What Are the Best Support Channels for Serving Customers?

When I started working in contact centers they were called call centers because that's what customers did. They called. 

Today, it's very different. Customers have far more options for contacting a company beyond the phone. They can email, chat, text, use social media, use the company's app, or go to the company's website.

This is a big challenge for contact center leaders.

On one hand, we want to serve customers using the channels they prefer. The problem is it's exceptionally difficult to staff, train, and provide the right infrastructure for multiple channels. It's even more difficult to deliver consistently excellent service when limited resources are divided in too many ways.

Some companies limit service to just a few channels, but this can cause unnecessary friction. For example, if a customer is forced to email a software vendor because that's the only available channel, that customer might not get the immediate resolution they need.

So what's the best way?

This post explores various options for choosing the support channels that work the best for your specific situation. It includes a short training video and several hands-on exercises.

A customer using a smartphone to decide which channel to use to contact a company for service.

What service channels to customers prefer?

Research shows that the phone is still the most popular customer service channel, but customers also choose different channels in different situations. There are a few factors customers consider when deciding how to contact your company for service. These include:

  • Convenience

  • Urgency

  • Complexity of the issue

Let's take a closer look at each one, starting with convenience.

Customers want service to be easy and convenient. A customer might use a web form to email your company instead of calling because they can type a short message and send it without having to wait on hold.

There's a major gap here.

The Northridge Group published a comprehensive report on consumer channel preferences in 2018. It revealed that customers generally don’t think it’s easy to get support via various service channels.

Source: The Northridge Group

Source: The Northridge Group

The next factor is urgency. 

A customer with an urgent need might be more inclined to call, while a simple question can be sent via email or social media. One word of caution: my own research reveals that the gap is closing between response time expectations for 'slow' channels like email and real-time channels like phone.

The third factor is complexity.

Customers often decide how to contact a company based on the complexity of their issue. A simple question might get asked in an online forum, while a customer might turn to phone or chat for a detailed technical issue.

Keep in mind that what customers really want is to get their issue resolved. So customers are more likely to be happy with something other than their preferred channel if you are able to serve them effectively.

How to choose the right support channels

There are two parts to choosing the right channels to serve your customers. The first part is evaluating your existing service channels and deciding whether to improve or remove each one. The second part is determining which new service channels, if any, need to be added.

I'm going to share a four minute training video with you that will walk you through the steps required to choose the best support channels for your organization. 

Download this Service Channel Worksheet before watching the video. You'll use it for an exercise to help you evaluate the effectiveness of your existing service channels.

Here's the short video.


Seven Easy Ways to Build Rapport with Customers

Rapport is one of the most important customer service skills.

It helps customers feel better about your service. They relax and are easier to serve because they like you. And friendly interactions help you sustain a positive outlook throughout your day.

Here's how rapport is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

a friendly, harmonious relationship

especially : a relationship characterized by agreement, mutual understanding, or empathy that makes communication possible or easy

So how exactly do you build rapport?

You probably know some of the basics: smile, be friendly, and make a little small talk when you get a chance. You might even try to learn and use customer names.

Want some more advanced skills?

More than 5,500 customer service professionals from around the world subscribe to my Customer Service Tip of the Week email. I asked subscribers and my LinkedIn followers to share their favorite techniques.

Here are seven of my favorite suggestions.

A customer is shaking hands with an advisor.

Talk about their interests

Patty, who works in circulation at a library, likes to get customers talking about themselves.

"I try to pick up on their interest, whether it is cooking, art or camping etc. People like to talk about themselves and this makes them a friend."

This is great technique because Patty is absolutely right—people feel comfortable talking about themselves. It helps put them at ease and makes you more likable when you show a genuine interest in something they care about.

Ask about their projects

Dawn is a customer service representative at a company that sells manufacturing equipment. Dawn's customers all make things, so Dawn likes to ask about their projects. This opens the door to getting customers to talk about themselves.

"Asking what my customers are making always starts a conversation. It gives the customer the feeling that I'm truly interested in them and I learn fascinating things about the people I serve."

This technique is similar to Patty's approach. In this case, Dawn is asking a work-related question that has two potentially good results. The first is it helps build rapport since people like to talk about themselves or what they're working on. The second benefit is it helps Dawn better understand the customer's needs.

Share something about yourself

Kristan, a Senior Director at a software company, breaks the ice by sharing a little about herself to encourage clients to open up about themselves. 

Kristan might ask a client, "Are you experiencing the same week I am?" during the busy back-to-school season.

"School is starting back this week so it's been crazy getting everyone out the door on time [in the morning]. Then I learn if they have children, a hobby if weather is great for gardening, or whatever topic and I try to infuse that in future conversations."

You can sometimes break the ice by doing something first, like sharing a little about yourself. What I really like about Kristan's example is it's simple without oversharing. Adding just a line or two such as, "It's been crazy getting everyone out the door on time," encourages the customer to share something about themselves.

Wish them a happy birthday

Andrew works in technical support, and sometimes needs to ask customers for their date of birth. 

"If a customer’s birthday is within about two weeks of the current date I’ll wish them a happy late or early birthday."

Customers are generally surprised and appreciative when he acknowledges their birthday. Using Andrew's two week suggestion, you'll be able to use this technique fairly often without over using it.

Ask your customer for suggestions

Derrick, a sales manager for a hospitality company, likes to ask customers for suggestions when he knows he'll be traveling to their city.

"I typically discuss their favorite restaurant in their town. If I've been there it's an easy one. If not, I keep it on my list of places to visit. This works so well that when I went to a new town for a visit, the manager struck up a conversation with me and said 'Sarah said you would be coming to check us out.' This really helped cement the relationship and I typically have great meals, too!"

People like to be an expert, so asking customers for advice can make them feel comfortable and naturally inclined to want to help you.

Pay your customer a compliment

Rachael is a consultant who builds rapport with clients by paying them a genuine and sincere compliment.

"I go with fashion sometimes. Appreciating a customers fashion builds a foundation for an easy rapport with customers. It can be their eye glasses, wristwatch, or even their hair."

Some people may be concerned about crossing the line from paying someone a compliment to being unprofessional and flirtatious. 

Rachael's advice for avoiding this trap is to stick with something you know and make the appreciation genuine. For example, you might comment on a customer's watch if you are familiar with the brand or truly admire the style.

Ask about their name

Viraj is a corporate trainer who recommends asking customers about their first name.

"When I come across a name that is different or unique, I politely pop a question: ‘That’s a unique name—I am curious where it comes from or what it means.' More often than not you get great background for the name and get the person to open up."

I've often used a similar approach when signing one of my books after a speaking engagement. Whenever I encounter someone with an uncommon name, such as "Sunshine," I'll comment that they're the first Sunshine I've met that day. This often draws a laugh and opens the door for them to tell me a little more about themselves.

Take action to build rapport

Rapport is one of the four customer service skills that I think are most important for customer service professionals to have.

I encourage you to experiment with these suggestions. Find out which ones work naturally for you. Perhaps some even work better than others, while some might not be appropriate for your situation.

Keep in mind these seven suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other ways to build rapport. 

