No! Is the Wrong Answer

No! is the loneliest answer. No! is a relationship killer. No! is a word that should be placed on an island where only those brave enough to chart the depths of misty waters should dare capture its power.
I’m going to show you ways to coach your customer facing employees away from killing relationships and halting growth.  


 From the time we are toddlers all the way through our adolescence we; as part of our human nature have a love-hate relationship with the word “no.” It makes you feel belittled, condescended and less important. Whether for just cause or not; the fact remains that nobody likes to be told, “No.”  

 Science proves that hearing or even seeing the word can invoke a myriad of negative reactions in our brain. Dr. Andrew Newberg, M.D. says, “If I were to put you into an MRI scanner—a huge donut-shaped magnet that can take a video of the neural changes happening in your brain—and flash the word “NO” for less than one second, you’d see a sudden release of dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters. These chemicals immediately interrupt the normal functioning of your brain, impairing logic, reason, language processing, and communication.” The word has intrinsic power to reroute the course of your customer experience that you are working so hard to preserve.

 But, how then do you communicate to a customer that they cannot have everything they want?

 I’m glad you asked. Finding ways to navigate a potentially disappointing outcome for a customer is never easy. Making it 10x as hard is removing the simplest of answers, No. Challenging your staff to communicate in other ways forces them to become more of solutions engineer rather than an order taker. 

Imagine this scenario for further example:

 You walk into your bank and request to have your account statements processed in a certain way that would make it easier for you to access anywhere you are rather than waiting to get home and reconcile your statements. To you, this seems like a simplistic and modest request. From the bank, they have policies and procedures that govern how each account can receive its statements. The type of account you are currently in only allows you to receive paper statements.  

 The bank representative can deliver this information to you in 1 of many ways. I’ll bet you however that the common response you will get from most customer service agents out there will be something like this:

I’m sorry Mr. Jones, but we cannot process your request to receive online statements because the account type you currently have only allows us to give you paper statements.

 I’ve highlighted a few commonly used words in interactions such as these. Now, this may seem like a polite approach, I mean…they didn’t use the word ‘NO’ right? That is true, but instead they replaced the word ‘No’ with other negatively associated words like: I’m sorry, cannot, and only allows. These are limiting, negative words that only communicate to a customer what you are incapable of doing. Customers today are not concerned with what you are ‘incapable’ of doing and more ready to hear what you ‘can’ do for them.  

 Here is a much better response to the same problem:

 “Mr. Jones, that seems like it would be a huge time saver for you to be able to access your statements online from wherever you are. I can see how this would truly benefit you since you travel so often. Here’s what we can set up for you: Our platinum checking account is perfect for customers just like you who want to have more freedom and control of how they do their banking. I also see that you commonly carry a monthly balance which would more than qualify your account to upgrade to the platinum. How about we move your account type to the more option based Platinum Checking and I’ll make sure you get your account statements emailed to you once a month. How does that sound?

 The challenge is to reframe the mindset of your Customer Service team to actually believe they are “Solutions Engineers.” This is a term I use to better describe the functions of what is expected from my Customer Service staff. Providing an elevated level of customer service interactions requires a person to constantly be looking for the ability to find solutions for your customers. If a readily available, cookie-cutter option is not at hand, that is where the “engineers” part comes into play. Matching solutions to properly fitted requests is a job anybody with a high school education can accomplish. However, properly engineering a customer solution for a client with specific and unique requests is a key indicator of a team with elevated levels of service.  

 Regardless of how simple or cookie-cutter the solution is…the key is to do it in such a way that the client believes he/she just received a special, custom made solution just for them. Exclusivity is a form of flattery. Make your customers feel as though they are VIPs.  

 Remember, find ways to educate, and reform your conversations without using the ‘NO.’ Find a Win-Win solution that leaves your customers feeling valued and appreciated.

Developing Culture in your Work Environment

Building a team that is stable, functional and cohesive is such an under-rated task in the minds of many managers today. How often do you hire someone based on their work skill competency hoping they will fit within your cultural structure?  Do you hope and pray that they posses the character qualities that are revealed when the pressure is on?

