How to Improve Customer Service with Process Mapping

Elisabeth Swan, Managing Partner of GoLeanSixSigma.com

Elisabeth Swan, Managing Partner of GoLeanSixSigma.com

Process is more important than training.

That's tough for me to admit as a trainer, but it's true. You can give someone the best training and then give them a lousy process, and the results will be poor. Give that same person minimal training but a fantastic process, and they'll likely do just fine.

So if you want to improve customer service, look at the process you're using to serve customers before you send anyone to training. The root cause of many service failures is a process that isn't working, or people aren't following it.

Elisabeth Swan thinks about process a lot.

She's the managing partner of GoLeanSixSigma.com, a company that provides Lean Six Sigma training and certification. The company's mission is: Revolutionize the way people learn process improvement–making it easy for everyone everywhere to build their problem-solving muscles.

Swan is also the co-author of The Problem-Solver’s Toolkit, which is a wonderful reference guide full of immediately useful process improvement tools.

We recently had a conversation to talk about how process mapping can be used to improve customer service. (You can find more information about swimlane mapping, one of the concepts we discussed, on page 64 of Swan’s book.)

Here are some of our discussion topics:

  • Creating an interactive process map with post-it notes.

  • Using swimlane maps to prevent issues from "falling through the cracks."

  • Maintaining customer-focus throughout the process.

  • Verifying processes are working as expected.

  • Identifying pain points in a process.

You can watch the full interview here.


How to Be an Authentic 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.

There's a scene in the cult-classic movie, Office Space, where a character named Peter is chided by his boss, Lumbergh, for not including the new cover sheet on his TPS report.

Peter quickly acknowledges his mistake, but Lumbergh continues his lecture. He asks, "Did you see the memo about this?"

Peter points to the memo on his desk, again acknowledges his mistake, and assures his boss there's still time to fix the error. But Lumbergh again bulldozes through Peter's clear understanding and agreement and continues to awkwardly lecture him.

He ends with, "I'll go ahead and make sure you get another copy of that memo."

This scene really hit home when I saw the movie in 1999. It was uncanny how it resembled my actual work environment at the time. Our vice president even acted suspiciously like Lumbergh!

When I started my own company a few years later, I named it Toister Performance Solutions to incorporate the initials TPS. I never wanted to forget that soul-sucking management style, and vowed to help customer service teams prevent it.

Here's how you can do your part and be an authentic leader.

Customer service leader facilitating a team meeting.

What are the characteristics of authentic leadership?

Let's start by getting a glimpse of an inauthentic leader. Give yourself a treat and watch that brief scene from Office Space where Peter is chided about his TPS report.

Unlike Lumbergh, authentic leaders are perceived as genuine, committed, and passionate. An authentic leader is easy to get behind because you know exactly where they stand.

In The Service Culture Handbook, I profiled how leaders can act authentically as stewards of their organization's customer-focused culture. These leaders do three things in particular:

  1. Model the culture

  2. Use the culture to guide strategy

  3. Communicate the culture

Model the Culture

Authentic customer service leaders walk the talk. They demonstrate the culture in the way they treat people that provides an example for others to follow. 

My first boss, Christie, provided a great example at the retail store where I worked in high school. She was a consistent presence on the sales floor, demonstrating the right way to serve customers. Christie also treated employees with the same respect and kindness she showed to customers. She was quick to praise employees for doing a good job and was always helping us learn how to do even better. 

The way she consistently modeled the right way to do things made it easy for me to follow her lead. 

Use the Culture to Guide Strategy

Authentic leaders make strategic decisions that are aligned with the culture. They make it clear that "culture" isn't a part-time pet project. It's a way of doing business.

Catherine was a customer service leader who used her company's culture to guide every decision. It influenced how she hired employees, trained them, and empowered them. She was guided by the company's culture when setting goals and prioritizing initiatives.

The result of this consistent decision-making was that the strategy always reinforced the culture and made it easy for employees to do the right thing.

Communicate the Culture

Authentic leaders constantly communicate the culture. This helps employees understand that the culture is extremely important, and ensures no one is confused about the right way to act.

