On Thanksgiving, Give Thanks to These Unsung Service Heroes

While most Americans are enjoying Thanksgiving dinner, retail employees in stores across the country will be hard at work. That's because a long list of retail stores will be open on Thanksgiving.

Those hardworking employees deserve our thanks. In many cases, they have no choice but to work the holiday. 

There are other customer service employees who deserve our thanks too. They're the unsung heroes of Thanksgiving (and other holidays). Here are just a few we should give thanks to:


Thank you to the airline employees, airport workers, and security personnel who make Thanksgiving travel possible. Likewise, much appreciation is due to gas station attendants, convenience store employees, fast food workers, and coffee shop baristas who allow millions of Americans to take a road trip to see their families.

Thank you to the hotel associates who make our families feel at home when there's not enough room in our actual home. 

Thank you to the chefs, servers, bussers, and other restaurant employees who feed so many people who'd rather not prepare a big feast or know they'll never do it quite as good as their favorite restaurant.

Thank you to the homeless shelter employees, social workers, and volunteers who help feed less fortunate families on Thanksgiving.

Thank you to the movie theater employees who give us all an outlet when we still want to spend time with family, but also want to get out of the house.

Thank you to the football players, officials, team employees, television employees, and stadium workers who all make it possible for us to watch football while we relax in the living room. Football may just be the one thing we actually have in common with some of our family members.

Thank you to the EMTs, hospital employees, police officers, and other emergency workers who come to our aid when we overdo it on turkey or get into an accident because the roads are so crowded.

Thank you to all of the people I forgot to mention for not getting too upset that I forgot them. You know I didn't mean it. I appreciate you too.

So many people will be working this Thanksgiving. If you should require their service, I hope you will treat them with kindness and respect. Thank them for all that they do to make it possible for so many of us to enjoy this day.

Alaska Airlines Nails Social Listening

A few weeks ago, AT&T stumbled into an #icmichat Tweet chat. It's a weekly Twitter chat that revolves around contact centers and customer service. 

Someone mentioned a poor AT&T experience, which generated a series of automated Tweets from AT&T's @ATTCares account. 

The got trolled for their efforts.

It was an ironic example of how not to practice social listening. Someone on AT&T's social care team evidently got the message because the automated automated Tweets have stopped happening. 

Today, I get to point out a good example. Alaska Airlines provided a textbook example of social listening during this week's #icmichat.

We were discussing how airlines will sometimes match competitor's frequent flyer status in an effort to get them to defect. I mentioned that Alaska Airlines had recently done this for my wife. Another participant asked how to go about it.

Knowing Alaska Airlines is on top of social media, I sent this Tweet:

Within minutes, Alaska Airlines sent Nancy Jamison a direct message:

That was a great move since it established a personal connection and answered Jamison's question directly. Next, they followed up to let everyone else know how to do it too:

Their approach was fast, helpful, and friendly. Angel, the Alaska Airlines customer service rep, also took an extra moment to show a little non-automated personality:

This is the type of Twitter support that companies should strive for. I won't lie to you - getting here isn't easy. There's a lot of time, effort, and planning that goes into it.

Here are a few resources to help you explore how your company can nail Twitter like Alaska Airlines:

Does Size Matter in Customer Service?

Take a moment to think about where you get better service. Is it generally from bigger companies or smaller ones?

The argument for bigger companies is they have more resources. That's what allows a company like Amazon to automatically refund the cost of an on-demand movie when their computers detect the playback quality wasn't up to par. 

The argument for smaller companies is they're more personal. Chances are you know a few people by name who have served you for years - the person who cuts your hair, the owner of your local dry cleaner, or a waiter at your favorite family restaurant.

So, does size really matter?

The answer might not be what you think it is. This post explores some data that suggests some surprising conclusions about the impact of size on service quality.

Zendesk Data

I asked the good folks at Zendesk if they could help me with some data. They had revealed some insights about service quality by company size in their original Zendesk Customer Service Benchmark report. That report was released in 2012, so I wanted to see the latest trend.

Zendesk provides customer service software, which means they have access to reams of aggregate data on actual customer service interactions. They were able to look at their clients' customer satisfaction ratings and group them by company size.

Here's what they found:

Source: Zendesk

Source: Zendesk

The data shows that large companies have the best service, followed by the smallest organizations. Mid-sized companies have the worst service.

The big question is why? One possibility is employee engagement. 


Employee Engagement

There are quite a few studies that show a correlation between service quality and employee engagement. A 2012 research report from the Temkin Group shows that employees in smaller companies are considerably more engaged than in large companies.

The chart below shows the average percentage of engaged employees (moderately engaged + highly engaged) by company size:

Source: Temkin Group

Source: Temkin Group

The data helps explain why smaller companies generally provide better service, but it doesn't explain why Zendesk's data shows that large companies provide the best service.

One explanation is that Zendesk grouped companies into different categories than the Temkin Group. Zendesk's data separates companies with 500 - 4,999 employees and 5,000+ employees, while the Temkin Group's largest categories are 100-1,000 and 1,000+. 