In fact, I'd appreciate it if you shared your own suggestion in a comment!


Training Needs Analysis: What it is, and why you need it

The customer service leader sounded desperate.

She had called and told me her team needed training. Her boss had given her a tight timeline and she was looking for quick results. 

When I asked her why, she told me her company was losing customers due to poor service. Fair enough. "So what do your people need to do that they don't know how to do now?"

That one stumped her. 

She had no idea. All the leader knew was she needed things to improve and she thought training would be the answer. She wasn’t even sure what training was needed.

Customer service leaders often send employees to training because they have a vague idea of what they want to improve, but they aren't able to be specific. And that dooms the training to fail. 

The good news is there's a simple fix called a training needs analysis. Here's what it is, why you need it, and some resources to help you do it.

Two business colleagues analyzing data.

What is a training needs analysis?

A training needs analysis is the process of identifying whether training will solve a specific business problem. If training is warranted, the needs analysis will also identify the specific training that's needed and the best way to deliver it.

A typical needs analysis consists of three broad stages:

  1. Communicate with sponsors to clarify goals.

  2. Gather and analyze data.

  3. Present conclusions and make recommendations.

One client managed multiple apartment communities. The vice president of operations wanted a standardized training program for new leasing managers to improve sales, service quality, and consistency.

Here's what that needs analysis entailed.


Communicate with sponsors to clarify goals

It helps to get project sponsors to identify measurable business goals whenever possible. This creates a clear connection between the business and the training request, and makes it easier to measure the impact of the training later on.

The initial request from the vice president was simply to create a single new hire training program for all apartment communities. However, without a goal there was no way to evaluate the program's success.

We worked together to set a goal as part of the needs analysis process: new leasing managers would achieve a 20 percent lease closing ratio within their first 90 days.

Here were the results from the previous eight new hires:

Graph showing the lease closing ratio for new hires after 90 days.

Gather and analyze data

This stage is a bit like being a detective. You have to look in various places to find data and information that will help you crack the case. There are often surprising discoveries as you do your analysis.

For example, half of the most recent new hires did achieve the 20 percent goal. So there might be something different about their training compared to the four who fell short of the goal.

There were a number of data sources examined for the apartment community needs analysis:

  • Interviewed new hires and managers from various locations.

  • Reviewed existing training materials.

  • Analyzed performance data from previous hires.

One discovery is that community managers were inconsistent in how they coached new leasing managers. Some were very hands on, while others spent very little time with their new employees. The hands-on managers generally achieved much better performance.


Present conclusions and make recommendations

The needs analysis concludes when you present your findings to the project sponsor and make recommendations based on your conclusions. The goal is to gain agreement on the best way to develop the training.

The needs analysis for the apartment community made it clear that community managers needed to be more hands on. Helping them become better coaches wasn’t in the original scope of the project, but the vice president was able to make it a requirement for the new program.

We ended up creating guides for community managers to help them coach new hires.

That key insight led to impressive results. In our initial pilot, every new hire achieved the 20 percent goal within 90 days, and the overall average was much higher:

Graph showing the performance before and after the training program was implemented.

Why is a training needs analysis important?

There are a number of benefits gained by conducting a needs analysis:

  • Save time and money by eliminating waste from the training process.

  • Identify factors besides training that influence performance.

  • Focus the training on exactly what's needed to improve performance.

In some cases, training is unnecessary. 

The CEO of a company I worked for once asked me to conduct customer service training to save an important contract. My needs analysis revealed the problem wasn't related to training—so we implemented a different solution and saved the contract.

Sometimes, training is only part of the solution.

I was once asked to conduct sales training for an inbound call center to help agents upsell items to customers. My needs analysis revealed that agents needed to learn some basic sales skills, but they also lacked information about the products they were selling. We provided the agents with product samples and guides, and the agents were able to increase upsells by $1 million in the first year.

At other times, it's unclear exactly what training is needed.

I helped one client reduce new hire training time for customer service reps by 50 percent. A needs analysis revealed the old program spent too much time training employees on knowledge they rarely used, and not enough time helping new hires develop the skills they used every day.

A training needs analysis does not need to take a long time. Some projects can be done in just a few hours, while even more complicated initiatives can be completed in just a few weeks.

Needs Analysis Resources

These resources can help you learn how to conduct a training needs analysis on your own. Keep in mind the goal of a needs analysis is to clarify the objectives and decide what training, if any, is needed.

The training video will walk you step-by-step through the process of conducting a training needs analysis, and it even provides you with complete sample project.

There are three ways to watch it:

Here's a short preview of the video.


Why You Need to Reply to Online Customer Reviews

Ignoring online reviews can be a big mistake.

A 2019 report from the customer insight firm, Womply, revealed small businesses that reply to at least 25 percent of its customer reviews earn 35 percent more revenue than their peers.

This is a huge number that's hard to ignore.

Womply's researchers analyzed data from more than 200,000 small businesses across multiple industries and discovered some interesting conclusions. 

  • A 4.5 star rating is better than a 5 star rating.

  • Just 19 percent of reviews are negative.

  • Businesses with at least 9 recent reviews earn 52% more revenue.

You can read the entire report here.

Let's take a closer look at why responding to reviews drives revenue growth and how you can do it gracefully, even when the reviewer is angry, mean, or unfair.

Customer reviews posted on social media.

How responding to reviews increases revenue

There are two ways responding publicly to reviews can grow your business. 

  1. Improve your search rankings

  2. Send a positive signal to potential customers.


Improve your search rankings

Online review sites are also search engines. People actively look for businesses like yours on Google, Yelp, Facebook, OpenTable, TripAdvisor, and others. Most offer free listings for businesses. 

Womply's research found that just claiming your free Google listing can grow your revenue by 10 percent!

My own analysis confirms that Google is the most important listing site for a small business because it's the search engine customers use most often, even when they aren't specifically looking for reviews.

Here's the kicker.

Google is pretty clear that responding to reviews will improve your search ranking. One analyst estimates that actively responding to customer reviews accounts for 15 percent of Google's SEO algorithm for local businesses.

Let's say I'm in Austin, Texas and I want to find a coffee shop. 

Notice how Google serves up a map at the top of the search results along with three businesses that have high ratings:

Screenshot of Google search results for Austin coffee shops.

Imagine how many more customers would find your business if you could get it on that map!

The Hideout Coffee House and Caffe Medici both have over 200 reviews, but the Capital One Cafe has just 32. So how did the Capital One Cafe get one the list?

One explanation is a high response rate to recent reviews, which helps it get ranked higher in the results.

Screen shot of reviews from Capital One Cafe in Austin.

You may notice that Capital One Cafe is part of a major corporation, Capital One. It’s actually unusual for a large corporation to respond to online reviews like this. Most haven’t caught on yet.

So ask yourself this question: Can you do a better job of responding to customer reviews than Capital One can?

Of course!


Send a positive signal to potential customers

Womply's research revealed that businesses with a 4 to 4.5 star rating earn 28 percent more revenue than average. That's even better than businesses with a perfect 5 star rating!

Why is 4.5 better than 5?!

