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6 Ways to Make Your Meetings More Productive

Conference RoomCustomer service departments, like most entities of most corporations, seem to have a thing for meetings.

I personally don’t like meetings and I think the usefulness of getting everyone in a conference room to discuss something that is most likely pretty trivial is limited at best. Bureaucracy in general is something that I try to avoid (and suggest that others do as well) and I feel as if most meetings just contribute to bureaucracy. Too many companies (and units within them) fall into this trap where they equate talking about getting stuff done with actually getting stuff done. Meetings do not necessarily equate to productivity.

With that in mind, some meetings are necessary. Even as someone who grew up in the email generation, I still believe some meetings are useful written about such meetings in the past. Here are some of my tips on how to conduct an effective meeting:

  1. Have a formal agenda and distribute it beforehand. I always like to email out the agenda of the meetings I’m leading to whoever will be in attendance beforehand. It gives them an idea of what the meeting will be like (length, format, etc.), what will be covered, and if they might need to do anything to prepare. Sending an agenda out in advance also gives people time to suggest topics to add to the agenda.
  2. Stick to the agenda. An agenda is useless if it isn’t being followed. As the person leading the meeting, make sure you stick to it. I like to include estimated time frames for different parts of the meeting, mention who will be talking during each part, and so on. A detailed agenda lets people know how the meeting should progress.
  3. Let people know what they need to do in advance. There are different groups of meetings attendees at pretty much every meeting. Some people have something to present, some people are just there to listen, others are there to approve or reject ideas. Make sure everyone knows what they’re responsible for doing well in advance of the meeting and that they have time to prepare accordingly.
  4. Focus on action items. On every agenda I hand out, the back side has a section for notes and action items. Every person needs to leave the meeting with an idea about what the next steps are and what they need to do. This is where most meetings fail.
  5. Take notes. Assign someone at or bring someone to the meeting in order to take notes. This person should pay special attention to action items and noting steps, obstacles, etc. involved with actually get work done.
  6. Turn off the BlackBerries, etc. I have a BlackBerry and I like it a lot. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t checked my BlackBerry during a meeting and I’d also be in denial if I said no one has ever checked their BlackBerry when I’ve been presenting at a meeting. Cell phones, PDAs, smartphones, etc. are a distraction during meetings and should be turned off during the meeting. The policy should also be enforced.

There comes a time when email or IM just doesn’t cut it and you need to sit down and meet face to face. When you do have that meeting, try to keep some of these ideas in mind. These are things I’ve used to help ensure the meetings I have end up being productive meetings and to date, they’ve worked well. Feel free to share your own tips in the comments.

photo credit: faungg

Product Defect Meetings

I was talking to a company not too long ago that would have regular “Product Defect Meetings.” Employees from all departments and all levels of seniority would take place in these meetings: management, engineers, customer service people, product managers, etc. At these meetings, people would point out bugs, defects, suggestions, and ideas for particular products and services.

The challenge of fostering effective communication between engineers and customer service is a problem for a lot of companies. I think a regular “Product Defect Meeting” is a good way to help break down some communication barriers. It provides an open forum for different employees to voice their concerns, suggestions, and observations. A lot of times just incorporating and following through with the idea of open meetings between different teams is half the battle. It’s as much as a mind set as a functional operation at a company.

At Product Defect Meetings and any meetings like it, something that is extremely important is taking notes and assigning tasks and responsibilities to people. It’s really easy for people to sit in a meeting for an hour or so and just yes everyone else to death.

An effective meeting leader is necessary to ensure the meetings are actually productive. If the meetings are productive (meaning: fixes and ideas come as a result of the groups meeting), then they’re worth every minute. If people are just talking about the same bugs and issues, then it’s a waste of everyone’s time.

Daily Staff Meetings

Restaurants have long had daily staff meetings. In these meetings, the manager goes over daily specials, what the restaurant doesn’t have, new policies, and any other issues. Some managers read customer compliments and complaints they received the previous day, others talk about tips for employees to provide better service. It really varies from restaurant to restaurant, but the point is, many better restaurants do this and it is just a fact of life.

Now, think about how many other companies do this? Some hotels do, but not very many non-hospitality companies.  I have never worked with or for a company that had daily meetings among the customer service staff or groups of service staff. Some had weekly meetings to go over progress, etc., but I’ve never worked with or for a company that has done such meetings daily. Occasionally, the sales staff would have a daily meeting to go over quotas, etc., but it was not a consistent thing.

What do you have to lose by having a daily meeting? Maybe 15 minutes in the morning? (Daily meetings should be done in the morning, before the people start working.) Those 15 minutes are well worth the potential benefits.

