The REAL Way to Motivate Customer Service Employees

Employee motivation has been a hot topic in customer service for as long as anyone can remember.

In the old days, the threat of punishment was used to motivate customer service employees. The message was clear — do a good job or be fired. 

That approach didn’t work because employees would do just enough to avoid getting fired.

In more recent history, rewards and incentives became an import facet of management philosophy. The idea was you could get employees to do something they’d normally find distasteful by incentivizing them with cash and prizes. 

That approach didn’t work because employees would do just enough to win a prize.

The current management thinking revolves around gamification. Think of it as rewards on steroids. A perfect attendance prize gets a lot more exciting if you can win points, badges, and work your way up the team leader board.

Unfortunately, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that gamification doesn’t play well with customer service employees.

So, what does work?

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Intrinsic Motivation - The REAL Motivator

In his book, Drive, author Daniel Pink examines reams of evidence on employee motivation and comes to a clear conclusion:

The carrot and stick approach doesn’t motivate knowledge workers to do a better job. In fact, it’s counterproductive and often results in poorer performance.

Pink discovered that knowledge workers, such as customer service employees, are intrinsically motivated. He found three specific factors that motivate employees to do a better job. Unfortunately, these factors are sorely lacking in many customer service environments:

  1. Purpose
  2. Mastery
  3. Autonomy

 

Purpose

People want to belong to something and know their work has meaning.

In customer service, this means creating a customer service vision. This is a clear definition of outstanding customer service that is shared by all employees. It serves as a compass to point everyone in the same direction.

Most customer service teams don’t have a clear purpose. My own research revealed that only 62 percent of companies have clearly defined outstanding service. Of those companies, only a few can honestly say their employees can give a consistent answer to two critical questions:

  1. What is our customer service vision?
  2. How do I personally contribute to the customer service vision?

If you want to know why customer service at In-N-Out Burger is so much better than McDonald’s, look no further than purpose. Both started with the same core values, but only In-N-Out has made them a real part of their culture.

 

Mastery

People love developing their skills. It feels good to be good at something.

Many customer service teams are anti-mastery. Companies keep salaries low by hiring low skilled employees. They skimp on training. Leaders find themselves with very little time to give coaching and feedback unless something goes wrong.

Amazing things can happen when you give employees the opportunity to grow and be their best. Not in a superficial, here’s your “Knowledge Badge” and ten experience points sort of way. True mastery is that process where people become increasingly better at their jobs.

Earlier this year, I wrote about Jesse, a new employee at a bagel shop. She was awkward and lacked confidence because she hadn’t been properly trained.

Jesse underwent a complete transformation over the course of a few weeks. She stuck with it and figured out how to do her job. She asked questions and learned from her experiences. Now, Jesse engaged customers with confidence and personality because she had mastered her basic responsibilities.

 

Autonomy

Ask customer service employees what they dislike most about their jobs and many will tell you it’s a lack of autonomy.

  • They don’t like scripts, because it feels like they aren’t trusted to say the right thing.
  • They don’t like rules, because it seems like they aren’t trusted to do the right thing.
  • They don’t like data, because it appears to be a tool for micromanagement.

Engaged employees are given the autonomy to do what’s right.

They have a clear purpose they believe in and are trusted to work towards that purpose. They are given opportunities to learn and grow so they can master their ability to contribute to the purpose.

Creating a clear purpose, helping employees develop mastery, and giving employees autonomy can be time-consuming. Many managers fall back on the carrot and stick approach because it seems easier. In the long run, any time savings is lost in lower productivity, lower morale, and higher turnover.

If you’d like to see more, check out this amazing ten minute video that summarizes Pink’s research on employee motivation:

What Angry Customers Tweet About

In September 2013, Hasan Syed decided to voice his displeasure with British Airways by paying to promote his angry tweets about the airline's service.

The tweet when viral and the story was reported by many major news outlets. British Airways soon found itself in the uncomfortable position of issuing a public apology for a single service failure.

The viral tweet is something that scares a lot of executives.

It’s one thing to disappoint a customer one-on-one. It’s quite another issue to see that disappointment broadcast for the world to see. 

So, what do angry customers tweet about?

