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What it takes to succeed as a customer service representative

Bar scene, MontmartreThe best customer service representatives focus on people. They are good listeners, good communicators, and convey to us a positive and patient demeanor. These amazingly reliable people provide business owners with the competitive advantage over their competition, and it doesn’t matter if the economy is dragging – successful organizations continue to recognize the importance of their employees.

For anyone considering a career in customer service, one must initially be able to handle stress, handle pressure, maintain friendly interactions with customers, and follow through on tasks. It’s not always easy to maintain one’s focus on serving people, so an employer needs to identify and invest in the right people for the job. Most of us as consumers can probably remember some unfortunate experiences we have had with customer service agents who have lacked the ability to deal with stress and were easily excitable. How many of us can summarily figure out those agents who were just there for their pay checks and lacked the sensitivity needed when we needed a patient ear to listen and someone capable of resolving our frustrating company issue?

Organizations can depend upon recommendations from other employees, online research, or evaluations which may involve personality assessments to evaluate basic employability, honesty, reliability, and competency when the search is on for the best agents. The American Psychological Assessment has been recognized as an ethical and statistical guideline, however there are a variety of  other acceptable evaluation techniques used by employers and their respective evaluators.

No matter what criteria an employer uses to choose the best candidates however, the most successful customer service representatives always seem to display the following traits:

  • The best customer service representatives I have ever met live to serve and can spend time with others on the phone or in person as interesting and knowledgeable individuals.
  • The best customer service representatives I have ever met are versatile and can read others while adapting to their style and personality so as to find a common ground.
  • The best customer service representatives I have ever met are interested in learning about their product, service, or sales and are always interested in improving their abilities.
  • The best customer service representatives have set standards and are consistent.
  • The best customer service representatives make the most of their time and are willing to help out in other areas if the demand is there.
  • The best customer service representatives are team players.
  • The best customer service representatives have personal accountability and stellar interpersonal skills.

The best customer service representatives don’t just happen; employers are responsible for providing the best training, career development, and recognition for a job well done.

photo credit: La Citta Vita

Create a training plan that helps customer service representatives succeed

IMG_6914Front-line customer service representatives impact our everyday lives. Whether we are returning sour milk to the local supermarket or our new car with only 6,000 miles has been in the repair shop more than it has been on the road, representatives who deal with the public are significantly important to each organization. Why then, are service people often treated as among the lowest paid in many organizations? After all, business owners and senior management need customer representatives to make a positive impact on “social media-savvy customers.”

Customer service representatives often bear the brunt of a customer’s anger; therefore it’s mandatory to hire agents with excellent dispositions so they are able to maintain the helpful attitude needed to resolve problems. We want our agents to show genuine interest and concern when helping customers and clients, and take the initiative to solve problems; not just turn the problem over to another department. We want an experienced customer service agent to “own the problem,” and thus convey to the customer they have the capability and responsibility to see the task through for a satisfactory resolution.

Unfortunately there is no magical solution to prepare agents to be exemplary at their professions. Organizations that help their employees succeed don’t judge their agents by how quickly they get people off the phone or the number of calls they handle within an eight-hour shift. Here are some suggestions an organization might consider:

  • Have a training program that helps customer representatives deal with people. Help new agents incorporate people skills with their technical knowledge.
  • Be watchful of social media, however Twitter isn’t really the way to solve customer service issues. Of course, it can have an immediate detrimental effect on an organization, and customer service agents need to be familiar with customer engagement so as to neutralize negative publicity, and contact the customer to resolve the situation in an appropriate manner.
  • Give customer service personnel the authority and training to resolve conflicts. Praise jobs well-done and new initiatives that were successful. Use positive experiences to help other professionals learn.
  • Employ personnel who genuinely like their jobs and who want to progress in their careers.
  • Offer competitive pay packages and compensation plans to attract the best candidates. You do get what you pay for.

photo credit: CUS Visual Media Team

A difference of perception when dealing with customers

img_6216.jpgMaybe it’s just a coincidence associated with moving that brings me to wonder how customer service representatives relay their particular war stories of having to deal with difficult customers? Perhaps it is that I have had to make more than an average  number of phone calls to various organizations directing new phone, electric, cable, and gas services than most of us regularly have to deal with, or maybe poor customer service is just average, and just more concentrated because I’m dealing with everyone in a compressed time period.

Nonetheless, a writer from the New York Times once called customer service representatives out on their self-reported experiences dealing with angry customers stating that the objective, actual experience differed greatly from the representative’s version.  These perception “deficits” made for good lunch room or cocktail hour stories, but didn’t seem to serve any constructive purpose. The report also brought out that customer service representatives commonly overstate the frequency of angry customers and the number of conflicts they handle in a typical work day.