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If this is you, then you are leaving your organization’s vital health up to unkowns with the same effectiveness as throwing spaghetti at a wall to see what sticks.

Culture is an element that we must hire in and continue to fine tune rather than hope it creates itself.  Hiring the right people is an art unto itself. (See Post:  The “Inner-View”) We are conditioned as a society to look solely at accomplishments, (degrees, certificates, awards, etc.) but fail to see how profoundly the impact of personality characteristics such as empathy and compassion can have on our business health. The lack of the aforementioned qualities leave us with highly skilled and accomplished employees who don’t care about your customers.   When pushed into a compromising situation that requires character, they will default to their skill sets and experiences.  Unfortunatley for you, your customers don’t give a rip about your employee’s experiences, qualifications or accomplishments.

Developing a Culture that Inspires

In order to have the very best talent come work for you, you will need to create an environment that breeds creativity, freedom of thought, and collective inspiration.  This of course has to be lead and shepharded by a supreme vision. CeZ0A9CUIAAKgFOOne that communicates what the end result is.  Culture is not necessarily telling your employees how to do their jobs…it’s setting the standard for what a job well done looks like and empowering them to accomplish the end by a variety of means.

As a manager, I would often times invest more into my employees personal goals and aspirations than any other manager they’ve ever had.  During a performance review I would ask them to provide me with 2 business related goals that they would like to commit themselves to and 1 personal goal.  I would ask them about that personal goal and have a conversation about why it was important to them and what motivates them to make that goal a reality.   Throughout the course of the month or quarter, until our next review I would find ways to encourage them and provide support reminding them that their personal goals and accomplishments outside of work are important to me.

One that comes to mind was a young lady who had a personal goal to spend more time studying the Bible.  She said that it was difficult raising 8 children and working full-time to find extra space to spend time studying.  My response to this was probably more unconventional than most, and I realize that this probably isn’t possible in all applications…. I scheduled her 1-hour per week early in the morning where she was off projects and free of other duties so that she could have the alone time to invest in something that was personal and important to her.

What did I gain out of this?  Well, other than the obvious answer that we should be practicing doing things for others without the concern for what’s in it for us…I received a tremendously grateful and enthusiastic employee who gave me 150% effort on every other hour where it counted.   Her ability to have paid time to invest in something that was important to her gave her the necessary boost to become one of my greatest leaders.

I tell you this story not to impress you.  Rather, I tell you to impress upon you the importance of investing in your employees on a personal level.  Long gone are the days of separating yourself for the sake of not wanting to “fraternize” with the help.    Nobody buys that garbage and you shouldn’t either.   If you truly want to have a superior team of quality employees who stick around and help build your dream…then help them build theirs.   To me, this defines our culture under my influences.

Investing in Future Success

You’ve probably heard the saying, “Whatever you subsidize, you get more of.”  Well this couldn’t be any more truer than with your employees.  As a Pop Warner Football coach I would be crazy if I thought that I could just gather the most talented athletes all on one team and that alone would lead me to a National Championship.

This is why we spend hours upon countless hours developing the structure, discipline and rhythm of how our team plays the game.  Our work environment is no different than a well oiled championship football team.  It requires leadership, vision, sacrifice from every member and a commitment to invest in what seems to be the mundane but laters pays off when it really counts.

This is why you need to be investing in on-going developmental training programs for your staff.  The work is never complete.  Just because you have a robust on-boarding process doesn’t mean that your done.   Training needs to be a cornerstone of all that you do as a leader.   Some of you are thinking to yourself, “Nick, we don’t have the capital capabilities to deploy a continuous training program.”  My answer is very simple: There is always ways to develop training with low budgets.  In order to be the best, you have to pay to play.  There are obviously extreme levels to which a company could take this, (Consultants, Group Building Training Firms, Excursions, Seminars, Etc.) but let me speak to the small independent company that truly does operate on a shoe-string budget.  How do these firms invest in training?

