How to Quickly Improve Customer Service by Slowing Down

The CEO was anxious to start training.

He knew customer service wasn't what it needed to be and was hoping for a quick fix. So he hired me to conduct some training. 

His impatience showed in our very first meeting—he bristled when I insisted on first spending time with his customer service team before putting together the training. In the CEO's mind, there was no time for this.

It was a good thing I did. The training was completely unnecessary. After spending less than an hour with the customer service team, I understood the real issue. 

The team leader and the CEO would have spotted it, too, if they had only slowed down just a moment. The challenge is slowing down is a counterintuitive way to go fast.

Man gesturing to slow down.

Why going fast slows us down

Going too fast can make customer service worse, not better.

Harried customer service leaders don't stop and define the problem they are trying to solve. In other words, what does success look like? How will you measure it?

The CEO I described at the start of this post initially told me that he wanted me to deliver customer service training because his customer service reps were unfriendly. 

There were two red flags here. 

The first is "friendliness" is not something you train. You don't learn to smile in a training class. When employees aren't friendly, it's either because they aren't friendly people to begin with and shouldn't have been hired, or there's something that's crushing the friendliness out of them.

The second red flag is the CEO couldn't describe what success looked like. It was only when I pressed him that he admitted his real concern was sales. His customer service reps answered product questions and converted inquiries into orders. They averaged a 33 percent sales conversion rate, and the CEO saw a big opportunity if they could get that rate up to 35 percent.

It's difficult to improve if you can't define what you want to improve. 

I was lucky that I was able to get the CEO to slow down a bit and define the problem. This isn't always the case. Here are some actual statements I've heard from leaders who were too anxious to move quickly:

  • "I want us to deliver world-class customer service."

  • "My managers need to be more managerial."

  • "I want to be like the Apple Store."

The problem with all of those statements is they are unclear. And in their big hurry to throw a solution at the situation, these leaders will almost certainly choose the wrong path like asking for generic training.

Sending people to unnecessary training wastes a lot of time.

How going slow can speed us up

I like to use a simple quick fix checklist tool whenever I'm asked to diagnose an employee performance challenge. The tool examines four key questions:

  1. What is the gap between existing and desired performance?

  2. Can the desired performance realistically be achieved?

  3. Are employees aware of what behaviors they need to change?

  4. Do any obvious performance barriers exist?

The checklist helped me discover what was holding back sales conversion rates after spending less than an hour with frontline employees.

  • Question 1: The performance gap was two percentage points

  • Question 2: The desired performance was sometimes achieved, just not consistently

  • Question 3: Employees were aware they were sometimes unfriendly and unhelpful

  • Question 4: The employees quickly pointed out an obvious performance barrier

The team had a flat schedule, meaning staffing levels remained the same throughout each day. But that's not how their call volume came in. A lot more calls came in on a Monday morning than they received on a Wednesday afternoon.

The result was long hold times during peak periods. And when the reps knew a lot of people were waiting on hold, they became fearful of angering those customers. So they sped up the calls, which made them come across as abrupt and prevented them from closing more sales.

My client changed the schedule to better meet customer demand. They did have to hire one person, but it was well worth it. After 30 days, the team's sales conversion jumped from 33 percent to 45 percent! 

This is not an unusual situation. Here are more examples of quick fixes I helped customer service leaders discover by spending just 1-4 hours using this tool:

  • A contact center reduced outsourced calls by 50 percent in just one week.

  • Survey responses increased by 600 percent in one month.

  • Mystery shopping scores improved at a hotel from 78 to 94 percent in one month.

Quick Fix Resources

There's a quote that's widely attributed to Abraham Lincoln. Research shows he probably didn't say it, but it's still an inspiring quote:

If I had five minutes to chop down a tree, I'd spend the first three sharpening the axe.

Solving customer service problems should be approached the same way. Spend a little time up front analyzing and understanding the issue, and you'll likely find some very quick fixes.

Here are a few resources to help you: