In customer service, your people are NOT your most important asset.

In the book Good to Great, Jim Collins writes that “People are not your most important asset. The right people are.”

Customer service is all about building relationships – relationships with superiors, direct reports, vendors and customers. Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, claims that success in any job is 20% knowledge and 80% interpersonal skills. Ultimately success in customer service is all about interpersonal skills.

Unfortunately, while there are people who want to work in customer service, many lack the necessary interpersonal skills because they have grown up or interacted with others in a generation far different from our own.

I am convinced that people can only deliver an experience that they themselves have experienced. In order to succeed in customer service, they would have had to personally experience and learn from great examples of others exhibiting stellar interpersonal skills in their day-to-day interactions.

But those opportunities to learn firsthand from face-to-face interactions have all changed in less than a generation. Like many of you, when I earned my first paycheck there was no direct deposit or internet banking. We would have to go weekly to the bank to deposit our paycheck. After a while, the teller got to know who we were, where we worked, what we did there, and regularly asked how work and our company was doing. We learned how to communicate personally as a result of those interactions. But with on-line banking and ATM’s, when was the last time you had to actually go into a bank? We have lost that opportunity for regular personal interactions.

I was a member of after school clubs in school and in that process I collaborated with others in person. Now many young people are more apt to spend as much time with an on-line team of avatars of people they have never met playing Call of Duty or Warcraft. All those hours on-line, but what interpersonal skills are they learning from that experience?

Remember when gas stations used to have the attendant check your oil and tire pressure, clean your windshield and ask us if there was anything else they could do for us ? How bad has customer service gotten when we never see an attendant and actually pump our own gas? Where is the interpersonal skills reinforcement in that experience?

This will date me, but I remember when the baggers at the grocery store would actually take the bags in a shopping cart and help me load them into my car. Not only are the baggers gone, but so are many of the cashiers, replaced by self-serve checkout lines. And even the cashiers who are on duty certainly have no time to strike up a social conversation.

The average Facebook user today has 200 friends. When people posts on their page, they don’t have a loss of self-esteem when only three “like” the post. The other 197 have ignored them  – and they are OK with that! Even those that “like” the post rarely leave a comment to begin an interaction. Social media, then, is rarely social.

I have a cell phone and young people have cell phones. But what are they doing with their cell phones? OMG. LOL. I’m so old I remember someone actually laughing out loud on my phone. Texting is really one-way communication. You don’t hear voice tone or inflection or a pause. Two text monologues on do not make a real dialog.

So the experiences for many people are not full of the good examples of emotional intelligence, body language or verbal communication that only face-to-face interactions can teach. I believe that translates in a real world that is OK to ignore the customer and our co-workers. We don’t have to greet our co-workers every morning or every customer who walks through the door. Having not experienced good examples of communication, collaboration or relationship-building skills, how will those people we entrust to take care of our customers be successful? And if we allow ourselves to accept that level of performance as adequate, how will our businesses succeed?

The answer is that we, as managers, are responsible for the education of those who do not have those skills. For us to succeed in this very competitive customer service marketplace, we will need the right people.  We will need people who know how to consistently welcome our customers with eye contact and a smile, listen and respond empathetically, and bid them a sincere fond farewell. So we will need to ask the proper interview questions with the specific intent on finding out if the candidates have the necessary skills of expressing sincerity, empathy and trust. And we will be the ones who will have to educate the people we select to deliver the experience our customers are expecting from us. Customer service cannot be “Day One and Done” training. Soft skills reinforcement must be continuous. Only then will we build the interpersonal skills of our staff to drive their success and ours.

3 Comments

Filed under Customer Satisfaction, Customer Service, Leadership, Training

3 responses to “In customer service, your people are NOT your most important asset.

  1. This is an interesting, if not somewhat fatalistic, point of view. I have a somewhat different perspective, however.

    I don’t think you can, or you should necessarily try to, “fix” people. You can’t stop the tide. Today is not 30 years ago. People’s environment and individual experiences are not what they were 30 years ago. We might lament the loss of civility, but today’s youth don’t see it that way.

    My parents grew up with Big Band music – they couldn’t stand nor understand this “rock & roll” Devil’s music. They burned records (not tapes, CDs or MP4s…) and banned performers like Elvis Presley from performing in their town. Today, we hear that same music as background in our grocery stores.

    In a way it reminds me of the guy who buys beachfront property, then asks the government to build barriers and truck in sand to prevent beach erosion… ain’t gonna happen! Time is a one-way street!

    The problems between generations are not new!

    “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.” – Socrates (469–399 B.C.)

    So in my respectful opinion, the issue is not to “fix” them but to hire more selectively. Hire for talent, train for skill. Zappos, for example, has rigorous skill screening plus another separate rigorous “culture fit” screening. Then even after being accepted for hire, and after initial on-board training, successful applicants are offered $2,000, if I understand the story correctly, to leave! This separates the non-fits from the Zappos Team Member quite well.

    That’s just my opinion (though I do think it’s a fair perspective!). Thanks for your article! //Richard

    • Thank you very much, Richard, for your comments. I totally understand that times are changing. But while it may not be 30 years ago, there are over 100 million Baby Boomers 50 or older today in the United States who remember, and are inclined to expect the kind of service they experienced back then. My customer service mantras are “Be the Customer. The customer is paying for his experience, not ours. And it’s never about us, it is always about them.” If we agree that satisfaction is, at the very least, meeting the customer’s expectations, then we should put ourselves in the mindset of our customer and meet the expectations of service that they are expecting based on their 30+ years of customer service experience. Now if your customer is one of the 80 million Millennials who have completely different life experiences and expectations, it is altogether another approach to satisfying them.

      I do agree that a strict selection process is critical. According to Business Insider, Zappos hires for attitude and trains for skill. While that may sound slightly different, it actually is a big difference. No matter how extensive the resume, the Zappos potential candidate must be nice. (http://www.businessinsider.com/tony-hsieh-zappos-hiring-strategy-2013-11). The old proverb, “A man who doesn’t smile should not open a shop” is still good hiring advice.

      Even those with the right talents and skills may have the wrong attitude and therefore be the wrong cultural fit. For example, during the interview, a candidate, when asked, “Do you have any questions?” could respond, “What are my benefits and privileges?” or “What are my obligations and responsibilities?” The first candidate is focused on what the job can do for him while the latter is asking what he is expected to do for the customer. Hire the second one. And I agree that if, if somehow, you hire the first candidate and find out quickly he is not the right fit, pay him the $2000 to leave rather than keep him and have him costing you much more in lost customers.

      Thank you, again, Richard for your insight. I very much appreciate your differing view.

      “When two partners always agree, one of them is not necessary.” If there is some point you haven’t thought about, be thankful if it is brought to your attention.” Dale Carnegie

      Your partner in customer service,
      Bill

  2. Hello,

    On the one hand the ‘offline support’ is changing but on the other hand the state of online customer service is getting better (and also more personalised).

    Lately we’ve launched the LiveChat Customer Service Report 2015 (https://www.livechatinc.com/livechat-resources/customer-service-report-2015/). We’ve analysed (among others) the ratio of satisfied customers to the total number of customers. It turned out that over 86% of customers are satisfied with the help they’ve got via chat.

    So, maybe that’s the thing? The ‘offline support’ goes down and the ‘online support’ keep getting better. What do you think about that?

    Cheers!

    Agnieszka

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