To find out, I sampled 250 tweets:

  • 100 tweets with the hashtag #badservice
  • 100 with the hashtag #customerservice
  • 50 tweets with the hashtag #servicefail

Both #badservice and #customerservice are among the more popular hashtags used by customers. I only sampled 50 tweets with the hashtag #servicefail because it isn’t used as often.

Only complaints were counted. Compliments, general discussions, or people promoting a product or their content were all left out.

Here are three things I discovered:

 

Don’t Make Customers Wait

Waiting is the top source of twitter complaints, with 37 percent mentioning an excessive wait time. 

This covers a wide variety of situations. 

It could be waiting for a replacement product to arrive, waiting for the cable repair technician, or waiting for food to arrive in a restaurant. 

 

Respond Or They’ll Tweet

The number two source of twitter complaints was a defective product or service at 23 percent. No real surprise there, but number three was interesting: 22 percent of twitter complaints mentioned the company had not responded to them via another channel.

Many companies are their own worst enemies here. 

Customers now expect a response to email within four hours, but most companies are still at one day or more. Phone calls go unreturned. 

“I’ll get back to you” often really means “I’ll forget about you.”

 

Twitter is a Second Channel

A majority of the complaints on twitter hint that this isn’t the first time they tried to resolve the issue.

Many customers have tried to resolve their problem via a more traditional one-on-one channel that isn’t broadcast to social media. Perhaps they visited a store, called a contact center, or browsed a company website.

Here’s a chart with the overall results:

Key Take-aways

This data highlights a few things savvy companies should be doing.

Reducing wait times is an obvious start, but companies often struggle here. Keep in mind that wait time is a factor of both reality and perception. You can use a few secret tactics to help customers feel like their wait time is shorter.

Responding to customers is a no-brainer. There’s no excuse for being unresponsive. 

Focusing on first contact resolution may be the best way to prevent angry tweets. People often complain on twitter when their original complaint has gone unresolved.

How do Adults Learn? Find out on lynda.com

Many of us train in some capacity.

You might consider yourself a trainer. Or, perhaps you're a leader who trains employees one-on-one. You may even be asked to help out an inexperienced co-worker.

Whatever the situation, it helps to know how adults learn new knowledge, skills, and abilities.

My new course on lynda.com will provide you with the foundational knowledge you need to take your training to the next level. It's primarily intended for instructional designers, but anyone who does training can benefit.

Topics include:

  • Adult learning theory
  • Understanding the four stages of learning
  • Comparing active vs. passive learning
  • Overcoming learning barriers
  • Turning theory into practice

In the sample video below, you'll see how two courses on the same topic can be vastly different. (Click here if you don't see the video.)

You’ll need a lynda.com subscription to view the entire course. The good news is your subscription gives you unlimited access to all of their courses. 

Even better news? You can get a free 7-day trial so you can watch this course and explore the lynda.com library without committing to purchasing a subscription.

Here are a few more of my courses on lynda.com:

How In-N-Out Almost Became McDonald's

I go to In-N-Out Burger a lot.

The law of averages suggests I should have had a bad experience at least once by now. Some visits have been better than others, but I’ve never had a bad experience. Not one.

I’m not alone in my admiration of In-N-Out. They’re consistently ranked among the top fast food chains in customer satisfaction. The chain only has locations in a handful of states, but people all over the country and even outside the United States have become fans, with some devoted followers even planning a business trip or vacation itinerary around a visit to an In-N-Out. 

What’s the secret to In-N-Out’s success? It may be easier to understand if you compare them to a similar restaurant that struggles with customer service: McDonald's. 

The two have a lot in common. While McDonald's has a more diverse menu, both are fundamentally fast-food burger joints. Both were founded in Southern California in 1948. Many fast-food service concepts in use today originated at either In-N-Out or McDonald's. The two companies even use the same three words as a foundation of their operating principles: quality, service, and cleanliness.

So why is the customer service experience at these two restaurants so different? In a word, culture. Culture defines everything these organizations do when it comes to customer service. 

In-N-Out founder Harry Snyder made sure the principles of “Quality, Cleanliness, and Service” were more than just platitudes. He instilled them in everything the company did – and these principles are still present in everything In-N-Out does today. Their food is fresh, not frozen. Their stores are clean, even during busy times. Their employees are friendly and well-trained. In-N-Out has maintained their remarkable consistency by steadfastly refusing to franchise their stores and resisting the urge to expand too quickly.