Mike was a CEO who communicated the culture at every opportunity. He reinforced company values at all-hands meetings each quarter. He discussed the culture at every executive team meeting, when having regular lunches with different employee groups, and even in informal conversations. 

Mike talked about the company's core values so often that everyone in the company understood them and knew they were important.

Alternative models of authentic leadership

There are a few other popular authentic leadership models that are slightly different than my own research. 

The most popular comes from Bill George, who identified these five traits of authentic leaders in his book, Authentic Leadership:

  1. Pursuing their purpose with passion

  2. Practicing solid values

  3. Leading with their hearts as well as their heads

  4. Establishing connected relationships

  5. Demonstrating self-discipline

I discovered George's research after publishing my own in The Service Culture Handbook. While the components are slightly different, there are a lot of similarities.

Model the Culture

  • Pursuing their purpose with passion

  • Practicing solid values

  • Demonstrating self-discipline

Use the Culture to Guide Strategy

  • Pursuing their purpose with passion

  • Leading with their hearts as well as their heads

  • Demonstrating self-discipline

Communicate the Culture

  • Leading with their hearts as well as their heads

  • Establishing connected relationships

  • Demonstrating self-discipline

The last trait, demonstrating self-discipline, is essential. It takes a tremendous amount of will to consistently stay on course when leading a team, a department, or even an entire organization.

Take Action

This post outlines a framework for authentic leadership based on my research, observations, and experience. You can do a few things to put this into action.


How to Improve Performance by Focusing on What is Working

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.

Max Yoder, Co-Founder & CEO of Lessonly

Max Yoder, Co-Founder & CEO of Lessonly

Some solutions are counterintuitive.

When employees aren't doing their best, the instinctive approach is to try to identify what's wrong and fix it. Max Yoder's counterintuitive advice is to focus on what the team is doing really well, and help them do that more often.

Yoder is the Co-Founder and CEO of Lessonly, a company that makes easy-to-use training software. He's also the author of Do Better Work, a book full of practical tips that can help yourself and others find "clarity, camaraderie, and progress in work and life."

It's an action-oriented book and I highly recommend it.

Yoder and I recently had a conversation about improving team performance. Here are just some of the topics we discussed:

  • Taking personal accountability for your own performance

  • Finding clarity at work

  • Overcoming your natural instinct to focus on what's wrong

  • Helping employees recognize their peers

  • Asking two questions that can help identify best practices

Do Better Work is available on Amazon.

Here's our interview.


Report: Job Seekers Think Culture is More Important That Money

A few of my friends are looking for jobs.

Some are unhappy in their current role, while others are out of work for one reason or another. They've all told me the same thing about their search: there are jobs out there they could do, but they're holding out for something that's a great fit.

Many job seekers today have that luxury. As of July 2019, the US unemployment rate sits at just 3.7 percent. That means businesses have to really compete for talent.

What makes your company attractive to talented employees?

  • It's probably not desperation.

  • It's usually not money.

  • It might not be your product or service (unless it’s incredibly popular).

A new report from Glassdoor reveals that culture is the most important thing that job candidates are looking for. Here are some highlights along with some suggestions for landing top talent.

A group of colleagues sitting at a conference table with the word “culture” written on it.

About Glassdoor's Mission & Culture Survey 2019

The Glassdoor report was conducted by The Harris Poll. 

A total of 5,113 adults were surveyed, including 2,025 in the US, to learn how a company's culture contributes to employee recruitment and retention. The remaining participants were from the UK, France, and Germany. The highlights below focus on the results for US job applicants and employees.

You can read the full report here.

What do job applicants look for?

Culture is extremely important to job applicants. Employees are looking for an organization where they believe in the mission and feel pride in their employer. It's also vital for people to feel like they fit in with the organization.

Here are some of the top findings from the report:

  • 58 percent said culture is more important than salary.

  • 77 percent would consider a company's culture before applying.

  • 89 percent think it's important for a company to have a clear mission and purpose.