The answer is trust. Many customers seek out negative reviews. They want to know what people complain about to see if there's a consistent trend or just a few grouches. When a business has a lot of reviews, but no complaints, something seems fishy.

Here's where responding to a review can really help.

The response isn't necessarily for the customer who writes the negative review. It's for all the other customers who read the negative review and your response. Research shows that customers are more likely to be empathetic to you and your business if your response to a negative review is polite and professional.

And you might even change a customer's mind. Here's a powerful example:

Image credit: Womply

Image credit: Womply

How to respond to an online review

It's always important to be polite and professional when responding to an online review. The specific way you respond depends on the type of review you receive. There are three general types:

  1. Happy customers

  2. Neutral customers

  3. Unhappy customers

I'm going to use one of my favorite companies, Ideal Plumbing, Heating, Air, and Electrical, to show you how a small business can effectively respond to different types of online reviews.

First, we'll look at a review from a happy customer. Ideal does a great job of acknowledging the customer and thanking them for their review.

Google review of Ideal Plumbing Heating Air and Electrical

There’s a few things to notice about the review:

  • The response thanked the customer.

  • It acknowledged the customer’s feedback.

  • The reply was sent quickly.

The next type of review is from a neutral customer. This particular customer gave three stars, acknowledging Ideal's excellent work while complaining about the prices. 

Screen shot of a Google review of Ideal Plumbing Heating Air and Electrical

Notice the friendly and helpful response.

  • It sincerely thanked the customer for their review.

  • The response called the customer by name to make it more personal.

  • The reply politely offered an explanation for Ideal’s pricing, without getting defensive.

Keep in mind customers aren't reading these reviews in isolation. You'll notice the review right below it commends Ideal on sticking to the budget. So a potential customer might think that Jeffrey is a lot more price-sensitive than other customers like John who value fast service and high quality work.

The final review is from an unhappy customer. Some unhappy customers may have a legitimate gripe, while others appear to be unreasonable. And yes, a few even lie.

The review below is from a someone who didn’t even use Ideal’s services!

This person was upset about Ideal's charges for emergency air conditioning service on a very hot Saturday. Ideal's response is still positive, friendly, and helpful to other customers who might be reading the review:

Screen shot of a customer review of Ideal Plumbing Heating Air and Electrical

There are a few things I really like about this response:

  • It comes directly from the owner, Don Teemsma.

  • Don adds important context that would be helpful to other customers, without getting defensive.

  • He politely explains the fees while acknowledging the customer’s urgency.

Will this response change the angry customer’s mind?

Probably not. But that’s not really the point. Don’s polite and measured response likely assures other customers reading the review that Ideal is an honest business that takes good care of its customers.

I have personal experience with this situation.

Last year, I woke up on a Saturday morning to find my own air conditioner had stopped working. It was going to be one of the hottest days of the year, and I was truly worried about the heat.

I called Ideal first thing in on a Saturday morning to schedule the repair, knowing full well that Ideal was going to get a lot of calls just like mine that day. Fortunately, Ideal is very responsive. Phil, one of Ideal’s friendly and capable HVAC technicians, came out to my house and got my system working again before noon!

That type of service was definitely worth a premium!

Online Review Resources

There are a number of resources that can help you leverage online reviews to grow your business. Womply's report is a good place to start.

You can also watch a webinar with Jess Greene-Pierson, Womply's Director of Go To Market, where we talk in-depth about using online reviews to grow revenue.

Want to really dive in? You can take my LinkedIn Learning course, Serving Customers Using Social Media. There are three ways to watch the video:

Here's a short preview.


How to Be a Better Customer Service Leader

Advertising disclosure: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Imagine you could develop a customer-focused culture.

A culture so powerful that your employees always seem to do the right thing. They encourage each other, proactively solve problems, and constantly look for ways to go the extra mile.

Are you interested?

When I wrote The Service Culture Handbook, I explored how top companies and teams developed service cultures. I looked at data, dug deep into company operations, and talked to experts. 

I also put my email and phone number in the book to encourage people to reach out to me. Over the past couple of years, I've talked to hundreds of customer service leaders about their successes and struggles with building service cultures.

There are no quick fixes.

Leaders who get their employees obsessed with service stayed focused and consistent over a long period of time. Are you willing to be one of the few who puts in the effort?

This guide can help you become a better customer service leader.

Customer service team having a discussion.

What is leadership?

One of the challenges with getting better at leadership is the term "leadership" is ill-defined. Ask 100 people what leadership means and you'll get 100 great answers, but they'll all be different.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary isn't much help here. It defines a leader as "a person who leads."

I recently met a keynote speaker at a National Speakers Association conference. He told me he had been delivering presentations on leadership for over 20 years. Surely, this guy would have a great definition of leadership, right?

Nope.

He stammered incoherently for 5 minutes trying to describe what it means to be a leader, before finally giving up and admitting it's one of those things where "you know it when you see it."

That's not good enough. You can't become a better leader if you don't know exactly what a leader is. 

So here's a simple definition:

A leader is someone who has followers.

This means a leader needs to do two things:

  1. Pick a direction

  2. Get people to follow

Wait, isn't there more to it?

Sure there is! But at its most basic, a leader inspires other people to follow them. So if you want to build a service culture, you must get people to buy-in and follow along.

Step 1: Create a customer service vision

Effective customer service leaders provide employees with crystal clear direction about what they're supposed to be doing and why it is important.

It's amazing how many leaders skip this step.

  • They use generic terms, like "world-class customer service."

  • They create vision statements that sound clunky and inauthentic. (Big mistake.)

  • They only tell employees what not to do.

It's frustrating and confusing for employees when they lack clarity about what they're supposed to be doing, or how to do it. This tweet from Cathy Lynn captures it perfectly.

Great customer service leaders eliminate confusion.

They work with their teams to create a customer service vision. This is a shared definition of outstanding customer service that gets everyone on the same page. It acts as a compass to consistently give employees clarity and point them in the right direction.

Here's an example from Rackspace, a company that provides computer hosting services.

Rackspace cannot promise that hardware won't break, that software won't fail or that Rackspace will always be perfect. What Rackspace can promise is that if something goes wrong Rackspace will rise to the occasion, take action, and help resolve the issue.

A vision like this provides clear direction, even in unprecedented situations.

When Rackspace's phone system went down, a support rep took the initiative to rise to the occasion, and sent a tweet inviting customers to contact him on his personal phone number. Soon other reps followed suit, sharing their own numbers on Twitter. They supported customers this way for four hours before phone service was restored.

This wasn't scripted or trained. Management didn't ask them to do it. The reps didn't even ask permission. They just knew what to do. (You can read the incredible story here.)

Here’s your first moment of truth: Does your organization or team have a customer service vision?

  • If yes, keep reading below.

  • If no, stop reading this post. Use these resources to create a vision.

Step 2: Engage employees to follow the vision

Effective customer service leaders help employees understand the vision and get them to buy-in to it. On customer-focused teams, employees enthusiastically support the vision and use it to guide their daily work.

One of the biggest obstacles is employee engagement. Customer service leaders tell me it's not easy getting their employees to buy-in. Employees are:

  • demotivated

  • inexperienced

  • too experienced (i.e. set in their ways)

  • burned out

  • have toxic personalities (this is a real problem)

Here's an example of what disengagement looks like. 

I was scheduled to deliver a presentation to a room full of 50 people. The screen, projector, and microphone were all set up in the front of the room, and there were enough tables and chairs for 50 people.

There was just one big problem.

A large pillar blocks the view of participants in a hotel conference room.

The people who set up the room had accomplished all of their tasks (put out 50 chairs, etc.), but they didn't have a clear customer-focused vision.

You can hear the rest of that story in this short video.

Just like "leadership," employee engagement is a murky term where 100 people will have 100 great definitions, but they'll all be different. It's pretty difficult to improve something if nobody agrees on what we’re trying to improve.

So here's a simple definition of employee engagement:

An engaged employee is someone who is purposefully contributing to organizational success.

Look closely, and you'll see that this definition aligns with the function of a leader:

  1. A leader must pick a direction. Engaged employees know the direction.

  2. A leader gets people to follow. Engaged employees are committed.

You need to clearly define success in the form of a customer service vision before you engage your employees (see step one, above). If you skipped this step, you’ve already set your team up for confusion.

In 2017, Clio won the ICMI Global Contact Center Award for best contact center culture. Clio provides legal practice management software, and it has a clear customer service vision:

Our goal is to help our customers succeed and realize the full value of our Product. This results in Evangelists and less Churn.

Clio employees understand this vision and are committed to using it when they serve customers. When a customer called looking for a feature Clio didn't provide, the rep avoided the standard, "I'm sorry, we don't have that feature" line that you get from most software companies. He took time to understand the customer's needs and was able to suggest an even better way for the customer to accomplish her goals.

You can test your employee engagement by asking them three engagement assessment questions:

  1. What is the customer service vision?

  2. What does it mean?

  3. How do you personally contribute?

An engaged employee can give clear and consistent answers to those three questions. So before you go any further, here’s your next moment of truth:

Can your employees give clear and consistent answers to the three engagement assessment questions?

  • If yes, keep reading below.

  • If no, stop reading this post. Use this guide to engage your team.

Step 3: Make it easy to follow the vision

Effective customer service leaders make it easy for employees to deliver outstanding customer service. They ensure the decisions they make are consistent. Employee performance is evaluated by how they contribute to the vision.

Employees get demotivated when they feel they aren’t empowered to be great at service.

One support rep shared her frustration with me:

"I have six minutes to solve their problem, which is not enough time to let them vent and help them feel better."

She explained that management tracked how long she spent on each call, and she wasn’t allowed to go over a six minute average. The rep felt she had to be curt with upset customers, or she'd get in trouble for taking too long on her phone calls. It frustrated her because she wanted to provide good service, but she also wanted to keep her job.

Great customer service leaders use the customer service vision to guide every decision. They align their decisions to eliminate unnecessary friction for their employees. For example, MTS Allstream stopped putting call length metrics in front of its reps and asked them to focus on first contact resolution. The result was employees solved more problems on the first call because they weren’t rushing, but handle time did not significantly increase!

It gets much easier for employees to buy-in to the service culture when everything is aligned.

You can see a great example of alignment in action by visiting Shake Shack. It is a fast casual restaurant chain with a clear customer service vision: 

Stand for something good.

Everything Shake Shack does is aligned around this vision, including the way employees are hired, trained, and empowered. The work effectively as a team, but are also given leeway to engage with guests and create a memorable experience.

When I visited Shake Shack's original location in New York City, I encountered friendly, knowledgeable employees who served really good food. I also saw NBC weatherman Al Roker serving burgers!

Al Roker at Shake Shack in New York City.

You can assess your team's alignment by answering these five questions:

  1. Do you set business goals that are aligned with the customer service vision?

  2. Do you hire employees who are passionate about the vision?

  3. Do you train employees to deliver service that fits the vision?

  4. Are employees empowered to provide service aligned with the vision?

  5. Do you reinforce the vision on a daily basis?

Here’s your next moment of truth: Is your leadership aligned around the customer service vision?

  • If yes, keep reading below.


The Final Step: Commitment

Leaders who are truly committed to building a service-culture stay focused over a long period of time. They earnestly implement a customer service vision, work to engage their employees, and make consistently customer-focused decisions.

Many leaders struggle with commitment.

A few years ago, a senior manager I know attended a week-long leadership course. It wasn't cheap. His company spent $10,000 to send him. He was responsible for a business unit in a competitive industry that brought in millions of dollars in revenue every year, so it seemed worth it.

The leader was wildly enthusiastic about the training when he returned to work. He told me with complete conviction that the training had "changed his life."

I followed-up with him six months later and asked him what concepts from the training course he had implemented. This leader had gushed about a life-changing leadership program, so I wanted to know exactly how he had changed as a leader.

He gave me a sheepish look and admitted he had done nothing.

This manager had gotten so busy that he had neglected to spend time thoughtfully implementing what he learned in the course. He was enthusiastic about the training, but he wasn't truly committed.

This short video highlights the difference between enthusiasm and commitment.

It's up to you decide which type of leader you are going to be. Here’s your final moment of truth.

Are you:

  • Merely enthusiastic?

  • Fully committed?


Why Gemba is the Best Way to Solve Service Failures

Advertising disclosure: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

The CEO called me with an urgent training project.

Our parking management firm was in danger of losing an important contract at a hotel where we managed the valet and self-parking operation. The client was unhappy about poor service quality and gave us thirty days to improve.

The CEO told me to go to the hotel and train the staff and the manager. He wanted me to show them how to deliver service the right way, and then make sure they did it. This was going to be my priority for the next 30 days.

I decided to meet the parking manager and take a gemba walk. It was fortunate that I did, because it quickly became clear that training was not the problem.

A valet parking attendant is opening the car door for a guest.

What is a gemba walk?

A gemba walk involves going to where the work is done and observing it first-hand. It requires you to approach the situation with an open mind and ask questions to gain a better understanding of how people do the work and why they do it the way they do.

The term gemba (or genba) is a Japanese word that means "the actual place." It's a principle closely associated with lean manufacturing, but I've always found it to be a great way to diagnose service failures.

My gemba walk with the hotel parking manager was revealing.

Our client, the hotel's general manager, was unhappy because our valets frequently failed service audits conducted by mystery shoppers. These were auditors who posed as guests and evaluated the hotel on a comprehensive list of service measures. 

Graph showing actual mystery shopper audit score of 78% compared to a goal of 85%.

The mission was to find out why our valets were failing the audits.

I spent about an hour with the manager reviewing the valet operation. Unlike a mystery shopper, a gemba walk involves directly observing the work and talking to the people doing it.

  • We watched the valets serve guests.

  • I asked questions to learn about what they were doing and why.

  • We walked through the entire operation, include back-of-the-house areas.

This was just one shift, and the hotel was a 24/7 operation. I came back several times on nights and weekends to observe other valets in action and did another gemba walk with the supervisor who reported to the manager. 

We quickly discovered the root cause of the service issues.


What is the purpose of a gemba walk?