Of course, negative experiences tend to be more memorable than the routine calls, but when fellow employees dominate conversations with the war stories of the clients from Hell, isn’t that a preamble to growing negative perceptions for other employees? And how does that make other employees deal with angry or dissatisfied customers?

As an example, I called DirecTV and instructed them to turn off my television service as of the end of the month. Yesterday, after a long day, I turned the television on to find out that DirecTV had turned my service off prematurely. What was obviously their mistake and what should have only taken moments to correct turned out to be a drawn out debacle until I finally was fortunate enough to make contact with a customer service agent who immediately figured out the problem and reinstated my service. So was I a client from Hell? I don’t think so, but I am sure the perception “deficit” of the two previous agents who were unable to solve my problem because they had no idea what to do in this particular circumstance, will embellish the story to make it more significant as their own cathartic experience.

So how do we help our customer service representatives be more productive and constructive? From my own experience, representatives need more front line classroom training. Supervisors need to raise the bar on performance, but that’s impossible without giving employees the tools, education, and experience to be able to deal with the unusual. Once an employee is empowered to identify problems, trained and educated to delve a little bit further into possible problems and solutions, customer perception “deficits” are eliminated.

Customer service personnel learn from being monitored, measured, managed, and rewarded. Those who will rise to the occasion have the confidence and desire to help clients and customers solve their problems with a minimum of drama. Perhaps the worst statement I heard yesterday was, “I’m sorry I understand why you are angry, but I can’t help you.” Fortunately I mustered up the stamina to call back and luckily connected with a customer service representative from West Virginia. That wonderful lady saved my evening so I could watch the finale of  Dancing with the Stars.

photo credit: pcutler

How emotional intelligence can help the customer experience

Delta cancels over 800 flights from AtlantaEmotionally intelligent people are able to know and control their emotions to produce higher sales, better productivity, and assume better leadership roles. Not to be confused with an individual having a great personality which could be  fun or outgoing with a  great sense of humor, emotional intelligence has more to do with how people think in particular situations and decide using clear and sound judgment.

How a customer feels when they interact with an employee can make the difference in sales and customer loyalty. The ability to provide an exceptional buying experience rather than just another sale affects profit, so a customer representative who can respond appropriately to emotions can have a positive influence on customer satisfaction.

Emotional intelligence, according to Daniel Goleman, author of the 1995 book “Emotional Intelligence” has five basic principles necessary to become a leader. They are self-awareness, self-regulation, self-motivation, empathy, and the nurture relationships; all necessary ingredients so to speak to engage customers and maintain their loyalty. As an example, an American Express customer care person will commonly engage a client in conversation pursuant to a client’s mood. When I needed to rebook my flight because my traveling companion became ill, I needed the help immediately. The agent could tell I was stressed, and she accommodated me in what I considered to be ‘double time’ in order to reschedule and reconfirm my flight. She was able to procure new car services for us once we landed, medical assistance at the arrival point, and the agent’s empathy towards a serious situation played an integral part in how I was able to better cope with the emergency.

Therefore when hiring customer service representatives, the ability to respond appropriately makes the difference between acceptable and exceptional. Emotional intelligent representatives know how to make suggestions according to a customer’s desires. While a customer representative can’t tell any customer what they should buy or even how they should feel, they can help customers by being clear and concise communicators.

Maybe John Doe has the greatest personality in the entire organization, but will his errors in judgment lose an organization business? Emotional intelligence imparts a clarity in thinking and the ability to keep one’s composure in the most stressful situations. It helps us to manage our behaviors, moods, and impulses.

“Check that bad mood at the door before you meet a customer.” states Joe W. who runs a local fishing store in West Palm Beach. “I want all of my employees to recognize their own moods and employ mood management. I want them to respond with courtesy, consideration, and respect to everyone that walks through these doors. Even if they’re in the worst of moods, I count on their emotional intelligence to help all customers and resolve any complaints or problems.”

photo credit: nesnet

Better banking customer service please

buerosExcept for well-paid banking executives, I doubt there are many people who would not agree that banks need to improve their customer service skills. While everyone will agree the objectives of any business are to make a profit and satisfy customers, the first aim needs the second aim to achieve results. Banks are falling short of satisfying customers, and therefore a favorite pastime of  the American public and beyond is “bank bashing.”

The number of US homes receiving foreclosure filings may climb to 20 percent this year. Last year, 2.87 million property owners received notices of default, auction, or repossession. Yesterday, the US Treasury announced that 600,000 homeowners have been granted “permanent” mortgage modifications under the Obama administration’s anti-foreclosure effort called the Home Affordable Modification Plan. The bad news is that more than 800,000 homeowners were declined. The modification plan, which lasts five years, reduces the monthly payments, interest rates, and extends the term of the mortgage. It does not forgive the amount owed, but gives a temporary forbearance of the principal owed.