Here are some things that may be useful for a customer service manager to discuss during the daily meeting:

For general customer service staff:

  • Reading of complaints/compliments received.
  • Recent issues: what is going on with them, when they started happening, etc.
  • New policies, team members, software, technology, etc. (anything new)
  • Daily goals
  • Daily tips, tricks, improvement suggestions, etc. for the team as a whole
  • Special notices (special customer, media review today, customer so and so is expected to contact us and should get extra attention, etc.)
  • Questions/Comments/Concerns from attendees

For technical support:

  • Product updates and changes
  • Product upgrades or feature changes
  • Recent technical issues that have been occurring, their fixes, etc.
  • Maintenance schedules/updates/etc. Service status (is anything down, etc.)
  • Other things that are mentioned above

For sales/billing staff:

  • New products/services (these should be announced a few days in advance)
  • Pricing changes
  • Feature changes
  • Billing changes (new payment methods, switching payment processors, etc.)
  • Upgraded products/services (in case pricing differences apply)
  • Other things that are mentioned above (in general customer service section)

It isn’t so much the specific things that I have listed here that are important to go over, but the point of actually having a brief meeting at the beginning of each work day. The meeting shouldn’t last longer than about 15 minutes and should be done every morning. On some days, there will be more to address, others there won’t. If there is more than one shift, the meeting should be taken at the beginning of each shift. There should be no problem finding things to talk about. If you can’t think of anything, you aren’t thinking hard enough.

Tomorrow I will talk about something that either can be done instead of or in addition to a daily meeting.

Recruiting talented employees to enhance customer service

smile!Happy employees make for motivated people who want to deliver the best customer service they can to assist consumers and clients. These are the people who become the eyes, ears, and voices for any organization, often beginning at the receptionist desk  and progressing all the way up the corporate ladder to the person in charge of operations. Recruiting and keeping talented employees therefore is very important when building relationships with people and developing a company’s brand, because it’s what people say about you and your business when you’re not in their presence that makes a profound difference in the world of customer experience.

If we consider that customer service is the most important part of our marketing plans, both immediate and future, then we must concentrate on hiring and keeping the best employees because these are the people who can drive a company forward. Too often we read stories of disgruntled employees who have complained about belittling actions from their superiors, the lack of benefits for health and retirement, the absence of training programs, or the lack of confidence and permission for employees to perform their duties without having to get special permission every step of the way during a customer crisis. Once a company creates doubt and demonstrates a lack of integrity, employees lose faith and thus there is no denying that the elephant is in the room. Will your employees be your dream weavers or will they make nightmares come true?

So how do we keep employees happy and engaged? Since it’s a reality that it costs money to hire and train the best of the best, shouldn’t we be doing everything we can to recognize and celebrate accomplishments – much as we would want done to us as we reach new milestones? Start with the best training, the best coaching, and the best communicators who can teach all aspects of one’s business. Once employees have the same vision and want to help improve the experience by sharing, they become more confident and empowered to put their best foot forward when faced with unique situations. Employees are empowered when they are well-trained, well-advised, and encouraged to improve and help to advocate changes as needed.

Organizations need to be transparent, for the more that is shared with the staff, the more opportunities there will be to iron out the problems and move ahead with new ideas to make better choices. Encourage personal development, and celebrate career advancement when it is deserved. Employees are proud when their accomplishments are recognized at staff meetings and celebratory events. Make the working environment a place where employees want to show up every day; not a place where they stand outside dreading the tick of the clock.

Encourage employees to participate in community events; having rewarding and humanitarian experiences enrich a community and our country. Humanize your company, build relationships with people because everyone has family and friends who can spread the word and appreciate your efforts.

Interview with Rob Siefker of Zappos – Part 4 of 4

This is the fourth and final part of my interview with Rob Siefker, the Director of the Customer Loyatly Team at Zappos. In this part of the interview, Rob talks about performance reviews, how Zappos encourages employees to further their knowledge (and pays them for doing so), what he thinks about seniority and tenure amongst call center agents, how Zappos handles scheduling, how the company encourages “personal emotional connections,” and finally, what Rob thinks companies can do to deliver Zappos-like service.

You can read part one of the interview here, part two here, and part three here. To read this part, click “read more.”

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Empowering your employees to deliver excellent customer service

Let us assume we have a great product, and we have intelligent, competent customer service representatives who want to do a great job exceeding their customer expectations. Of course there is no magic formula, but the more we empower our staff with the best tools available, the less mistakes they are going to make.

Most companies begin training customer service representatives with a training manual. Is your training manual reminiscent of the days when Catholic schools were so rigid that if you were left-handed the teachers and nuns took the pencil and placed it in your right hand instead? The problem with instruction manuals are the lack of written policies when one size doesn’t fit all. If a customer’s request is reasonable, but still out of the ordinary, the answer just isn’t there. A customer service representative can’t just decline the request because it wasn’t in the accepted policy list, nor is it always appropriate for the representative to have to keep the customer waiting while they seek out an answer from a supervisor. Decisions to be made using certain guidelines would be more appropriate, and then discussing the exceptional situations at staff meetings with role-playing and senior member feedback to empower the employees  build the experience and confidence for the next time a staff member will be asked to “step out of the box.”