A gemba walk allows you to see insights that might otherwise be hidden. Leaders can be misled by data and easily jump to the wrong conclusions without seeing the full picture.

Remember the call from my CEO?

He had assumed the problem was training. Using this guide for diagnosing training issues, I knew that employees need training when they lack one of three things necessary to do their job:

  • Knowledge

  • Skill

  • Ability

The gemba walk with the parking manager quickly revealed the valets had the knowledge, skill, and ability to do their jobs. None of this was guesswork. 

  • I observed the valets providing excellent service to guests when the front drive was busy.

  • I observed them getting bored when the hotel's front drive was slow.

  • The valets told me exactly why they got bored and goofed off during slow times.

So it wasn't a training issue.

The problem was they didn't do the job consistently. The valets got bored when work was slow, lost focus, and started goofing off. They were also missing some critical information:

  • Mystery shopper reports weren’t shared with the team.

  • The valets didn’t realize the contract, and their jobs, were at risk.

I didn't have to suggest the solutions. The valets came up with some on their own, and the manager created a simple, but brilliant, plan to tie it all together.

When should you do a gemba walk?

A gemba walk is useful whenever you need to identify the root cause of a problem. There are a number of benefits to going directly to where the work is being done.

  • Test assumptions

  • Verify procedures are being followed (often, they aren't)

  • Talk to the people actually doing the work

Observing the work being done is one of the best quick fixes for solving performance challenges of any kind.

Throughout my career as a trainer, customer service manger, and a consultant, I've often seen gemba walks lead to very different conclusions than the initial diagnosis:

  • A "problem employee" was actually being victimized by a toxic coworker.

  • An incentive program designed to improve service made service worse.

  • A "short-staffed" team improved productivity by 25 percent without adding staff.

Gemba walks can also help you identify customer service icebergs.

An iceberg looks like a small issue on the surface, but a much larger and dangerous problem is hidden below the surface. For example, when the pages fell out of one of my books, I investigated the problem and discovered thousands of defective books had been shipped to retailers.

The author holding up a defective copy of his book, Service Failure.

How to do a customer service gemba walk

There are a few techniques that can make your gemba walk successful. Do a little bit of upfront planning, ask questions to approach the work with an open mind, and show respect to the employees doing the work.

Planning for a Gemba Walk

You don't need to do a lot of planning to prepare for a gemba walk, but a few simple steps will make the process much more useful.

  1. Clearly identify the objective. What are you trying to discover?

  2. Let people know you're coming.

These steps will help you get the cooperation and buy-in from the employees you observe. You'll learn a lot more, and get more forthright cooperation, if you avoid coming across as someone who is merely there to catch people doing it wrong.

I did a few things to prepare for my visit to the hotel.

First, I asked the CEO to let the president of the hotel division know what I would be doing, and that he had requested it. The president was a very hands-off leader, but I also knew he could easily get defensive. After all, the CEO was coming to me because the hotel division president had failed.

Second, I called the hotel parking manager. Fortunately, we already had a good relationship, so I was very candid about my project. I knew the contract was in jeopardy and it was my goal to help him save it.

Finally, I reviewed the mystery shopping audits. I wanted to make sure the mystery shoppers were looking at the same service standards we were training our valets to perform. (They were.)

Ask Questions

Keep and open mind and ask questions to reveal insights that you might otherwise miss. Resist jumping to conclusions. Even if you see an employee doing something wrong, asking why they're doing it can be revealing.

I asked a lot of questions when I observed the hotel valets. I even asked them why they were goofing off when I saw them get bored and start to stand in a circle and talk to each other. It wasn't an accusatory question— I really wanted to know.

The valets were very forthcoming about the reasons for this. The valets found it hard to stay focused and alert when nothing was happening. Most were young and inexperienced, and they enjoyed an easy camaraderie with each other, so goofing off was almost second nature.

They also had some suggestions for improvement.

  • Provide small tasks they could do in between guests.

  • Rotate positions during slow times to reduce boredom.

  • Share the results of the mystery shopper audits.

That last point was key.

The manager hadn't been sharing the audit reports with the valets. They knew the hotel's general manager was unhappy, but they had no idea the contract was at risk. And they didn't realize that losing the contract would mean losing their jobs.

Show Respect

Employees will generally be candid about how they do their job if you ask honest questions with an intention to help. Keep in mind that you're there to help them, not catch them doing something wrong.

With the hotel valets, I was careful not to come off as some corporate guy who was there to catch them doing wrong. I tried to convey to each one that I appreciated the work they were doing and wanted to help.

It was also important to show respect to the manager and the supervisor. Once we discovered the valets needed more information about the mystery shopper audits, I asked the manager what he thought could be done.

His idea was brilliant.

Additional Resources

Here are a few resources to help you plan your first gemba walk.

This short video provides some nice visual examples.

Conclusion

The CEO requested training, but I didn’t do any.

What I did was work with the valets, the valet manager, and the valet supervisor to understand the root cause of the problems. I then facilitated their ideas for improving service and keeping the contract.

The valets had made several suggestions for improvement. The valet manager tied it all together with a simple tactic.

He cleared a bulletin board in the parking office and mounted a piece of string horizontally across the board. Then he put a sign on the string that read "85%" to represent the target score for mystery shopper reports.

The manager began posting each mystery shopper report on the board as it came in. 

  • If it passed, it went above the string.

  • If it scored below 85 percent, he posted it below the string.

The valets immediately got the message. 

Nobody wanted to let the team down and fail an audit. They encouraged each other to stay sharp and implemented their ideas. The manager gave praise and recognition with each passing audit, and offered coaching each time an audit was failed.

The hotel's general manager was very happy with the results by the end of the month.

Graph showing the improvement of mystery shopper audit scores after one month.

My CEO was happy, too. He didn’t really care whether or not we did training. His goal was to save the contract, which is exactly what the gemba walk helped us do.

Cover image of Getting Service Right book.

In my book, Getting Service Right, I detail a number of service failures where the solution wasn't immediately obvious. The book also captures candid responses from employees:

  • Why an employee lied to customers.

  • Why an employee deliberately provided poor service.

  • What an employee really wanted to do when confronted by an angry customer.

Finding the solution to these problems often requires a gemba walk.


How to Gain Executive Buy-In for CX Initiatives

Shaun Belding, author of The Journey to WOW

Shaun Belding, author of The Journey to WOW

Advertising disclosure: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

"Our executives aren't committed."

That's the biggest gripe I hear about customer experience, or CX. Companies are launching new initiatives, but executives aren't making CX a true priority.

Here are some statements I've heard from frustrated leaders:

  • "We just report our Net Promoter Score results, but don't do anything."

  • "All we've done is have endless committee meetings."

  • "My VP doesn't want to hear customer feedback."

  • "I don't think our CEO actually knows what CX means."

  • "We were in the process of implementing the CX vision, when marketing surprised us with a new one."

One factor is the confusion between customer experience and customer service. 

Customer service teams are re-naming themselves the "customer experience" team, but customer experience is much broader than just service. (If you aren't sure about the difference, you can check out this handy explainer.)

There are other barriers to gaining executive buy-in.

CX expert Shaun Belding highlights a number of them in his book, The Journey to WOW: The Path to Outstanding Customer Experience and Loyalty. It's a story about a company embarking on a CX initiative and the difficulty the CEO faces when trying to get everyone on board.

The book is available on Amazon and I highly recommend it. 

Belding and I recently had a conversation about getting the c-suite to buy-in to CX initiatives. He provided insightful responses to a wide range of questions:

  • Why is it difficult to get buy-in for CX initiatives?

  • Should there be someone in the c-suite with CX in the title?

  • What does the CEO need to do to get the rest of the team to buy-in?

  • How do you prevent CX from becoming just a "flavor of the month" program?

  • Why is it challenging for leaders to embrace a CX vision?

You'll gain a ton of practical ideas by watching the 21 minute interview.

You can learn more about Belding by visiting his website or following him on Twitter.

I encourage you to pick up a copy of Belding's book, The Journey to WOW, and learn how to get your own CX journey back on track! 


How to Help Your Team Manage Customer Expectations

Advertising disclosure: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Many years ago, I managed a customer service team for a catalog company that sold imported items from Eastern Europe, including antiques. The antiques were often unique and were slightly different than the pictures on our website or in our catalog.

Russian samovars were a particular challenge. These are highly decorated tea urns that come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. A quick look at the ebay page for samovars can illustrate the variety.

This created an expectation management problem for my team.

A customer might get angry if they bought a samovar and it didn't look like the one in the catalog. So we devised a plan to manage expectations whenever we saw a samovar order.

  1. A customer service rep proactively contacted the customer.

  2. The rep discussed our actual inventory and emailed photos.

  3. The rep helped the customer make their selection.

You might not be selling antiques, but there's a good chance you have an expectation management challenge.

Think about how customers want to be served these days:

  • Easier

  • Cheaper

  • Faster

  • Better

  • Personalized

If a customer can easily order something on Amazon for a great price and get it delivered overnight then they will expect you to do the same. Unfortunately, giving a customer exactly what they want isn’t always practical or cost effective.

If that’s the case, you’ll need to help your team manage expectations.

A person holding a notepad with the words “customer expectations” written on it.

Why is it important to manage customer expectations?

Let's start with a general definition of good, poor, and outstanding customer service:

  • Good service occurs when a customer's expectations are met.

  • Poor service falls short of a customer's expectations.

  • Outstanding service exceeds a customer's expectations.

The key to it all is what your customer expects. This is frustrating for some service professionals because they might try their hardest and go the extra mile, but the customer still expected more than they could deliver.

Believe it or not, many of our customers’ expectations come directly from us:

  • How we advertise our products and services

  • What our salespeople promise

  • What the customer's last experience was like

  • How we communicate with customers

  • The way our products are packaged

  • How we display information on our website

  • Signage in our buildings

If we aren’t careful, we can help customers create expectations that won’t be met. You're probably well-versed with what can happen when service falls short of a customer's expectations:

  • Increased contacts

  • Increased escalations

  • Increased service recovery cost

  • Decreased customer satisfaction

  • Decreased customer loyalty

  • Decreased word-of-mouth

This short video highlights the impact of unpleasant surprises on our customers. The short scene 30 seconds in feels all too real to me, because I've heard it from an actual customer.

Customer Expectation Management Tactics

There are a few things you can do as a customer service leader to help your team.

1. Identify expectation management situations

Make a list of situations where customers might expect something more or different than your company can provide. Create resources and procedures to help your team guide customers through these situations.

Examples include:

  • How long does it take to respond to customers?

  • How do service delivery processes work?

  • Do you have any unusual or unfriendly policies?

  • Are there any unexpected fees associated with your product or service?

  • Does your product or service have any unusual features?

Customers might be surprised the first time they walk into a Bonobos Guideshop. The stores don't carry inventory like a typical clothing store. A helpful, friendly employee helps you select the right fit, styles, and colors, and your new clothes are shipped directly to you.

This is fairly unusual, so store employees are trained to share the explanation with new customers who visit the store. Bonobos also explains the process on its website and in this video.

2. Get inside your customers’ heads

Another step is to take time to understand your customers, so you can share those insights with your team and make adjustments as needed.

  • Review top complaints to see what bothers them.

  • Talk to customers one-on-one to get to know them.

  • Walk in your customer's shoes to see their perspective.

My wife and I own a vacation rental property called The Overlook. We spend a lot of time trying to understand our customers' perspective. We stay at the cabin as guests. We visit the cabin right after guests check out to see how they use it. This activity has generated a lot of insight.

For example, we learned through guest feedback that people had a hard time finding the WiFi password. It was on a sign that's easy to see, but the sign itself was so cluttered that people didn't read it.

So we updated it.

The old WiFi sign.

The old WiFi sign.

The new WiFi sign.

The new WiFi sign.

3. Conduct a marketing and communications audit

Take a close look at what your company is communicating to customers. Identify any possible misunderstandings and clear them up. Share key information with your team, such as new promotions, so everyone is on the same page.

Here are a few places you might look:

  • Commercials (radio, TV, etc.)

  • Website

  • Direct communication (mailers, catalogs, etc.)

  • Signage

  • Social media

My payroll provider recently emailed me a price increase notice. To add insult to injury, the new monthly price was 44 percent higher than the regular, non-promotional price listed on the company's website!

I contacted the company's customer service department, but the reps were caught off-guard. None of them were empowered to adjust my pricing to match what was advertised.

So I switched payroll providers.

4. Use data to spot trends

There's a good chance you're swimming in data. One way to make use of it is to look for places where a product or service consistently falls short of expectations and make adjustments.

Here are a few ideas:

  • What are the top reasons customers contact your company for service?

  • What products or services are frequently purchased together?

  • What are top reasons products are returned?

One company analyzed its product returns and discovered over $1 million in preventable returns per year. Customers were returning products that worked perfectly well, but customers couldn't figure out how to use them correctly.

5. Manage response time expectations

The amount of time it takes to respond to a customer is a big opportunity.

I conducted a consumer study in 2018, and learned that companies should respond to customer emails in just one hour. Better make that 15 minutes if you want to deliver world-class service.

Most companies aren't nearly that fast.

Another study of mind revealed that more than 60 percent of customer complaints on Twitter are because a customer is waiting for a response to a service issue or never received one.

The easiest solution is to respond faster. That's not always feasible, so here's what else you can do:

  • Post response time expectations on your website's contact page

  • Use an auto-response to tell customers when you'll respond to an email or text.

  • Share the expected wait time on your hold message or add a call-back service.

This webinar provides even more advice.

Customer Expectation Management Training

There are specific skills that can help your employees better manage customer expectations. For example, the particular language we use is important. 

Let's say you work in a doctor's office and want to let a patient know they'll get their lab results in 2-3 days. Most of us would say just that, "Your lab results will be ready in 2-3 days."

What you may not realize is that many customers hear and remember the best-case scenario, which is two days. So they'll expect to get their lab results within two days and might even be mildly annoyed if it takes three.

An easier solution is to train your team to use the worst-case scenario. You might say it this way, "Your lab results will be ready in three days."