This is one of the reasons companies should have a customer service vision. This is a shared definition of outstanding service that gets everyone on the same page. Companies with a strong vision are able to unite employees behind this compelling purpose.

Culture is what keeps people, too.

Many of my friends are looking for jobs because the culture isn't right at their current company. In the report, 74 percent said they would start looking for another job if their company's culture deteriorated.

I did a separate study on contact center agent burnout and discovered that 74 percent of contact center agents were at risk of burnout. A lack of a customer-focused culture was the number one risk factor.

How can you become an employer of choice?

Offering a competitive salary, good benefits, and a healthy work environment are table stakes. You’ll have a difficult time attracting any decent employees if you don’t do those things. The real differentiator for top talent is a customer-focused culture.

Start by creating a clear purpose—89 percent say it's important.

The next step is hiring for culture fit. 

A word of caution here. There are a few common mistakes that frequently cause customer service leaders to accidentally hire toxic employees:

  • The culture is not clearly defined.

  • Relying too much on resumes and interview questions.

  • Trying to hire "rock star" employees.

You can avoid these traps using this guide to hiring for culture fit.

Once you've revamped your hiring process, it's time to advertise your culture to prospective job applicants. Many organizations create a culture page to do this. The page often contains:

  • A description of the culture (mission, vision, values, etc.)

  • Information about what it's like to work there.

  • Video testimonials from employees.

Here's how Southwest Airlines provides an overview of the culture:

Screenshot of the culture page on the Southwest Airlines career site.

REI emphasizes the employee experience in this example:

Screen shot of the culture page on the REI careers site.

The Container Store uses this video to share employee testimonials.

Finally, make sure you back up that great culture with an effective onboarding experience. You can use this guide to help you.


What exactly is employee engagement?

Employee engagement has been a hot business topic for many years. There is a pile of research that tells us:

  • Engaged employees are more productive.

  • There are too many disengaged employees.

  • Employee disengagement costs companies billions of dollars per year.

There's just one glaring problem: nobody agrees on what employee engagement actually means. 

This is a critical challenge. It's hard to improve something you can't define. Companies launch annual surveys without clarity about what’s being measured. Executive buy-in is often lukewarm, because the idea of engagement sounds good, but nobody’s really sure how it directly impacts the bottom line.

This post provides you with a clear definition along with some examples.

Notebook with the words “employee engagement” written on the front.

The Definition of Employee Engagement

Here's what it means to be engaged at work:

An engaged employee is deliberately contributing to organizational success.

Unpack that a bit and you'll see there are three things that need to happen if you want to engage your employees.

  1. Organizational success needs to be clearly defined.

  2. The employee needs to understand that definition.

  3. The employee needs to know how they can contribute.

Engaging employees requires organizations to have a single, clear definition of success, such as a customer service vision. Without this definition, it’s impossible for employees to be engaged no matter how enthusiastic or committed they might be.

There are a few factors that often correlate with engaged employees, but are not part of the definition:

  • Job satisfaction: How much do employees like their jobs?

  • Employee experience: What is it like to be an employee?

  • Emotional connection: Do employees feel proud of the organization?

It’s possible for an employee to feel very satisfied with their job, have a good employee experience, and feel proud of their company without being engaged. Here’s how:

  • There’s no clear definition of organizational success for the employee to work towards.

  • The employee isn’t aware of how the organization defines success.

  • The employee is aware of an over-arching goal, but isn’t sure how they contribute.

My very first job was like this. I worked for a retail clothing store in high school. I really liked my job, generally had a positive experience, and was proud to tell my friends where I worked. However, I had no idea how my store was doing, what the company strategy was, or how the company defined great customer service. So despite my enthusiasm for the job, it was impossible for me to ever be engaged.

It’s also possible for an employee to be unhappy in their job, yet be fully engaged. While this is usually unsustainable, there are times when all of us are tired and a little unhappy, but we work hard to overcome a big challenge because we’re still committed to making a positive contribution.


What are examples of employee engagement?

Companies with a highly engaged workforce make an effort to ensure every employee understands the big picture and how they contribute. People come to work each day with a purpose and feel they are empowered to make a difference.

