An over focus on systems training can be harmful. Susy Roberts encourages us to bring back the personal touch
Processes and systems in customer service are meant to mean a more efficient and consistent experience for customers – but if they’re delivered without any emotion, customers can just end up feeling ‘processed’.
I recently needed to make a difficult call to an airline about taking my mother’s ashes home on a plane. The assistant I dealt with processed my call perfectly in that I was instructed efficiently and exactly on where I had to go when I got to the airport, what documentation I needed to bring and so on. She repeated the fact I had to bring the death certificate with me. At no point did she once express any sorrow for my loss. Had she been outside of work she would have probably expressed that empathy naturally, but in work there’s now such a focus on processes that she was fixated on telling me what the process was, to the extent that it almost de-humanised her.
Typically driven by the need for cost savings and efficiency improvements, there’s a real trend in organisations towards over-systematising the customer experience. [pullquote]It’s good to have clear and consistent policies on everything from placing an order to returning a faulty item, but this shouldn’t be at the expense of the human interaction[/pullquote].
For customers to feel cared about, it remains essential to focus on creating a positive ‘emotional’ experience, that element of the personal and friendly that leaves customers feeling like they’ve been dealing with people, not robots.
Bring back the human touch
Systems and procedures start to get in the way of good customer service when staff are educated on the process first and behaviours second. The resulting mind-set is: “This is the system I need to use and this is the process I need to follow” rather than “These are the behaviours I need to demonstrate, this is how I want to make the customer feel.”
Employees need to be trained on behaviour first, systems second. Only then can the systems be viewed and used in ways that can help to support and reinforce those behaviours. Before defining, let alone training employees on your processes, it’s essential to step back and think about the customer experience you want to create.
Quite often, employees simply aren’t given ‘permission’ to interact on a personal level. There’s an ethos based on treating customers quickly and efficiently. But customers want to see a genuinely human response. I recently helped a well-known financial brand to do two days’ training on behaviours, followed by two days on processes. Part of their business deals with people who’ve gone over their credit limit. Because of the focus on behaviours and making customers feel valued, when they have to deliver difficult messages about funds no longer being accessible they can still do this in a caring, empathetic way. Delivering those messages in an overly pragmatic way would have made their customers feel undervalued.
Luxury hotels are very good at dealing with streams of people each day in a way that ensures they don’t feel processed. When staff take a reservation, there’s certain information they have to extract from the customer and certain rules and conditions they need to ensure the customer is aware of. They can either drag the customer through this process in a painful, process-driven way, or use it as an opportunity to engage with the customer and enhance their buying experience.
For example, instead of dryly explaining the cancellation policy, the focus is instead of making the customer feel excited about their visit, with statements such as “We hope you don’t need to cancel for any reason, as we know you’re going to love your garden view room, but if you do for any reason here’s what you need to know.” Even though the staff are in effect still following a process, the way in which this is delivered actually enhances the customer’s buying experience.
Interestingly, lifting the interaction from a process-driven transaction to the start of an emotional experience doesn’t actually lengthen the time taken to deliver the same message, but it can dramatically increase the sense of satisfaction the customer gets from interacting with the brand. Not to mention employee engagement levels as they realise and embrace the extent to which their behaviour is personally impacting on customers and the success of the business.
Change negative behaviour patterns
The internal culture – the employee experience – needs to match the customer experience you want to create. Employees need to treat each other how you want them to treat the customer, because how they behave internally will inevitably end up being the same externally. If there’s a tendency for people to work in silos and get used to passing tasks onto others to deal with, they’re likely to do the same with customers as well. If it’s acceptable not to get back to colleagues the same day, again it’s going to translate into the customer’s experience.
Critical to changing negative behaviour patterns is enabling employees to experience for themselves how those behaviours are impacting on others in a real-life context: this is what you can sound and look like, and this is how the customer actually feels at this moment. Using actors, videos and role-playing is essential to correcting negative behaviour. Even if the behaviours are deliberately exaggerated to make the point, seeing them acted out in a realistic scenario that people can relate to dramatises the need for change in a way that no amount of textbook or theoretical teaching can achieve. People often don’t realise the impact of their behaviour and what a difference simple changes will make to customer experiences and feedback.
Even highly technical employees who might be naturally drawn toward following rules and processes can be trained to create a fantastic people experience (even if they’re not naturally ‘people people’), so long as the need for doing things in the new way is explained logically and they’ve given the opportunity to experience the impact their behaviour is having on the customer. Use facts and data to make the point, business performance statistics, studies linking customer experience and satisfaction with sales or net promoter scores.
Managers are essential to keeping everyone aligned to the behaviours you want to create both internally and externally – but it’s important to allow everyone to be involved and have their say.
Refine processes that aren’t customer-friendly
By getting everyone together to talk about the customer experience and any issues or processes that aren’t yet customer-friendly, you can balance the need for efficiency and data capture and so on with the need to deliver an outstanding customer experience that only strengthens the desire to live the desired behaviours and commit to them even more. Quite often, employees will flag up ways in which the current processes are hindering their ability to deliver the desired customer experience, which provides important insights from the frontline.
Engagement with the training and the behaviours needs to be as widespread as possible to avoid pockets of inconsistency. Employees should themselves want to be involved rather than feeling coerced. Being innovative in the way training is delivered helps – the involvement of drama and actors – and by working up some pre-training marketing ‘buzz’ campaigns (the ABB case study in the side bar is a good example of how well this can work).
[pullquote]Organisations invest huge sums in developing and communicating their brand – why allow the image to be tarnished the instant there is contact through customer services[/pullquote], the moment when customers are most sensitive to their experience and how they are treated? Even if you only give the customer six options before you route their call, that’s two minutes of their time before they even get through the first stage. It makes them feel processed before they’ve even started to interact with your brand.
True efficiency shouldn’t be based on the time taken to process customers, but rather on every customer going away from their call or conversation having had their needs met in a way that actually increases their desire to interact with your brand again.