It could be that employees in companies with 5,000+ employees are more engaged than in companies with 1,000 employees. (Personal note: I doubt it.)

Another explanation is that engagement isn't the sole driver of customer service quality. Other factors play a role such as the product, processes, and policies. Big companies tend to do this better than mid-sized companies, which can sometimes experience growing pains. Small companies are often small enough to continue operating informally.

Still one more explanation is team size.


Team Size Matters

There's some anecdotal evidence that suggests the size of a team can have an impact on service.

Let's go back to the Temkin Group data on employee engagement. Teams in small companies tend to be small because there aren't a lot of employees in general. Work teams tends to grow as employee counts grow.

Why is this important? A lot of great customer service comes from teamwork. Teamwork comes from creating strong relationships, which is hard to do in larger groups. 

Look at how many relationships are created as a team expands from 2 employees to 10. 

  • 2 = 1 relationship
  • 3 = 3 relationships
  • 4 = 6 relationships
  • 5 = 10 relationships
  • 6 = 15 relationships
  • 7 = 21 relationships
  • 8 = 28 relationships
  • 9 = 36 relationships
  • 10 = 45 relationships

A team with 100 employees has a whopping 4,950 individual relationships between all it's members. Here's the formula if you want to do the math on your team:

# of Relationships = (x-1) * (x/2) where x = the number of people on your team.

But, what about large companies? In very large companies, it's not uncommon for employees to form tight relationships with people on their work team while employees in other departments or locations remain relatively anonymous.

For example, Amazon lives by what CEO Jeff Bezos calls the Two Pizza Rule. The idea is that teams shouldn't contain more people than you can feed with two pizzas. That generally works out to about eight people.


Inside FCR's Small Team Approach

FCR is a U.S. based contact center outsourcer. They have 1,400 employees who are spread out over six contact centers in Oregon. Part of their strategy is limiting the size of their contact centers to approximately 350 employees.

I asked Jeremy Watkin, FCR's Head of Quality, for some insight into why the company has so many small centers. 

He gave me a few reasons. The first was practical. "If you look at our centers, they all have a very similar feel.  They are typically in an old warehouse, department store, or grocery store space and we use every square inch."

The second was strategic. Locating their contact centers in small Oregon towns gives FCR access to a strong labor market while keeping costs relatively low. However, being in a small town also means that there are only so many potential employees to fill those jobs.

The third reason is culture. FCR is deliberately trying to create a strong, customer-focused environment where people enjoy a collegial atmosphere. In fact, colleague is FCR's name for employee.

Watkin told me that people coming from larger contact centers are usually surprised when they join FCR. "At FCR, they feel like people know their name and that they matter."


Interview With Jeremy Watkin

I wanted to learn more about FCR's approach to team size. Thankfully, Jeremy agreed to let me interview him via Google Hangout. I hope you can join us.

  • Date: Thursday, December 3 2015
  • Time: 10:00 am (Pacific)
  • Coordinates: Google Hangout

We'll be discussing how team size can impact customer service. Jeremy offers a unique perspective since he led the customer service function in a company with less than 50 employees before joining FCR.

Jeremy Watkin is the Head of Quality at FCR, the most respected outsource provider. He has more than 15 years of experience as a customer service professional.  He is also the co-founder and regular contributor on Communicate Better Blog.  Jeremy has been recognized many times for his thought leadership.  Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn for more awesome customer service and experience insights.

Why We Need Less Marketing And More Customer Experience

Like most pet owners, I go out of my way to care for my dog.

She's a ten-year-old mutt that I've had since she was a puppy. She's a big girl, weighing just under 80 pounds. This means I make regular visits to the pet store to buy a lot of food, treats, and poop bags. I can only imagine how much I've spent over her lifetime.

There's a pet store that's just five minutes away from my house. I don't go there anymore because it offered a consistently poor experience. 

It wasn't just the customer service that was poor. It was the entire experience. Annette Franz has this handy definition of customer experience on her blog:

(a) the sum of all the interactions that a customer has with a company over the course of the relationship lifecycle and (b) the customer's feelings, emotions, and perceptions of the brand over the course of those interactions.

Someone in marketing had a new bright idea every week. They'd change the layout so frequently that each visit felt like walking through a maze. They frequently got rid of popular products because they thought they could sell a similar product under their private label for a better margin.

Now, I drive to another pet store that's fifteen minutes from my home. I literally pass the old store on my way there. The new store had a much better experience.

At least it did until Tuesday.

I went in for three items. This store usually gives you the option to get your receipt via email. I like that. It's one less piece of paper to clutter my pocket before I eventually throw it away. 

Not Tuesday. On Tuesday, the only receipt option was paper:

This monstrous receipt was for three items. It's 58.5 inches long in case you're wondering - nearly five feet tall.

Someone in marketing is responsible for this. They took away the convenient email option and replaced it with a file-clogging wad of coupons and promotions. I'm not interested in any of them. 