One of my favorite examples of a company with engaged employees is the sporting goods retailer, REI. The company defines success through its mission statement: We inspire, educate and outfit for a lifetime of outdoor adventure and stewardship.

Here's how that looked on a recent visit my wife and I made to our local REI store. 

We wanted to buy a large tent so we could take our dog camping. The associates who helped us were clearly in-tune with REI's mission:

  • They were passionate about the outdoors (inspire)

  • They gave us great tips on camping with our dog (educate)

  • and they helped us select the right gear (outfit)

The best part was the associates weren't reading from a product manual or just following a script they learned in training. They were avid campers who relied on their own experience to enthusiastically try to help us enjoy our upcoming camping trip.

Another favorite example comes from In-N-Out Burger. The chain has attained a cult-like following for its tasty food, simplified menu, and incredible consistency.

In-N-Out defines success for its employees through three simple words: quality, service, and cleanliness. You'll see all three in action any time you visit one of the restaurants.

  • Quality is evident in fresh ingredients and careful preparation.

  • Service is consistently delivered with a smile and upbeat attitude.

  • Cleanliness is constantly a priority, even when its busy.

(Fun fact: McDonald's once used those same three words to define success. Here's the rest of that story.)

Finally, here’s one more example from the USS Midway Museum in San Diego. In a city that's built for tourism, the Midway is the top-rated tourist attraction in town!

The Midway is a retired U.S. Navy aircraft carrier. The museum uses its mission to define success for employees and volunteers: Preserve the historic USS Midway and the legacy of those who serve; Inspire and Educate future generations; and Entertain our museum guests.

People work and volunteer at the Midway because they care deeply about the ship, its history, and the armed forces in general. They are passionate about sharing the Midway's history and helping people understand what it was like to serve onboard. 

Whether it's a local with a membership, a visitor from out of town, or a group of school kids on a field trip, Midway employees consistently go out of their way to ensure visitors have a fun and educational experience. (You can read more about the Midway’s service culture here.)

Employee engagement resources

The starting point for any employee engagement initiative is to agree on what “employee engagement” means. I hope you'll use mine, but it's okay if you have another definition. What matters is that everyone in your organization agrees on what employee engagement means.

Once you clear that hurdle, here are some additional resources to help you:

You can also learn more from The Service Culture Handbook, which is a step-by-step guide to getting your employees obsessed with customer service.


Four Ways Companies Make Customer Service Too Difficult

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.

Sisyphus was a king in Greek mythology who cheated death. Twice.

This angered Zeus, who punished Sisyphus by assigning him a never-ending task. Sisyphus had to struggle to push a boulder to the top of a hill, only to have the boulder roll back to the bottom of the hill once he reached the top.

Then Sisyphus had to go back down the hill and start the task all over again. It was a hopeless task with no chance of success, yet it was Sisyphus's job to keep doing it for eternity.

A similar scene plays out in customer service every day.

The customer service representative is Sisyphus, and the customer's problem is the boulder. The rep struggles to get the boulder to the top of the hill—a successful and happy resolution. The boulder rolling back down the hill is a service failure.

And who is Zeus?

It's the executive who assigned the impossible task. They've unwittingly prevented the rep from consistently getting the boulder over the hill. This frustrates the rep and angers the executive, who wrongfully assumes the rep just needs more motivation to push the rock a little harder.

Here are four ways this happens. 

An employee struggling to push a boulder up a hill.

1. Poor Products and Services

In 2016, Samsung released the new Galaxy Note 7 smartphone. Unfortunately, the phone had a defect that caused it to spontaneously catch fire.

It was a public relations disaster for Samsung and a very real safety concern for affected consumers. Imagine being a customer service rep for Samsung or one of the wireless carriers that sold the faulty device?

This is a highly-publicized example, but companies release faulty products and services every single day. Here are a few examples:

  • A hotel's airport shuttle was chronically late.

  • A new software release contained multiple bugs.

  • Cheaper ingredients cut costs, but hurt food quality at a popular restaurant.

