Among the most overused phrases in business (perhaps running neck and neck with “employees are our greatest asset”) is “we’re committed to customer service.” In both cases, an appropriately cynical response would be, “yes… and?” After all, aren’t we at a stage where those sorts of commitments are obvious and understood?
Well…yes and no. Obvious? Absolutely. Understood? Not always.
What’s especially often misunderstood, or under-considered, about outstanding customer service is the role employee communications necessarily plays in making it possible. True employee communications focus on behavior; they go beyond surface level admonitions to “smile,” “say thank you” and “dress appropriately” and speak both philosophically and practically to the service-related behaviors that simultaneously represent and differentiate your brand.
In fact, according to Dennis Snow, strong communications are a fundamental contributor to strong customer service. Snow is a 20-year Disney veteran who launched a division of the Disney Institute responsible for consulting with some of the world’s largest companies including ExxonMobil, AT&T, and Coca-Cola. He today heads Snow & Associates, helping organizations improve their customer service to generate customer loyalty. Snow is also a big believer in the essential contributions of internal communications to external customer service.
“’internal communications’ is really another phrase for training,” says Snow. If you want to build a culture that values service, communications “begins at the prospecting phase and continues until the employee leaves the company.”
Snow cites his former employer Disney as a prime example. “Disney is great at delivering consistent, actionable messages around service. My son is working there now and he’s hearing the same things I heard in 1978.” He adds, “it’s not about posters (in the break rooms). It’s about role modeling desirable behaviors and holding employees accountable for those behaviors.”
Disney, Snow believes, has been ahead of the curve in recognizing that in today’s tech-driven age – where products are quickly commoditized and competing on price is usually undesirable – shaping a desirable customer experience through service is “the only differentiator.”
A key element of excellent customer service is, in Snow’s phrase, “Everything speaks.” “Let’s say a manager urges attention to detail – but then allows a store’s displays to be dirty. What does that tell the employee? What about the auto dealership that allows its cars to be dirty on the lot? What does that say?”
One of the reasons I’m personally so fond of Snow – who has presented to one of my clients – is that he so strongly advocates for the idea that achieving high levels of customer service begins with strong employee communications, and a concrete definition of what defines the service experience.
To that end, following are five tips for building employee communications that encourage superior service, whether you are leading senior-level managers in a B2B environment, or sales people in a retail outlet:
Do your employees understand how your company defines outstanding service, in lucid, specific terms? Have they been trained on how to react in different customer or client circumstances? Are you discussing with them the reputation you seek for your organization, and how service levels help drive that reputation?
Reward the right behaviors
If you’re preaching outstanding service – are you rewarding the behaviors that encourage outstanding service? Do employee performance metrics prioritize excellent service?
I once had a large client – you definitely know the organization – that was falling short on a specific performance measure. All of the campaign-type posters and banners the organization created made no difference, and neither did pleas in the newsletter. We ultimately determined that the applicable managers were being rewarded for outstanding service in several areas – but NOT for the area in question.
Provide the right education and tools
This is different from simply saying, “train everybody.” Employee communications aren’t one-size-fits-all in most large companies. Do you shape your communications to the needs of specific employee populations? Do you actively assess who needs to know what?
Back to the client situation addressed in #2: we determined the root cause of the problem in a focus group, in which an employee plainly told us, “If my manager tells me to focus on something, I do. If they don’t, I don’t.” With that painfully obvious realization, we created a new employee communications strategy around the performance goal in question, focusing on 100 senior managers rather than 2,000 line managers. Customer service improved significantly and measurably soon after.
Give employees some flexibility
Are your employees allowed a certain amount of leeway to do special things for customers – whether the customer is buying a dress or five tons of plastic pellets? Those are the sorts of things that help build not only customer loyalty but employee loyalty, as well. Employees who are allowed to bring more of themselves to their jobs will likely better embody the key elements of your brand goals.
Do you actively listen to customer feedback, and use it to adjust what you share with employees? Do you regularly listen to employee feedback on their experiences with, and lessons learned from customers? Are you creating an environment that encourages employees to talk with each other about their experiences – often, the best ideas percolate not from senior management, but from the people they manage.
For more background on Dennis Snow, see www.SnowAssociates.com.