This isn't a customer service problem. The friendly cashier made the best of the situation when the receipt started printing and just kept going and going. We joked about it. I think she was a little embarrassed. She apologized for the hassle.

I'm sure a marketer thought this was a great idea. You can just imagine one of those creative sessions. Someone suddenly gets a devilish look in their eye and said, "What if... nah. It's too outlandish."

Someone else chimed in and said, "C'mon, Craig. We're brainstorming here! There are no bad ideas! What are you thinking?"

So Craig screwed up the courage to spit it out. "What if we gave every customer a giant receipt full of coupons? It could be like five feet long. It would be so outrageous that customers would think they were getting punked!!"

Actually, Craig, there are bad ideas.

No customer experience professional would have gone for this. One look at the awkward interaction between customer and cashier while the receipt printer spewed out coupons like a broken skee ball machine and they would have realized it was a crummy idea.

Those coupons might earn the pet store a few extra bucks. The marketers will take credit for that. It might also cost them a few customers. Whose fault will that be?

How To Prepare Your Team For Customer Service Training

So, you're ready to send your team to customer service training. The big question is whether or not your team is ready.

Chance are, they aren't.

A 2010 McKinsey & Company survey revealed that approximately 75 percent of training programs failed to measurably improve business performance. A lack of preparation is one of the biggest culprits.

This post will get to the heart of the problem and explain what you can do about it.

Why Employees Are Uninspired

I frequently volunteer to facilitate an open-enrollment customer service class for nonprofit organizations. Anyone can sign-up and I never know who will be there until the day of the class. As participants arrive, I like to ask them why they signed up for the training. 

Here are the top three reasons:

  1. They were told to be there.
  2. The class looked interesting.
  3. The class gave them credit towards a certificate program.

That's a pretty uninspiring list. Unfortunately, most of the employees who come to customer service training aren't really sure why they're there. 

My experience in the corporate world suggests this is pretty much the norm.

Very rarely does someone attend because they're trying to solve a specific problem. It's unusual for someone to read the course description and work out exactly what they hope to learn. 

A 2005 T&D article by Jack Zenger, Joe Folkman, and Robert Sherwin estimated that preparation accounted for 26 percent of learning while the learning event only accounted for 24 percent (50 percent came from follow-up). In other words, the work you do to get ready for training is more important that the training itself! However, the authors estimated that companies typically spent just 10 percent their training time, money, and resources on the preparation phase. 


How To Prepare Employees

A simple action plan can help you maximize learning by ensuring that nothing slips through the cracks. My go-to planning tool is the one-page Workshop Planner.

Here's a short video that explains how to use this worksheet. I've also provided more detailed instructions below. The planning process should take no more than one hour.

Step 1: Identify Your Purpose

It's important for employees to know why they're attending training. That's pretty hard to explain if you can't clearly articulate this yourself. So, start by answering these three questions:

  1. What are the Expected Outcomes?
  2. What is the Existing Performance?
  3. What are the Cause(s) for the Gap?

Enter the answers in the boxes at the top of the worksheet:

Now, it's gut check time. Do you really need customer service training? 

Training is typically responsible for just 1 percent of performance. I can think of at least six ways to improve customer service without training. You should only schedule training if you really need it.


Step 2: Identify Pre-Training Actions

The bottom two-thirds of the worksheet is laid out in a grid. Use this to create a list of action items for participants, their supervisor(s), and the trainer.

Start by thinking about what participants need to do to prepare for the training. 

At a minimum, employees should be able to answer three questions:

  1. What's the training about?
  2. How will this class help me do my job?
  3. How can I apply what I've learned back on the job?

Next, determine what the employees' supervisor(s) needs to do to make sure that happens. Typical actions include announcing the training to employees and coaching them to ensure they can answer the three questions.

Finally, determine what the trainer needs to do to help the supervisor(s) prepare employees. My clients typically ask me to provide them with a class description they can share.


Step 3: Identify Training Actions

Now it's time to set a few expectations for employees while attending the training event. These are typically very few. Examples include:

  • Being fully present and engaged
  • Making appropriate scheduling arrangements

Next, move down the column to decide what the employees' supervisor(s) need to do to ensure that happens. For example, supervisors often need to make scheduling adjustments to maintain operational coverage while employees participate in training.

Finally, decide what the trainer needs to do to support this.


Step 4: Identify Follow-up Actions

Don't wait until the training is over to decide how employees should implement what they've learned. Create a plan now to make sure it happens.

Start by deciding what employees should specifically do to implement their new skills. Then, decide what the supervisor(s) should do to ensure it happens. Here are a few examples from recent training classes:

  • Call a team meeting to ask employees how they applied what they learned.
  • Coach employees one-on-one to see if they're using their new skills.
  • Survey employees to identify which skills they've tried.

Finally, determine what support the employees' supervisor(s) need from the trainer. With my clients, I typically hold a follow-up meeting 30 days after the training to check-in with leaders and see what help they need to sustain their progress.