Customer service reps take the brunt of customer anger in these situations. It's frustrating for the rep because they didn't create the poor product or service, and they're often powerless to fix it.

The solution is collect, analyze, and act on the early warning signs of a defective product or service. You can easily involve your reps to do this without a survey.


2. Overpromising by Marketing and Sales

In 2017, McDonald's scrambled to create a new marketing campaign in response to a viral phenomenon. People were suddenly clamoring for the company to bring back a limited-production Szechuan sauce that had been a promotion for the 1998 Disney movie, Mulan.

The company announced an extremely limited release, but it was poorly planned. Some stores received just 20 packets of the sauce. Other stores received no sauce at all, despite the ad campaign promising the sauce would be there.

The result was hoards of angry customers at McDonald's locations all over the country who took out their anger on frontline employees who had nothing to do with the ill-conceived promotion.

Marketing and sales departments often make promises they can't keep in an effort to land the next sale:

  • A salesperson promises an impossible delivery time to close a deal.

  • A new promotion isn't programmed in a retailer’s point of sale system.

  • Marketing creates a new ad campaign without telling customer service.

Customer service reps pay the price when marketing and sales departments get desperate to land new business. Customers expect to get what they were promised by marketing or sales, and direct their anger at frontline reps when they don't get it.

There are two solutions here. 

The first is to require marketing and sales professionals to spend time serving customers. It's a wonderful empathy exercise that often helps them do their jobs better.

The second solution is to require collaboration between marketing, sales, operations, and customer service. A new promotion won't do any good if the company isn't prepared to deliver.


3. Terrible Policies

Cancelling your Comcast service wasn't easy in 2014. 

You could adjust nearly every aspect of your service online, but cancelling required a phone call. And when you did call, you were routed to a person whose job it was to talk you out of it. They were trained to overcome your objections and incentivized to get you to keep your service.

This policy infuriated customers. It was undoubtedly difficult for employees as well, who wanted to make customers happy but were mandated to keep selling even when a customer repeatedly said no.

This isn't the only example of a terrible policy hamstringing frontline reps:

  • A satellite radio company required reps to upsell on support calls.

  • A contact center required reps to paste long-winded templates into all responses.

  • A retailer only offered store credit on returns, even when a product was defective.

It can feel hopeless when you're expected to keep customers happy, but aren't given permission to do the right thing. Customer-focused companies avoid this problem by ensuring new policies are aligned with a customer service vision.


4. Understaffing

As I write this post, there are a lot people complaining about being on hold with United Airlines. I know this because there's a website called #OnHoldWith that tracks these complaints.

Screenshot of #OnHoldWith website.

One of the biggest reasons for long hold times is understaffing. Companies like United routinely have fewer employees available than they realistically need to keep customers happy. 

  • Contact centers don't have enough agents available to handle customer volume.

  • Retail stores don't have enough sales associates to assist customers.

  • Grocery stores have long checkout lines, and unused registers.

Customers get agitated when they have to wait, and they take out that agitation on already stressed reps who are working hard just to keep up.

The solution is to take a closer look at staffing models. Adding additional employees at key times can often more than offset the additional cost. 

For example:

  • In contact centers, first contact resolution often goes up when customers wait less.

  • In retail stores, having additional associates can often dramatically increase sales.

  • In grocery stores, getting people in an out quickly can improve repeat business.

Take Action

I've trained thousands of customer service employees. Most of them want to be good at what they do, and they sincerely enjoy helping customers.

The challenge is they encounter obstacles every day that hinder their ability to make customers happy. It's frustrating to repeatedly encounter poor products, ill-conceived marketing campaigns, unfriendly policies, and a lack of staffing. After awhile, employees begin to feel hopeless.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. I profiled ten common challenges in my book, Getting Service Right. They want to be great, but they’re stuck playing the role of Sisyphus.

We need to make service easier for our employees!

  1. Listen to their feedback and fix poor products and services.

  2. Involve customer service before launching the next marketing or sales campaign.

  3. Get rid of unfriendly policies that force employees to provide poor service.

  4. Provide adequate staffing so employees can be their best.


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.