If a customer’s request is unreasonable, there is still no reason for a customer service representative to deny a solution and even say they are sorry that they can’t be more helpful. Empower the employee with alternative solutions and revise procedures so that employees do not feel they must just follow blindly and will be in trouble if they deviate from standard office policy. Explain policy rationale so everyone understands. Sometimes policy manuals are out-of-date; a good time to be flexible and revise or update when situations do change.

And finally empower customer service representatives with support. It’s not practical to just provide a list of  telephone extensions and supervisors; help representatives do their jobs well by supplying them with resolutions for problems that repeatedly occur, a call list with whom problems can be discussed and resolved in an efficient manner, and a manager who is available to coach and teach in a constructive and reinforcing manner.

photo credit: Infusionsoft

Every employee can contribute to customer service excellence

[ Expression of Hospitality and Style ] A Legend in the Heart of Tokyo, Japan“Wow” customer service isn’t about what we learn in manuals; it’s about behaviors and the development and encouragement of excellent habits. Every employee can contribute to outstanding customer service, share with others, and together display the professionalism every organization desires.

The three main reasons customers leave are moving away, competitors offer better terms or prices, or the consumer is unhappy with the product or the service. In the poor service category, a whopping 68 percent of consumers consider indifference of employees as bad service. So with that in mind, isn’t it imperative that we as service providers show customers that we really care?

Let us use an example of staff meetings and their relevance to customer service. Why not let employees compile a list of behaviors that contribute to great customer service? The staff can compare and discuss areas to improve upon with specific actions that have either been taken before or ideas that develop through discussion. When employees are involved, and their feedback and suggestions are deemed important, staff meetings become relevant, interesting, and beneficial.

Who better to speak the language of the customer than the front line personnel? Speaking the language that we care about our customers is synonymous with identifying the customer through their own lens. For instance, selling real estate to a young couple who are purchasing their first home is much different from showing properties to investors. The young couple is more interested in the mortgage process, qualifying, specific school districts, decor, etc. while investors tend to be more concerned with potential profits.

All employees understand the little things that count – perhaps the physical environment, inventory, professional dress, or even the music in the background played in a brick and mortar establishment at the mall. Employees can be acutely aware of being polite and just looking cheerful; sometimes a rare commodity in today’s retail venue. Helping employees to achieve their personal best encourages confidence, and confidence builds career satisfaction. Employees who like their jobs and look forward coming to work bring enthusiasm to their organizations.

Sharing best practices of an organization contributes to customer service excellence. When the elements of truth in advertising,  services that exceed customer expectations, prompt service, and the handling of complaints is done in an expeditious manner, every aspect of customer service excellence is addressed – the perfect combination for a “wow” experience.

photo credit: UggBoy♥UggGirl

Customer advisory boards help to gain valuable insight

Sachin Dev Duggal, Chairman, Nivio, India, at the 2010 Horasis Global India Business Meeting, on India's Technology PioneersThe more an organization understands how their company is performing and what works or not works can determine success or failure. What better way to gain an understanding of customer experiences and their relevant needs than by creating a representative group of customers who can offer advice on products, services, and a company’s future direction?

Customer Advisory Boards can test ideas, preview business plans with executives, and inform about strategic customer likes and dislikes while providing an excellent means of communication to enable executive teams to stay relevant with customer needs. Now the most important part, however of establishing a Customer Advisory Board lies with the choices of the representative group of customers. Ideally the panel should consist of eight to ten members and meet two to three times a year. Here are some ideas that you may want to consider:

  • When deciding on members for a CAB, choose your best customers. It’s that 20 percent of the customers who do 80 percent of the spending and obviously the customers you never want to lose. Those are the customers you want to nurture and find the common elements because they are the core of your business. Send special invitations to your best customers and praise them for giving you the opportunity to gain insight from their valuable contributions.
  • Each meeting needs to have a specific agenda. Meetings should focus on discussion debates, market trends, business drivers, service expectations, etc. Each CAB member should be provided with a detailed background of everything that will be discussed. Never use a CAB meeting as a sales event. Customers will see right through that as a ploy to generate sales.
  • The best meetings have a facilitator or effective leaders. The meetings begin and end on time with a strong agenda. The idea is to share important knowledge and keep the lines of communication open to discuss ideas as well as competition. Meetings can not be too long.
  • Meetings can not be confrontational, heated, or biased. This is the time when customers can interact with their own views and experiences. Companies have the opportunity to act on the information.
  • Reward participants of  the CAB. Many companies still have face-to-face meetings. Other companies use webinars, but no matter what the procedure, thanking people for their time, expertise, and opinions are important. Some companies send out gift certificates or complimentary dinners. Just by keeping your eye on your best customers and rewarding them for their loyalty, will serve you well in the future.
  • Make sure you act on suggestions. Don’t ask customers for their opinions unless you are willing to make changes. Even though the CAB is not a decision-making body, customers will want to know what changes you have made based on their meetings and their subsequent discussions. People want to know that you are listening.

photo credit: Horasis

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