Now nobody's upset if it takes three days as promised. And you can exceed expectations if it only takes two.

Here are some more examples of language that can help set expectations.

You can also have your team take my training program on LinkedIn Learning or Lynda: Managing Customer Expectations for Frontline Employees. Here's a preview.

How to deal with unrealistic customer expectations

There will always be a few unreasonable customers.

You'll encounter far fewer if you follow the advice outlined above. But that won't eliminate unrealistic expectations entirely.

Here are some actual complaints I've heard from Ben & Jerry's customers on Free Cone Day, a day once per year when Ben & Jerry's stores give away free ice cream.

  • "The line is too long."

  • "The cones are too small."

  • "They don’t have a good selection of flavors."

What's wrong with these people?! It's free ice cream!!!

The lesson is we can't make everyone happy. In their excellent book, Uncommon Service, authors Frances Frei and Anne Morriss explain how elite organizations keep their core customers happy by making trade-offs. These companies focus on what their customers really want, while ignoring what's not important.

  • Southwest Airlines offers low fares, but not assigned seats.

  • In-N-Out offers amazing burgers, but no salads.

  • Trader Joe's has amazing products, but relatively few options in each category.

Being selective about what you offer can help customers decide whether your product or service is right for them.

Of course, that still won't stop some customers from complaining. One solution is to focus on what can be done.

Let's say you are a restaurant host and a party of eight arrives on a busy night with no reservation. The only open table you have is one that seats four, yet the group insists on being seated.

You can relent, but that will only cause headaches:

  • Their service will be slow (so they'll probably complain, anyway).

  • They'll be uncomfortable, and it's likely the guests around them will be, too.

  • Other guests will receive slower, less attentive service.

You are suddenly worried that this might be a group of eight angry Yelpers who are just itching to leave a bad review. Despite the tough situation, there still might be some good options:

  • Explain how seating the group immediately would create a poor experience.

  • Suggest the group wait at the bar until a table opens up.

  • Recommend another restaurant nearby that's not busy.

I devoted an entire chapter to unreasonable customers in my book, Getting Service Right. It contains even more examples, insights, and tactics to help you solve this challenge.

Take Action

Customer service leaders should make it as easy as possible for employees to serve their customers at the highest level. This includes helping to manage customer expectations, so customers are less likely to experience an unpleasant surprise.

What customer expectation would you like to better manage?


How to Follow-up with Customers Like a Pro

Follow-up can be the difference between relationship-driven service or a mere transaction. 

A Customer Service Tip of the Week subscriber recently emailed to tell me she had stopped receiving the weekly tips. The subscriber wanted to know why they had stopped and how she could continue to receive them.

The challenge was everything looked fine on my end. Her email was correct in my email management system, her subscription was active, and the emails were being sent each week with no errors.

So I sent her my typical advice for situations like this: check your spam folder.

That's where the emails usually land when they're not being received. But I made a note to follow-up the next Monday to see if the issue was resolved. I'm glad I did.

This post looks at why customer follow-up is important, when you should follow-up, and how to remember to follow-up when you have a busy schedule like I do.

Notepad with the words “Don’t Forget to Follow Up” typed on it.

Why is follow-up important in customer service?

The benefits of following up with customers include confirming problems are resolved, preventing future issues, and building stronger relationships. Companies often gain far more customer feedback when they follow up after a service interaction.

Confirm Problems Are Resolved

Follow-up allows you to verify problems are resolved, and learn from situations when they aren't.

I followed up with my subscriber the following Monday. She had checked her spam folder and the emails weren't going there. So I dug deeper to do some more research.

That's when I learned my first response was incomplete. The other solution I should have suggested was to check with her company's IT department to make sure their email servers weren't blocking my email.

It turned out that was the issue. She planned to follow-up with her IT to see if it could be fixed. In the meantime, she subscribed using her personal email address so she could continue receiving the weekly emails.

I learned from this experience and updated the template I use to respond to this type of issue. Here’s the old template:

Old email template for responding to subscribers who don’t receive my emails.

The new template includes a more complete set of options:

  • Check your spam folder

  • Check with your IT department

  • Subscribe with another email address

Revised email template for replying to subscribers who aren’t receiving emails

I'm not alone with my inadequate email response.

A 2019 study from SuperOffice found that just 20 percent of companies fully answered a customer's question on the first reply. The same study discovered that only 3 percent of companies followed up after responding to a customer email. 

Without follow-up, it's difficult for these companies to learn from mistakes like I did.

Next Issue Prevention

Follow-up can help customers avoid future problems.

The Customer Service Tip of the Week subscriber mentioned that she was forwarding my weekly tips to her team. This meant that if she wasn't receiving them, her team wasn't receiving them, either.

So I forwarded her the current week's tip so she'd have it while we tried to figure out why she wasn't receiving the automated emails. I also sent her some additional advice on how to prevent people from accidentally unsubscribing her, since the "unsubscribe" link in each email remains active when you forward it.

When you reconnect with a customer, try to anticipate additional problems they might experience and offer solutions to those as well. This turns your service from reactive (responding to a problem) into proactive (preventing a problem).

Build Relationships

Follow-up allows you to build rapport with customers.

I followed up with the subscriber again the next week. She confirmed the email had come through via her personal email address, so our solution would work until her IT department could tell the company's email servers to allow my emails to go through.

It would have been great to solve the problem on the first try, but our email exchange helped us develop some rapport. She even bought a copy of my Customer Service Tip of the Week book!

Even a simple check-in message can let a customer know you care. It helps them see you as a person and not just the other end of a transaction.

When should you follow-up with a customer?

The timing depends on the situation. It could be immediately after you solve a problem, after a critical event, or after a designated period of time such as 24 hours.

Immediately

Some situations call for immediate follow-up, especially when you are serving a customer face-to-face. 

You can see a great example of immediate follow-up in this short video on tending to customers' emotional needs. Pay particular attention to the vignette that starts at the 2:45 mark, where the barista masterfully de-escalates an angry customer and then follows up to ensure she's happy.

After a Critical Event

There are times when it makes more sense to wait for something specific to happen before you follow up with a customer.

For example, my Customer Service Tip of the Week email is sent out each Monday. So it makes sense that I wait until after the next email is sent before following up with the subscriber again. 

When I worked in the catalog business, my team would run a report of any order that had been upgraded to express shipping. We figured any order sent express was particularly important to the customer. So we would track the order to ensure it showed delivered, and then call the customer to verify everything was okay.

Designated Period of Time

Sometimes, it doesn't make sense to follow-up immediately, but there isn't a specific event you're waiting for. In those situations, you can follow-up after a set period of time such as 24 hours.

I recently interviewed Andrew Gilliam, an ITS Service Desk Consultant at Western Kentucky University who increased his team's survey response rate by 370 percent. The secret was a small change in how follow-up emails were sent.

Customers received an automated follow-up email 24 hours after an issue was resolved. The old message focused on confirming the customer's service ticket was closed. The new message asked the customer for feedback on how the ticket was closed, and invited customers to reconnect if there was still a problem.

You can watch the full, 20 minute interview here.