Since I sell real estate and frequently list “short sales,” (those homes that are worth less than the mortgage amount) I listen to the stories of homeowners who are losing their particular American dream. While I do not agree that anyone should be exempt from paying their mortgage, and there are too many people just bashing banks because they are looking for a free ride, nevertheless banks need to improve their communication skills and most especially their customer service.

Delinquent homeowners complain about customer service rudeness, ridiculously long waits on the telephone, constantly submitting the same documentation over and over again, and no communication whatsoever. There are no penalties provided in Obama’s plan for the banks since HAMP is a voluntary program. According to Prentiss Cox, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, the fundamental flaw of HAMP is that the people who caused the mortgage crisis are now the ones assigned to fix it, so how can they be acting in the public interest?

Banks need employee training, changes in processes, and changes in procedural management. They need to provide homeowners with better online service and access to customer service representatives who can actually steer a homeowner in trouble to a place where people who actually want to do the right thing can obtain real information. When people count on banks to help manage their financial lives, it is important for banks to accept responsibility. Banks play an important role in the community, and too often they are now labeled the bad guys.

Banks need to re-examine the core values which include the professionalism of their staff, wait times, responses, and services actually delivered. Never in the history of the US has the housing industry been in such turmoil. Banks need to return to respecting their customers and focus on service instead of only focusing on loss profits.

photo credit: loop_oh

What Employers Can Do to Foster Employee Engagement

With the current economic condition, many organizations have been forced to cut costs and reduce staffing levels. These kinds of business decisions can affect the remaining employee’s ability to stay positive and not focus on the negative. Employees need to be actively engaged so they can add value to the organization. The customer experience can be significantly affected when employees are not engaged. It’s difficult to have engaged customers if you don’t have engaged employees.

According to Wikipedia, “an engaged employee is one who is fully involved in, and enthusiastic about, his or her work, and thus will act in a way that furthers their organization’s interest.” According to Scarlett Surveys, 31% of employees are disengaged and 4% of those 31% are hostile.

So what is the purpose of employee engagement? When employees are engaged they are emotionally attached to the vision of the organization. They believe in what they do, the organization’s vision and the direction the organization is going.  Employees who are engaged put their heart and soul into their job and have the energy and excitement to give more than is required of the job. Engaged employees are committed and loyal to the organization.

Here are some tips on how to foster employee engagement:

  • Have a well defined vision that all employees buy into. Organizational leadership is responsible for communicating the vision and keeping it in front of the employees. Employees should be able to recite the vision statement and why the organization does what it does.
  • Good communication within the organization can be one of the most important things an organization can do to foster employee engagement. Employees spend one third of their life in their job and have an interest in what is going on within the organization. They desire to know how the organization is doing financially, how corporate objectives are being accomplished and how what they do contributes to achieving corporate objectives.
  • Employees need to feel like they do meaningful work and that what they do makes a difference.
  • Employees want the opportunity to develop and grow professionally. Provide employees opportunities to develop and grow in their job and within the organization.
  • Create a strong team environment. Strong employee engagement is dependent on how well employees get along, interact with each other and participate in a team environment.
  • Create a culture of trust. Employees need to trust each other as well as their leadership. Employees are constantly watching leadership to see how their decisions affect the strategic direction of the organization and if their behaviors reflect what they say.
  • Employees need to know what is expected of them and need to be given the training, tools and resources to accomplish their goals. They need to be held accountable for achieving their goals.
  • Employees need to feel validated and that they are a valued part of the organization. Leadership needs to show how much they care for their employees and show recognition for efforts.
  • Employees need to feel like they are part of the process, that their thoughts and ideas matter and that they have a voice in how their work is performed.
  • Employees need to feel like they belong to a community, a team, a family. For many employees, coworkers are the only family they have, so maintaining a work environment where all employees get along and work well together is very important.
  • There is a lot of research that supports the fact that employees leave organizations because of their direct supervisor. Strong employee engagement cultures foster manager and leadership development.
  • Competitive compensation, benefits and reasonable working conditions can also significantly impact employee engagement.

Taking the time to strategically foster employee engagement can be one of the most positive things an organization can do to affect the customer experience.

Writer Bio: Kathy Clark is an MBA who is passionate about helping small business owners see their vision come to life by creating corporate infrastructures that support business development and growth through strategic customer focus. She writes for, and is the founder of http://thethrivingsmallbusiness.com.

Photo courtesy of lululemon athletica.

Tis the season for customer service

Food court (Right)We’re approaching home plate for the 2010 shopping season with the best opportunity to realize a profit after a challenging year of budget minded shoppers. Tis the season for shopping, that’s for sure, and chances are businesses will meet new shoppers they have never met before. Why not use the opportunity to attract new customers?

