer effort scores are nice metrics, but a good NPS score doesn't prove value to many executives. I can almost hear the Jerry Maguire refrain, 'Show me the money!'”

"Customer service surveys can be helpful if executives use them to drive results. Whenever I get contracted to do a customer service program, I always ask my client to forward any available customer service survey data.  It's okay if they send me the numbers, but what I really want is the comments. I want to look for what I call red lights, yellow lights, and green lights. The red lights indicate pain points that can lead to serious loss of business, the yellow lights are comments illustrating areas to be cautious about, and the green lights are compliments and kudos on exceptional service that serve to strengthen customer relationships.

"Organizations should market to their strengths and train to weaknesses. Companies can evaluate those green lights and find a way to use them as a marketing business building tool. The red lights should be incorporated into the next customer service training program so the problems get solved.

"I ask the leaders I work with, 'How are you sharing this data?' Sadly, I often hear that it is only held by the marketing department.  Survey data is valuable far beyond marketing.  It should be shared with employees so improvements can be made as well as to recognize team members who are growing the success of the organization through exceptional customer service."


Q: Assuming you can get an executive to sign-off on investing in customer service, what are some ways to keep him or her involved?

"Whenever I deliver customer service training or keynotes, I always ask someone from the executive team to introduce the program and tell everyone why it’s important to the organization.

"It would be great if the CEO or President did this, but that's not always possible since they're often very busy people. But some executive should be there, such as the vice president of human resources or the vice president of sales or marketing.

"Customer service can't be perceived as the training ‘flavor of the month.’ With regular executive emphasis and follow through, customer service will be viewed as an integral success strategy and will be more likely to be taken seriously by the organization as a whole.

"When an executive makes a real commitment to being customer-focused, it provides a mandate for the company to do things differently. For example, managers must take the time to hire the right people who can help the company deliver outstanding service.

"A customer focus can also help guide future investments. One executive frustration is the constantly evolving digital service technology that can come at a high cost. While many organizations are investing in these high-tech bells and whistles, recent studies show human interactions can actually be equally if not more important. The more complex an issue, the faster a customer wants to connect with a human who helps to solve it. [Side note: You can see data backing this up here.]  

"The human touch is big!  This means that training representatives in face-to-face and telephone customer service and communication skills is still critical. You can help steer more investment into the right service initiatives if you can show executives this is what customers really want and combine that with solid ROI data."

Three Ways Excuses Inhibit Learning

The workshop participant arrived 30 minutes late.

"Sorry," she said. "I was stuck in traffic. It was terrible this morning." She found a seat and sipped her fresh cup of Starbucks coffee as the class continued.

This wasn't the best way to start a two-day workshop, but we've all been unexpectedly delayed before. The important part is that we learn from experience and take steps to ensure it doesn't happen again.

She was late again the next day. This time, she had a muffin in addition to her Starbucks cup.

Unsurprisingly, the woman struggled with the content. 

It wasn't because she lacked the ability. It wasn't even because she had been late to the class — she could have caught up with the material if she was really motivated.

The participant's challenge started with that lousy excuse about traffic. Here are three ways that excuses prevent learning.

Excuses Reinforce the Status Quo

We must have a strong desire to change in order to learn.

The training participant told herself the traffic was out of her control, so she saw no reason to do anything different on day two. She stuck to the same routine and accepted the same result.

Excuses inhibit our ability to change. 

Customer service professionals must constantly find ways to do things better. We can't do that if we let excuses stand in our way. For example, if we tell ourselves that an angry customer wasn't our fault, there's no reason for us to learn from the experience. 


Excuses Limit Options

Learning involves finding new ways to do things.

The training participant had stopped at Starbucks on her way to class each day, which contributed to her lateness. Her excuses prevented her from realizing that she could leave earlier to make time for a Starbucks stop, skip her morning coffee, or brew her own coffee at home.

Customer service professionals must constantly find innovative ways to serve their customers.

Things break, processes fail, and customers have unusual needs. We'll be blind to possible solutions if we allow excuses to stand in the way of our ability to attempt a solution.


Excuses Extinguish Passion

Learning is fueled by desire.

The workshop participant had no real desire to be in the class. She paid little attention to the content, half-heartedly engaged in activities, and returned late from every break. Her habit of making excuses allowed her to believe that the training wasn't effective, even though her colleagues embraced it whole-heartedly.

Customer service employees must go the extra mile to overcome challenges.

There's no reason to expend additional energy doing that if you let excuses hold you back. In this sense, making an excuse instead of making the effort is the easy way out.


Let's get real: Think about excuses you make. What would happened if you stopped making excuses and started finding solutions?