When I started my first company, I didn’t have a lot of money…in fact, I didn’t have ANY money to put towards training and development.  However, I knew that in order for me to grow I had to fertilize the seed we were planting to see our dreams come to fruition.  I knew that the biggest priority for our firm was getting our team all into an entrepreneurial mindset and out of a Boss/Employee mentality.  So I had this book that I was reading at the time that really helped me put my head in the right spot and I was always using quotes from the text in our staff meetings.  I found a few used copies from a local used book storeGung Ho.jpg and asked the staff to commit to reading a chapter every week with the intention of being prepared to speak about how that chapter impacted them or what thoughts they wanted to discuss. (i.e.: How we could implement ideas, resources, etc.)   Not only was this a fun and rewarding piece of our weekly staff meeting, it actually inspired my staff to take more effort in self-development.   Total cost:  $50 or less.

My encouragement to you today is to start somewhere!  Developing a culture of success and fostering an environment where the ‘Attitude Attributes’ of inspiration don’t have to be overthought, expensive or extremely time consuming. You will however begin to see a difference in your employees once they see you beginning to take an interest in seeing their dreams accomplished.  Step out of office, and get cozy with your staff.  The culture of your company depends on it.

Ken Blanchard.com/Store/Books/Gung-Ho!

 

The “Inner-View”- A guide to more effective interviews

We’ve all done it.  Each one of us at some point or another has conducted an interview for an open position and thought, “Boy, did I find a diamond in the rough.” Only to find out later that this person was the greatest actor/actress who put on an Academy Award winning performance for their interview…but severely lacked the ability to deliver when the time came to actually do the job.

Boiler Room Interview

There is a better and more productive way to find and hire the best people for your sales or customer experience positions.  However, it is paramount that YOU understand what it actually is you are hiring for.   So many times I run into managers or business owners who hire for positions that they know nothing about.  If you are not connected to your business in a way that allows you to understand what skills are required for each position in order to be successful then I submit to you two options:

  1. Get Involved–     Go spend a few weeks with your CS staff or your sales team. Get to know their daily grind, their hang-ups and what ultimately motivates them.  I call this “The Ride Along.”   You need to strap on your boots and get gritty with the very process that you hope to improve by the hiring of quality and loyal employees. What skills will you look for if you don’t even know what skills are required to perform the job successfully?
  2. Outsource your Hiring–   If for some reason you simply cannot perform the essential duties of option one, then you have to make a tough decision.  You need to come to terms with the fact that you are NOT the right person to be making those types of hiring choices.  Find a manager, partner or even an outside staffing company who will make it their business to learn your company’s needs and hire accordingly to fill them.

Assuming all the ducks are in their proverbial rows lets now discuss how I like to interview for Customer Service/Experience positions.

Group Interviews

Some of you may be thinking, “What is this guy thinking? Group interviews? Those are so not specific and way too general.”   This line of thinking comes from a rush-rush, hurry up and fill the spot mentality.   We are looking to build a Super Bowl team of customer service professionals who can be trained, lead and set free to help you create a world-class customer experience.   This cannot be accomplished with one interview.   I use the group interview process to select my candidates who will move on to a formal interview.

Ever had that one application whose resume just sang to you like a champion ship theme song?  But then you meet them and feel that you just spent valuable time meeting with the Freshman squad?   The group interview will allow you to make effective use of your time while you can carefully weed out the applicants who just won’t make the cut.

Cognitive-Behavioral-Therapy-2-670x293Tips on conducting a great Group Interview:

  • Have two managers/owners in the room.  One of you will be the facilitator while the other one will be the observer.  You are free to switch roles as needed but just as long as there is always an observer and a facilitator.  The facilitator will ask the questions or probe the group for a response while the observer takes notes quietly on the behaviors of the group members.
  • Asking applicant “A” the question but focusing your attention to how applicant “B” reacts to the answer.  In my previous post Hire for Personality…Train for Skill I mentioned that “Empathy” was one of the major characteristics I looked for in my CS staff.  One of the best ways to check for genuine empathic people is to have others share something about themselves that was embarrassing.  Here’s what you’re looking for:  Applicant “A” shares a mishap that was painfully embarrassing, while the rest of the group is awkwardly laughing at the story, applicant “B” is sitting there with empathic gasps and facial expressions that show a true connection to the embarrassment of applicant “A”.
  • Asking Questions Nobody Knows the Answer to.  This always seems to throw people off guard but has such validity in a customer service or sales role.  My favorite question is, “What is the surface temperature of the sun?”  What I’m looking for is to categorize the group into three types.
    • Type 1:    People who will just throw out an answer without regard to its validity.
    • Type 2:   People who will simply say, “I don’t know.”
    • Type 3:   People who will say, “I’m not exactly sure but I will find the answer for you.”