A customer’s first impression is the most important part of the initial sales experience. That visual appeal of your store, and that smile of the professionally turned out sales person making the customer feel welcome and important sets the tone of the good things yet to come. What’s more fun than walking into a store filled with delightful sights, warm aromas, and experienced personnel who are a reflection of the quality establishment you pride yourself on having developed?

As an owner or a manager, choose your staff well. Only choose the best candidates; there is plenty of talent available because of the job market and economy. Interview the best candidates and train them well; a customer doesn’t know who has only been hired for the holiday rush. Provide all new personnel with the tools for their positions. Quality sales personnel don’t shoot from the hip when a customer walks in or needs assistance. Have performance standards for all departments, and make sure to impress upon the staff how the little things make a huge difference.

For instance, how many of us have ever walked into a store and were immediately descended upon by an overzealous sales person? Holiday shoppers are frequently harried, but a professional, well-groomed, informed sales associate with a warm smile and friendly disposition can have a profound effect on a shopper. A trained associate knows to ask a customer if they need help; perhaps giving the customer the lay of the land or the store and then leaving the customer to casually browse. Many floor sales associates gather to chat with each other at that time; the professional watches the customer and observes the nonverbal signals and eye contact when a customer is looking for assistance.

Even cashiers can make an impression on a customer. I personally find it rude to be waiting in a line when a gum chewing associate at the cash register in a department store yells “NEXT.” Even when I run into my nearby Publix supermarket for a half-gallon of milk, the cashier always greets me with a smile, eye contact, and asks me how I am doing. Teach cashiers to politely ask if they can help a customer and expect any employee to make eye contact.

For employees who are hired for high paced stores during the holidays in delivery, assembly, or even loading , make sure acceptable behavior is reinforced. I think most people understand the logistics of getting those Christmas bicycles assembled, loading the playhouse parts into the minivan, and having the holiday turkey cooked to perfection, but when employees get rude, will those people who were scoffed at be back to buy more toys, and more food after the holidays are over?

photo credit: DocBadwrench

The keys to customer retention

happy shoppersThere are two main reasons an organization is likely to lose customers; the competition has a better offer or the customer is unhappy. Even the smallest interruption on a day a customer is stressed, in a bad mood, or just in a hurry could mean the difference whether he returns as a client at a later time. Today’s economy and sharp competition therefore demands excellence and consistency. Even though a company might offer the best price around town, if  service is shoddy the customer is likely to leave. A business can not compensate in one area for another area of weakness, or rather who wants to buy a product even if it’s a great deal  if there is no one at the company to help if something goes wrong?

Customer retention relies on two distinct platforms. First there is the relationship with the client. We need to understand and know our clients, which includes their expectations, what satisfies them, their geographic locations, and their likes and dislikes. The easiest way to figure this out is through surveys which analyzes a customer; builds a profile, builds models of their preferences, and often can predict problems before they even happen.

Customers of service industries will buy more from year to year, thus reducing costs because the repeat business of the client continues to help a business grow. Loyal, happy clients often will pay more; overnight stays at the Ritz Carlton. In addition, there is the benefit of good publicity, social media, and word of mouth. Here are some suggestions to improve client relationships:

  • Always keep your promises. Deliver on time, call back, email back, and solve problems.
  • Make sure all levels of management have the same customer-centric attitudes.
  • Acknowledge a customer’s intelligence, and respect them. Customers don’t want to be embarrassed, lectured, corrected, or have an agent express a “know it all” attitude.
  • Be educated about your products and services through lectures and training sessions so you can be a competent source of information.
  • Perform better than your competition.
  • Don’t let any customer just walk away, and look for the warning signs. Track customer purchases and note when the customer has reduced their business. Find out why, and fix it.
  • Reward sales people for client retention.
  • Value client opinion.

The second platform is the expectation of the product or the service itself. Even the best customer service isn’t going to build client retention without outstanding goods. Here are some of the expectations:

  • The quality of the products or services must live up to the expectations promised by the organization.
  • Every department has to be involved in the presentation, delivery,and function of the product. From explaining everything starting with turning the product on to trouble shooting,each department and customer service has to be made available.
  • Every department has to be available for follow-up. Most things go wrong at the very beginning, and rapid assistance can make all the difference in the world to customer retention. Generous warranties, easy return policies, and money-back guarantees build customer confidence.
  • Correct design mistakes or service interruptions.

It’s much more expensive to find new clients rather than maintain the valued customers already happy and satisfied. There’s no shortage of competition, so striving for the best can make a profound positive effect in customer bonding.

photo credit: zoetnet

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