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In #CustServ, Your People Are NOT Your Most Important Asset

Written by on May 23, 2016

Customer service is about relationship building, and successful customer service is dependent on interpersonal skills. It’s about the right people, with the right attitude. Your most important asset is your employees’ natural relationship-focused talents.

Unfortunately, many of the people who want to work in customer service lack the right attitudes, and I contend that this is in no small part due to differing generational experience.

If it’s true, as Stephen Covey claimed, that success (in any job) is 20% knowledge and 80% people skills, then any worker is reflecting the people skills of their own generation. They are drawing on their own experience. To succeed, a customer service employee, in this model, would have personally experienced examples of great customer service in their own lives.

But, they may not have had an opportunity to do so.

In less than a generation, the entire landscape of customer service has changed. Take banking as an example. Instead of physically going to the bank, seeing a teller who recognizes you and comes to relate to you as an individual, we now have ATMs, deposits via a check photo, and no personal interaction with your bank whatsoever.

This change is just one example of a sea change that has happened just in the past few years. Instead of after-school clubs and collaborative activities, kids are likely to spend their leisure time interacting with the avatars of strangers to explore the digital landscape of video games. What interpersonal skills are they learning?

When is the last time you interacted with a gas station attendant? You can’t share your opinion of a movie with the Redbox as you return the CD. Most phone conversations are really text conversations. Two text monologues do not really equal a conversation. Again, changes that have come along quickly to change our daily life and transmute our interpersonal exchanges.

This is not a new challenge. Here’s a quote that may resonate:

“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.” – Socrates (469–399 B.C.)

I don’t intend this to sound like a diatribe, or like that crotchety guy who yells, “Get offa my lawn!” I am just reflecting on what this generational reality means for customer service hiring.

For many, emotional intelligence, body language, and verbal communication are not strong skills. In the real world, I believe, this has led — in some cases — to the attitude that ignoring customers and even co-workers is acceptable.

Having not experienced good examples of communication, collaboration or relationship-building skills, how will we find the right people to entrust with the care of our customers? If we settle for average, how will our businesses succeed?

In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins contends,“People are not your most important asset. The right people are.”

We, as managers, are responsible for the education of our employees. To succeed in a competitive marketplace, we need these “right people.”

This is the message: Hire for talent and train for skill. Zappo’s uses this strategy and it obviously works for them. It’s about the attitude — the talent for empathy, listening skills, and manners that they observe during an interview. The interview must focus on asking the right questions to elicit these “soft” skills, with the specific intent of determining sincerity, authenticity, and kindness. The skills they need to do their job are teachable; empathy is not. Customer service is not a day of training; it’s continuous.

We can’t — and shouldn’t — try to “fix” people. Generational change is natural and inexorable; we should accept it as a normal challenge to customer service success. To  meet our customers’ expectations, we need to meet their expectations of service, regardless of their age. What a Baby Boomer needs may be entirely different from what a Millennial needs or expects. Our employees should understand those differences. But the hires based on innate talent will be able to handle all expectations, because they have the foundation in place.

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