How to remember to follow-up with customers

People often fail to follow up because they simply forget. An automated reminder can prompt you at the right time to reconnect with a customer.

Here are a few examples:

Use your CRM system. Many customer relationship management (CRM) systems allow you to set follow-up reminders. That's how I usually remember to follow up with someone. I go into my CRM and set a reminder as part of post-contact wrap-up work. The reminder is automatically triggered whenever I select, such as 24 hours later or the following Monday.

Use a reminder app. You can set reminders on your smartphone to trigger at specific times. For personal tasks that aren't appropriate to enter into my CRM, I like to use the "reminders" app on my Mac. The app automatically syncs with my iPhone, and I can use it to trigger reminders on specific dates and times.

Automate it. Some follow-up tasks can be automated. When people subscribe to my Customer Service Tip of the Week email, it automatically triggers an email that confirms the new subscription and provides some tips for getting the most out of the emails.

Take Action

Follow-up doesn't happen by accident. I encourage you think through your own follow-up process:

  • What are situations where follow-up is appropriate?

  • When should you follow up with your customers?

  • How can you ensure follow-up happens?

You can test my follow-up process by subscribing to my Customer Service Tip of the Week email. If you do, you'll find an additional follow-up in my welcome email that I haven't mentioned here.


How Customer Service is Being Ruined by Toxic Coworkers

My favorite local coffee shop took a turn for the worse a few years ago.

A new barista was hired who was rude and abrupt with customers. She made frequent mistakes that caused extra work for her coworkers and created unnecessary service failures. The barista was persistently negative and refused to take responsibility for the problems she caused.

One day, the barista arrived to work and parked her car so far over the line that I couldn't open my car door. I went back into the coffee shop to ask her to move it. She begrudgingly did, but never apologized.

“I was running late,” was all she said.

A new study reveals this is a common issue. A widespread number of toxic employees are working in customer service jobs—far more than in other professions. And it's creating a big problem for both customers and coworkers.

A coffee shop employee parked so far over the line that she blocked my car door.

What the study on toxic employees revealed

The survey was conducted by my company, Toister Performance Solutions, in July, 2019. 

More than 1,500 adults in the United States were asked if they work with at least one toxic coworker in their current job. The results are startling:

Graph illustrating that 22% of employees work with a toxic coworker. The number jumps to 83% for customer service employees.

Customer service employees are nearly four times as likely to have a toxic coworker.

Toxic employees negatively affect the organization. They consistently engage in inappropriate behavior that makes them difficult to work with. This includes:

  • Poor customer service

  • Harassment

  • Theft and fraud

A separate study conducted in 2015 by Michael Housman and Dylan Minor found that 1 in 20 customer service employees were fired for toxic behavior within their first year of employment.

Toxic employees can also harm team dynamics. According to Melanie Proshchenko, Founder and Principal Consultant at Honeycomb Team Solutions, "One toxic team member can infect the entire team by turning otherwise positive, unsuspecting teammates negative."

The barista was a good example. 

Her attitude put her coworkers on edge. They stopped being their usual, friendly selves whenever she was working. When she left her job after just a few months, the remaining employees quickly returned to their previous, customer-friendly habits. 

Why customer service employees are more likely to be toxic

There are a number of explanations for the high number of toxic customer service employees, including poor hiring, poor leadership, and a dangerous combination of risk factors.

Poor Hiring

Imagine you had a hiring process that accidentally made you more likely to hire a toxic employee. Unfortunately, that's exactly what's happening at many companies.

For example, many customer service job postings advertise a quest for "rockstar" employees. The Housman and Minor study found that self-regarding people who consider themselves to be rockstars are 22 percent more likely to be fired for toxic behavior.

Side note: I’ve put together a list of resources to help you improve your hiring process.

Poor Leadership

Catherine Mattice Zundel, CEO and Founder of Civility Partners, shares that many leaders are ill-equipped to handle a toxic employee.

"In my experience, there are so many toxic employees because managers don’t know how to address the behavior. Coaching bad behavior into good isn’t a skill people automatically possess–it requires training, practice, and empowerment from the organization. If the organization doesn’t provide the tools and encouragement for managers to coach toxic behavior, then managers will attempt to work around it instead."

One leader is so afraid of confronting a toxic manager who reports to her that she's resolved to wait until the manager retires—more than two years from now! Meanwhile, that manager's team has the highest turnover and the worst customer service in the organization.

Mattice Zundel also points out that some people may engage in toxic behavior, like workplace bullying, without even realizing it. These employees won't change if their boss doesn't address it.

Dangerous Risk Factors

A 2016 study by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) examined the risk factors that contribute to workplace harassment.

Customer service work itself was one of the risk factors identified. Customer service employees in some industries, particularly hospitality, are routinely subjected to harassment by customers. Some employees begin to accept inappropriate behavior as normal and can see it as tacit approval to act inappropriately themselves.

The EEOC study identified several other risk factors that are common in customer service work environments:

  • Young workforces

  • Monotonous work

  • Decentralized workplaces

The next time you read a headline about a fast food or retail employee doing something terrible, like this, this, or this, there’s a good chance the employee was young, bored, and working far away from corporate oversight.

How to prevent employees from becoming toxic

Organizations can address this issue by focusing on teamwork over individual achievement, setting positive examples, and preventing toxic behavior from spreading.

Focus on Teamwork

Grace Judson is a leadership geek, trainer, coach, and consultant. She wrote a useful guide called The Five Most Challenging Employee Types—and how to manage them. (Download your free copy here.)

Judson suggests emphasizing teamwork. 

"Toxicity can develop in an environment where individual achievement is valued over team accomplishment. It’s important to acknowledge outstanding contribution at the individual level–and it’s equally important to avoid creating competition between individuals by setting team goals and offering whole-team rewards."

My own research on customer-focused teams backs this up. I've discovered that team-oriented metrics are one of three criteria for effective goals.

Set a Positive Example

Melanie Proshchenko emphasizes the need for leaders to set a positive example.

"Get clear about what you expect and let the team dig deep into what that looks like in practice. Tired of backstabbing? Lots of complaining in the halls? Folks whining about petty problems? Define the opposite, positive, specific versions of the behaviors that are bringing the team down and showcase them to the team."

Leaders are often guilty of setting a poor example, and then wrongly expecting their team to do the opposite. For example, frontline employees frequently say the wrong thing to customers because their leader accidentally trained them that way.

One way to set a positive example is to establish a customer service vision. This is a shared definition of outstanding service that gets everyone on the same page, including the leader.

Prevent Toxic Behavior from Spreading

Companies are often too slow to fire people who routinely engage in toxic behavior.

Toxic employees can easily infect others. Research from Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist responsible for the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, reveals that when people around you are engaging in inappropriate behavior, it makes it more likely that you will do the same.

According to the Housman and Minor study, adding just one more toxic employee to a team of 25 made everyone on the team 46 percent more likely to get fired for toxic behavior.

Leaders must take action as soon as they spot inappropriate behavior. Allowing it to go unchallenged almost always results in worse behavior and negative consequences.

What's been your experience with toxic customer service employees? Please leave a comment or drop me a line.