There is no value in a customer service professional who will just state an answer simply to satisfy a customers immediate need.  That does you no good because when the customer finally realized that the answer was false, you have lost the trust of the customer.  Likewise, you will find no profit from an employee who is too lazy to find the correct answer and settles with a shrug of the shoulders and a disappointing, “I don’t know.”

If you have every watched the show Kitchen Nightmare’s you’ve probably seen many clips from virtually every episode where Chef Gordon Ramsey is asking the owner or the chef, “Who sets the standards around here? And, who is going to maintain them once I’m gone?”  It’s all about culture–and like I’ve always said, “Culture is defined by what happens when the boss leaves the room.”    In every interview session, you are looking for people who not only possess the skills and training necessary, (Those are less important compared to personality and character) but who can easily assimilate into the culture that you have created and hopefully a standard to which you are keeping a close eye on.

Once I’ve identified the candidates who posses the qualities I’m seeking, I formally invite them to a sit down interview where I lay out the vision, role and responsibility, but more than that…the opportunity for what is at stake.  Here is where you find out if you are dealing with someone who is just looking for a job or someone looking for an opportunity. I want to hire the very best people available in my market space.  I am not looking to turn over employees month-after-month.  So how I avoid that is by seeing how truly “interested” the candidate is in the position. I’ll ask questions like these:

  • So, tell me what you know about my company and what we do…
  • Do you know what our mission statement is?  What about that statement resonated with you?
  • Based on what you know about our company and the direction we are heading, what qualities do you specifically bring that will help us in accomplishing our mission statement?

and you can never forget the ol’ classic…..

  • Tell me about yourself….

These questions will help you know if you have someone who has done their research on your company and is truly interested in building a career.  If someone comes to a job interview without knowledge of the company they are applying for that tells me they are not serious about their future and furthermore won’t be serious about yours either.   Similarly, a person who cannot describe themselves in a few short sentences usually does not have the confidence or depth to help you provide a world-class customer experience.   One must truly know themselves before they can be of any assistance to anyone else.

Follow these simple guidelines and always remember to set your bar high.  Never settle for average and always….I mean ALWAYS go out of your way to protect the culture you have worked so hard to build.

Hire for Personality…Train for Skill

One of the most import decisions you will ever make as a manager or business owner is who you bring into your business.  You’ve worked tirelessly to develop your dream, your concept and your vision for this company and now you have got to the point where delivering your value to consumers depends upon more than just you as an individual entrepreneur.

The world has changed around us.  Today more than any other time in American history, PhD’s and Master’s level graduates are vying for the same jobs as those without any formal education.

What do you value most?   Be it formal education or a lengthy robust job history, the environment for creating a successful Customer Experience culture is not what it use to be.  So many times I’ve seen a company hire somebody because their resume was impressive. Or, they gave a good interview and answered all the questions right–showing knowledge and experience.   This method of hiring is antiquated and will only provide you with additional head-ache.

If your company is “intentional” about your Customer Experience offerings and have made the commitment to be set-apart from others in your space, then you also have realized that great customer service is not bought…it’s taught!   As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, if YOU don’t set the vision and expectation of what success looks like from a Customer Experience prospective, (Being intentional) then your employees are left to create their own.  This leads to a disastrous meltdown of mixed ideas and failure to reach the highest potential for lack of unity and consistency.  Even the most talented and experienced employees will fail under this model because there is no harmonious structure.  You cannot just blankly say, “We expect you to provide good customer service” without defining what “good” actually means.  What does it look like? At what point should “good” be considered “standard” and exceptional is now the new target.