Culture also shapes many of their business practices, such as hiring employees. In-N-Out’s management believes a high-caliber employee is necessary to provide the service and quality they know their customers expect. They offer better wages and working conditions than their competitors which contributes to one of the lowest employee turnover rates in the fast food industry.

When Ray Kroc purchased the McDonald's concept from the McDonald brothers, he focused on rapidly expanding the business. The words quality, service, and cleanliness were clearly less important than a growth strategy based on volume, cost control, and franchising. For example, their frozen burger patties are cooked in approximately 42 seconds using a special clam-shell grill that cooks both sides of the patty at the same time. This is a remarkably fast and inexpensive way to cook burgers, but it may also be why McDonald's finished last in the 2010 Consumer Reports fast food burger rankings. (Yes, In-N-Out was rated #1.) 

While franchising allowed McDonald's to grow into a global giant, it also made it difficult for the company to control the quality of service delivered at its restaurants. Today, approximately 80 percent of their restaurants are run by franchisees and only 20 percent are run are by McDonald's, Which means the service customers receive from most of its establishments is determined by the management skills and customer service philosophy of an independent franchise owner rather than by the McDonald's organization. 

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Culture isn’t exclusively defined by an entire organization. Even at McDonald's, stores with managers who are good at engaging employees and motivating them to deliver outstanding service typically bring in 10 percent more revenue per year than the average.

 

Learning Point:

Values alone don’t define your culture. It’s what you do that counts. For another terrific example, read how Phone.com is operationalizing their values to turn them into action.

 

How to Hire for Culture Fit

There are two employees almost every customer service leader has had.

One employee has crazy talent. She has all the skills you could ever want and a resume a mile long. She’s also a pain to work with. Customers sometimes complain about her attitude.

Another employee is a little lighter in the skill department. He needs a lot of training, but he’s a natural problem-solver and a quick learner. Customers love his can-do attitude. Co-workers love his teamwork.

Who would you rather have on your team?

Most of us would prefer the employee who fits our culture over the highly skilled, but highly difficult employee.

Here’s a guide that can help you find more of those people.

Step 1: Define Culture

Imagine what the world would be like if there were no shoe sizes. You would walk into a shoe store and be completely unable to tell the salesperson what size shoe you needed. The only way to find shoes that fit was to try on pair after pair until you found one you liked.

Pretty tedious, right?

Hiring for culture fit without a clearly defined culture is the same thing. It’s pretty difficult to find something if you don’t really know what you’re looking for.

So, what is culture?

Culture is what we do. And, what we do is shaped by all the signals around us. Some signals are good and point us in the right direction. Some signals are bad and distract us

You can fix this by creating a customer service vision. This is a shared definition of outstanding customer service that serves as a compass to point everyone in the right direction. You can use my customer service vision worksheet as a guide. 

 

Step 2: Create an Ideal Candidate Profile

An ideal candidate profile describes the attributes of an employee who is most likely to be successful in the job. It combines the skills they need to do the work with the qualities they must possess to fully embrace the customer service vision.

You can use this handy worksheet to help you.

The key to this exercise is narrowing down your list to just a few must-have skills and attributes. The more must-haves you add to the list, the harder it will be to actually find a person who fits.

Check out how Shopify boiled their ideal candidate down to a simple concept in this cool video:

Step 3: Develop Tests

The last step is to devise ways to determine if a job applicant possesses the attributes they need to be successful.

Think beyond interview questions here. How can you get concrete evidence that they’re a great fit?

Here are a few examples:

A technical support team asks applicants to respond to a customer email. This allows them to test the applicants’ resourcefulness (the answers are on the company’s website) along with their communication and customer service skills.

The parking department on a college campus deliberately neglects to offer directions to their office when they schedule interviews with job applicants. They rely on applicants to either be assertive enough to ask or creative enough to figure it out on their own. An applicant who arrives late for an interview because they couldn’t find parking is probably ill-suited to helping customers navigate the same obstacles.

 

Additional Resources

Whole Foods, Southwest Airlines, and Zappos are all known for outstanding service and strong cultures. Check out the hiring page for each company. They all focus deeply on culture fit.