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Use HR Strategies to Build Muscle in your Customer Service – Part 1

As an HR Strategist, I think about people systems and how to re-design systems to create better outcomes. Here are two customer service scenarios that illustrate how HR strategies can solve people problems.

Scenario 1

A client would like front line employees to be more customer service friendly.

Scenario 2

A client is creating a customer service center that will eliminate silos and be a one-stop shop staffed by cross-trained employees. The client would like to know how to go about making that shift in the workplace.

In the first scenario, I met with a group of front line employees to talk about what made for a good customer experience in their organization and how they knew whether or not the customer had a good experience. Their first response to me came in the form of a question: “Why us? Why are we being targeted for this training?” Tough crowd!

When I turned the question back on them, some became quite defensive about recent events that resulted in front line staff being blamed for bad customer experiences. I heard about unhappy customers going over their heads, managers creating workarounds to solve customer problems and in the aftermath, frontline staff being viewed as the problem.

So we began by diagramming what happened after a customer presented a complaint, from the front line person up the chain of command; then we mapped the links to various departments that were also frequently involved in solving the problem;  so far, so good. The staff presented a formal structure of the ways things are supposed to work.

Then we role played difficult customer situations in a fish bowl fashion so that some observed and took notes while others took on roles, then we let others step into the roles and add or change the dialogue. We stopped at various points of stuck-ness to reflect on why the problem could not be solved in a logical fashion. Now we were closing in on another view of the organization better known as the informal structure of the organization.  When we went back and began to insert notes to our formal structure, we realized that the formal diagram didn’t do a very good job of describing the way things really operate.

We learned from the role play that front line staff would be more effective at customer service if they knew more about the services in other departments so they could do a better job of directing inquiries and collaborating with other front line staff to solve customer issues.  Another “aha” moment happened for some when they were challenged by their peers about why they did not do this or that in a particular situation. They responded they never considered that as part of their job!  The group solution was to get together on a regular basis to review customer issues and talk about various strategies for working together. They discovered they enjoyed learning from one another and particularly valued the different skills used by others when handling difficult customers.

But the job was not finished. I went back to the client and suggested that nothing was really going to change unless all the managers also participated in the process. So, although there was some reluctance, the managers came together and we went through a very similar exercise of mapping the formal structure of the flow of information when the customer had a complaint.  Then, based on insights I gained from my previous sessions with front line staff I began asking “what if” questions and although at first a little surprised by my disclosure of information, their curiosity took over and they became willing partners in uncovering the real picture of the “way things work”. 

Although many interesting insights came out of the discussion, the key one was that front line staff persons were bound to formal structure, policies and procedures and in fact, viewed their job as telling the customer “the truth” “the facts” while managers felt they were tasked with arriving at alternative solutions to customer problems and thus worked through informal structures to avoid what they perceived as a risk of being hung out to dry by the Board. This resulted in substantial tension within the system.

Outcomes of the training included a customer service committee to review and address the toughest customer problems and increase collaboration between departments. This also increased the level of accountability for managers who were not always transparent about their “workarounds”.  They needed to see how their actions inadvertently impacted others and the organization in a negative fashion.  Another key recommendation was to work on clarifying front line staff job responsibilities so they were not blamed for not going far enough, or going too far when trying to handle a customer problem. 

Behind every bad customer experience is much shame, guilt and anger. Some employees are better suited for turning this experience around, but if the organization structure and the people system that supports that structure are not properly aligned, the front line staff will not be able to be successful, no matter what.  And as with most people problems in an organization, attention to better communication and process (the real way things get done) will result in a better dynamic.

 Click here for Part 2 and See Video below for more information

 

 

Customer Service Delivery from Nancy J Hess on Vimeo.

 

[Previously published in The Society of County Human Resource Professionals of Pennsylvania Newsletter - Spring 2013]

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