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

Nate Brown, Director of Customer Experience

Nate Brown, Director of Customer Experience

A customer service vision is essential to customer focus.

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

Implementing a customer service vision can be tricky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Q: What did you come up with?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Insider Perspectives: Public Sector Service Expert Wendi Brick

Wendi Brick, Customer Service Consultant

Wendi Brick, Customer Service Consultant

Think about the service you get from government agencies.

What comes to mind? Perhaps you think about your last trip to the DMV, an interaction with the city planning department, or a municipal utility.

Outstanding customer service may not be the first thought that crosses your mind when you think about the public sector, but several million dedicated professionals go to work each day in service of the public.

I sat down with Wendi Brick, President and CEO of Customer Service Advantage, Inc. to get her perspective. Brick's company helps public sector organizations deliver world class customer service.

She's also the author of The Science of Service: Six Essential Elements for Creating a Culture of Service in the Public SectorI highly recommend her book for any public sector employee.

Q: What are some challenges unique to serving customers in the public sector?

"There are two primary differences between customer service in the public and private sectors.

"The first is in the public sector, the customer is not always right. A police officer making an arrest for a crime is first concerned with protecting public. If you think of the person being arrested as the customer, they might not walk away 'satisfied' with the process in a traditional sense. Someone working in a city planning office can't approve an eight foot tall wall when the zoning regulations say the maximum height is six, no matter how much that customer wants the wall to be eight.

"The second difference is the service provided by government agencies is often regulatory or enforcement oriented. In the big picture, government exists to protect people in some way, whether it's food quality, public safety, or something else.

"It's not the Disney Way or Nordstrom, but you're still there to help, even if in the end, the customer doesn’t walk away with exactly what they want. Satisfaction with the outcome isn’t always the goal for the interaction."


Q: If public sector agencies aren't always targeting traditional customer satisfaction, what should they be targeting?

"The focus should be service delivery. In my book, The Science of Service, I outline three criteria for excellent public sector service delivery.

"First is professionalism. This means doing your job and doing it well. You want to treat customers with courtesy and respect.

"The second is knowledge. Public sector employees often need to keep track of extensive rules, regulations, laws, and procedures. It's important that you have accurate information to share with your customers.

"The third is timeliness. We're all familiar with bureaucratic red tape. Public sector employees must navigate through that too to provide the fastest possible service.

"At the end of the day, a customer may not get exactly what they wanted, but they should walk away believing they were respected, they received accurate information, and they didn't waste their time. And maybe they feel they were offered some options that would work, even if they weren’t exactly the same as the original request."


Q: Public sector employees don't always have the best reputation for outstanding service. Why do you think that is?

"I can tell you that 99 percent of the government employees I meet are really dedicated. They make less money and often put in more hours than their private sector counterparts because they really believe in what they do.

"So it's heartbreaking to these employees when one of their colleagues does something wrong, especially when it makes the news or is held up as an example of what's wrong with public sector service.

"Keep in mind that a lot of customer service is driven by systems and process. There are so many instances when a public sector employee would like to do more, but they're constrained by an antiquated system or cumbersome process. 

"Working in the public sector really is a noble mission. It takes a certain type of person to do it. The vast majority of people who work in government do so because they really want to help."


Q: It sounds like public sector service can be frustrating for employees too.

"It can be. Employees give a lot of themselves, so the biggest risk is burnout. People can get jaded.

"I always try to remind people that it's a marathon, not a sprint. It's important for public sector leaders to help their staff prevent burnout. This includes giving people time to recharge and letting employees talk through their frustrations.

(Side note: download this exclusive report on the causes of contact center agent burnout.)


Q: What are some of the similarities you see between the public and private sector when it comes to customer service?

"In any industry, an organization's reputation is built on everyday impressions. Employees need to understand that everyone has a sphere of influence. You might make an impression on a customer or even a coworker.

"That makes it important to model the right behavior so you can have a positive impact on others."

Insider Perspectives: ICMI's Erica Marois on Contact Centers

Erica Marois, Community Strategist

Erica Marois, Community Strategist

In any industry, there are a few people you absolutely need to know.

Erica Marois is one of those people for contact center professionals. She's the Community Strategist for the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) and a terrific source of information on Twitter. Her role involves connecting people in the contact center community to give them the tools and resources they need to advance their careers.

Marois is uniquely plugged in to contact center trends and the people who are driving them. She's also one of the industry's most passionate advocates.

She recently took some time to share insights on how contact center professionals can grow in their careers and what leading contact centers are doing to succeed.

Q: Tell me about some of the ways you help contact center professionals connect with each other to learn and grow?

"Customers like to connect with their favorite brands in many ways, and our members like to connect with ICMI and each other in many ways too.