Changing your perspective on how you hire can help you achieve exceptional levels of customer loyalty and easier path.   Throw away the old and tired model of experience and education trumping a winning personality.  Here are the qualities we look for in our customer facing employees:

  1. Empathy-  Empathy is such an important character quality when dealing with the public.  If your employees can’t effectively show empathy for a customers situation, they will never buy from you again.  Empathy is not just a canned “I’m sorry you feel that way” response.  Its connecting with the customers emotion and mirroring them to truly express that they care.   How do we check for empathy?  Great question….I’ll give tips and tricks in a separate post on how to effectively conduct an interview.
  2. Joy- Unlike happiness, which is an unstable and highly unpredictable emotion–Joy is something that has the power to triumph over fleeting emotions and circumstance.  When somebody posses’ joy, they are infectious. You can’t help but feel better when you are around a joyful person.
  3. Sense of Humor- Have you ever had that waiter or waitress who just wasn’t playing along with your, albeit; self-perceived humor?  It truly makes the experience less fun.  And lets be honest, everybody likes to have fun! That word is not and should not be a bad word in the work environment.  With appropriateness and situational  awareness in mind, having a good sense of humor can lift the tension of most situations and actually turn what would have been a bad experience into something to laugh about.

These three character traits are the building block of what potentially can become a great customer service employee. These characteristics cannot be taught in any ivy league college and it is not something you just pick up over years of employment history.  You’ve either got it, or you don’t!   Now, you combine these traits to a fully functional and intentional training program and you are well on your way to having a Super Bowl team of Customer Service employees.

Collection Practices & the Customer-First Mindset

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Collections practices are often viewed by many CS/CX agents as the devious task of harassing your customers into paying a bill they don’t want to pay, with money they do not have.   I am surprised that anybody collects monies from people with this attitude.  Somewhere, somehow we as a culture of CS/CX professionals decided the only way to collect from our clients was to become bully’s.  We’ve adapted this mentality that our customers are dead-beats and are looking for ways to stiff us.

What I’ve found is that collection practices, when orchestrated with a customer first mindset can in fact be a rewarding experience for all CX professionals as well as our customers.

All too often our attitude toward collections is rooted in a feeling of inconvenience and frustration.  Our customers fall into dunning categories for a myriad of reasons, most of which are not because they are dead-beats.  Collection practices need to be a compassionate extension of our tenaciously crafted over-all customer experience.  Our commitment to customer service excellence must not stop once an account is past due.  Quite the contrary.  These are excellent opportunities for us to showcase our empathy and distinguish ourselves as problem solvers rather than merely another collector.

In an effort to set us apart from the others we cannot change hats in the middle of our customer relationship. What I mean by this is we cannot be a trusted customer service agent one day and a dreaded collections agent the next.   We must remain consistent in our relationships if we wish to create loyalty. It is in a respectful customer-first approach that we will find solutions to resolving a customer’s situation.  Without belittling the customer, we can reach a solution to bring their account current and build trust at the same time.

I remember when I had just got home from Navy Basic Training. I was a young kid with literally no financial IQ.  Combine this with a stroke of irresponsibility and you have a perfect storm.  For those of you that don’t know, obtaining credit when you are in the military is quite simple due the fact that the creditors know that you have a secure job and if you default, they can seek remedy from the military itself.  The poor borrow is then left to deal with a less forgiving entity.  Well, a few maxed out and past due credit cards later I was on the receiving end of those calls.  I can distinctly remember one call in particular where a man introduced himself as Mr. Eckles.  This was odd because my interactions with this company and its associates was always more casual, devoid of the formality of last name introductions.  I don’t recall the finer details of the conversation but, Mr. Eckles started off the interaction with aggression and a tone to his voice that sounded like I had just robbed him of lunch money.  Never once did ask me what my current situation was or if he could offer solutions to help.  Instead he began to threaten me with lawsuits, garnishments and I think he even threated to take my first born son.  Well, at least it seemed that way to me.  I ended up settling this debt sometime later with a third-party collector simply due to the fact that I was not going to be bullied, harassed or manipulated into doing anything.  The fact of the matter was I was recently unemployed and any monies I did have at the time were used to put food on the table.   If Mr. Eckles had shown even an ounce of compassion for my situation, I might have been able to figure out a way to make even a small effort on the account.   This was a lasting impression on me and I have never done business with that company since.