"One of my favorites is the weekly ICMI Chat on Twitter [Tuesday's at 10am Pacific, #icmichat]. The discussion revolves around a new topic each week and participants provide a lot of fun and insightful commentary. It's even led to a sort of mastermind community where people connect outside of the weekly chat to discuss challenges and share ideas. A lot of regular participants have had a chance to meet in person at ICMI conferences and have become good friends, which is fun too.

"We've just launched our ICMI book club on Goodreads. A couple of people mentioned they were thinking of starting a book club in their contact centers, so I thought it might be a good idea for ICMI. Our industry has such a thirst for knowledge, and books are a great way for directors, managers, supervisors, and agents to learn new ideas. Each month, we'll feature a new book and have a live discussion with the author at the end of the month. The first book is The Culture Engine by Chris Edmonds.

"We also publish original case studies and articles, a weekly newsletter, and host the annual Contact Center Expo and Contact Center Demo conferences."

Note: You can save $200 on the upcoming Contact Center Expo conference when you use the code SPKR at checkout.


Q: You seem to be everywhere at those conferences! What's your primary goal while you're there?

"My top priority is to meet as many people as possible. I enjoy hearing from them and what their struggles are because it helps me do a better job. I’m passionate about helping people overcome those struggles. 

"I also try to maintain our social presence at the conferences. There are a lot of great discussions happening on the conference's Twitter backchannel [note: the backchannel refers to the conference's Twitter hashtag, such as #ccexpo]. I've learned there are even more people who aren't necessarily active participants in those online discussions, but they're still actively listening."


Q: What do you see top contact centers doing that others don't necessarily do?

"The most successful contact centers treat their employees like adults. They empower them by giving them the tools and resources they need to serve their customers, and they don't chain them down with rigid scripts or cumbersome policies.

"If you hire people you trust, you need to trust them.

"Employee engagement is a top priority for leading contact centers. They don't get too bogged down in tactics or employee satisfaction. These contact centers understand that engaged employees are self-motivated and invested in the mission of the company. 

"To do that, employees need to know the mission. In The Culture Engine, this month's book club book, the author talks about having a 'cultural constitution' that spells out the company culture and what behaviors are expected. 

"It's so easy to get stuck focused on metrics, that contact center leaders often forget to focus on people. The best contact centers have an employee engagement champion who is constantly making sure this is a priority."


Q: What do you think are some unique aspects about serving customers in a contact center?

"I didn't have any contact center experience before I joined ICMI, but I quickly learned to appreciate what these professionals do every day. It's such a relatable industry because we've all been on the receiving end of a contact center's customer service.

"What really stands out for me is the passion. People are hungry to learn, improve, and share their experiences. You've got to have a servant leader's heart to be successful in this industry."


Q: Is there something about contact centers you wish other people knew?

"People need to realize the great value that contact centers provide.

"In many cases the contact center is the company's first and primary point of communication with customers. Agents have a big opportunity to create a positive impression of the company in their customers' minds. The contact center also collects an awful lot of customer data that the marketing department, R&D team, and even the CEO should be paying attention to.

"Too many organizations think of the contact center as a cost center where expenses need to be minimized, but the contact center is really one of the most customer-focused aspects of any company."

Inside Perspective: Interview With FCR's Jeremy Watkin

A few weeks ago, I published this post highlighting ways that the size of a company or individual team could impact service quality. The surprising conclusion was that small and large companies generally fared equally well, while mid-sized companies struggled the most.

Jeremy Watkin, Head of Quality at FCR, was kind enough to give me some insight into how his company tries to maintain a boutique feel even as it continues to grow. FCR is a leading contact center outsourcer with 1,400 employees spread over six contact centers in Oregon. One of the more interesting things that FCR does is limit the size of its contact centers to approximately 300 employees. 

Last Thursday, Watkin joined me for a Google Hangout interview so we could go a little more in-depth into some of FCR's best practices.


Here are a few highlights from the interview.

Team Within a Team

FCR creates teams of employees (called colleagues) to serve individual clients. This helps maintain a small-team feel even as the organization itself continues to grow. The biggest challenge here is keeping a low supervisor to colleague ratio. FCR generally strives for 1 supervisor to 15 colleagues, but their rapid growth can sometimes inflate that ratio to 1 to 20 or higher.


Growing Pains

Data from customer service software provider Zendesk shows that mid-sized companies generally provide poorer service than small or larger organizations. There isn't clear data to explain why, but Watkin offered a good theory. He suggested that mid-sized organizations are generally small companies that have grown past the point where they can manage things informally, but they don't yet have the standardized systems and processes that large companies have in place.


Employee Motivation

Watkin mentioned that 62 percent of FCR's workforce is comprised of Millenials. This makes it important for FCR to respond to the unique challenges of motivating their colleagues. Watkin said they frequently draw from the principles outlined in Daniel Pink's book, Drive. (He also wrote a great post on this topic for FCR's blog.)

The interview lasts just under 30 minutes. It's interesting to gain Watkin's first-hand perspective on keeping things small, even as an organization grows.