Relationships matter! We have to get past our own egos and realize that there is a human being at the other end of this transaction.  They have concerns and needs that might be more important to them at the time than paying your bill.  However, if we never ask or show empathy, we are left only to assume that they are dead-beats.

Here are a few Mind-Set Challenges regarding the Customer Experience (CX) as it relates to collections:

  • Every opportunity we get to interact with our customers is an opportunity to make a positive impression and further advance your referral-generating relationship.
  • Collections Practices are less for your benefit and more for your customer’s.  We don’t want to create an unwarranted financial burden that becomes increasingly more difficult to recover from as the late fee’s pile on.
  • Having service interruptions due to dunning blocked accounts causes more work for you with less profit.

In today’s Global Economy and with tightened margins we should be looking for every advantage we can employ to separate ourselves from other providers.  These collection’s-based situations must be viewed as golden opportunities to “WOW” our customers while driving profit and increasing our flow of receivables.   If every employee in your organization grabs ahold of the following ‘Attitude Attributes’ then you are well on our way to creating long lasting loyal customer relationships.

  • We’ve all had difficult situations arise in our lives.  Not all Dunning customers are dead-beats.
  • Do whatever it takes to get our customers back into a “Buying” position.

Vision — Cast Your Nets and Reap a Harvest

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Vision:

noun

  1. the act or power of sensing with the eyes; sight.
  2. the act or power of anticipating that which will or may come to be.

Firms all over the globe pay thousands and thousands of dollars to have consultants create a dynamic Customer Experience Model that fits within their company’s structure.  They spend even more money on focus groups and surveys hoping to uncover a juicy nugget of truth that will help them find direction in creating a brand message.

Well, I believe that most of this dubious over-spending can be avoided with one word….”Vision.”

How many times has your organization cast their vision for upcoming months or years to share with its employees?  Does your organization even have a thoughtfully crafted vision to speak of?  I would submit that developing a carefully and thoughtfully crafted Vision Statement is the first step in understanding who you are and what you do.  It will allow you to become intentional about what services you distinguish yourself with and which ones you purposefully choose to ignore.  It’s okay to be bad at certain things as long as it is an intentional effort to employ greater cohesion in the areas of intended focus.   We cannot be the best at everything.

So many organizations say they want to have great Customer Service but very few truly understand what that looks like.  If you don’t have a vision for your organizations service interactions then you cannot coach to it.  You have to create the culture that you expect your employees to live in.  The alternative is that they will create it for you.  A vision statement should have the sincerity of a love letter.  You are pouring out your hearts vision for how you expect your paying customers to be treated.  It must include not only your service standards but also recovery options.  Let’s be honest, even with the most highly trained staff and a perfectly designed vision statement for customer experience, we are dealing with people and people are not always happy despite our best efforts.  This is why we need to have properly designed recovery objectives–where we get back on track with our customer expectations.

The ancient Proverb saying, “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” is more true in this scenario than ever.  As leaders in Customer Experience we must have a vision for our service standards and we must be able to share effectively.  Our employees are looking for us to establish structure, culture and empowerment to serve your customers.   If your organization understands how to deliver exceptional service and can operate within a culture that is guided and directed by a common vision, you will see huge results in customer loyalty and Net Promoter Scores.

Want to take it even higher?  Here is a ninja trick I learned while running a financial services company.  Allow your staff the opportunity to engage with you when developing the vision for the future.  Your employees care more than you might think. They are the ones who have to work within the system so empower them to be part of the genesis and creativity.  The result is you have more “Buy-In” from the employees on a deeper level.  They feel connected to the vision and will take more ownership in seeing the vision come to reality.