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How to Build Customer Service from the Inside Out

by Dr. Marilyn Manning

“Always do right.
This will surprise some and astonish the rest.”
Mark Twain

Davidow and Uttal (1990) say, in their book Total Customer Service, The Ultimate Weapon, that “Thousands of businesses will be shaken and even shattered by their inability to render effective customer service,” Quality service is defined as, “building customer loyalty and goodwill by exceeding expectations and needs”. From my observation, organizations that consistently deliver outstanding service practice the same level of service with employees. Inside customer service is a critical foundation often neglected. And, building employee loyalty can pay big dividends. A recent MCI-Gallup poll of CEOs said that the most important sources for a competitive advantage are quality, service, and responsiveness. Why not begin on the inside to insure employee and customer loyalty?

It is surprising how easy it is to take other employees for granted. Do you and your staff always apply common courtesies to each other? Does your team or organization have clear behavioral expectations or an effective “code of conduct”? An excellent example of such a code is Rotary International’s Four-Way Test. It requires that four simple questions be asked: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build good will and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

Studies show that productivity and positive morale increase when employees treat each other with respect, courtesy, and goodwill. An organization working together more effectively internally, is more skilled and consistent in external service.

When I design customer service programs for my clients, I recommend certain steps. First identify your organization’s core values, such as quality service, teamwork and accountability. Next, have employees define customer centered behaviors. What behaviors do they associate with exceptional service? For example: “listening without interrupting,” “offering to help,” “asking enough questions to identify the real needs and concerns.” These should be the same behaviors we expect co-workers to use with each other.

Erik Johnson, CEO of Erik’s DeliCafe, with 24 highly successful locations, models and coaches core values. One value is “consistency. ” Managers and employees avoid negativity, fix things immediately and follow through. All deli staff spends time discussing values and expected behaviors.

Building employee loyalty can be challenging when we have a “difficult” person on board, someone who seems cold and uncaring. The tendency is to treat him in an impersonal way since he seldom responds. What if we could adjust our thinking and see him as a customer? We’d likely be more patient and accepting. We might see him as shy and insecure rather than aloof. With this new frame of reference, we would probably have more compassion.

Changing our attitude changes our response. In turn, this could change his responses toward us. Why not give co-workers the same consideration we give an external customer, thus building loyalty both inside and out. In every transaction, actions happen on two levels simultaneously. The Procedural Level, is what we do; the mechanics of the service or the measurable objective. The Personal Level is how we provide the service, the inter-personal, subjective interaction. We always react to the quality of personal treatment. Are we being seen as a valuable person? Do we feel adequately listened to? Are we being treated fairly? We remember the way we are treated far longer than the mechanics of the interaction.

If we approach a counter for service, and are greeted with “Fill this out and go over there”, we may feel unwelcome. On the other hand, if the counter person looks us in the eye, smiles, and says, “Good morning. May I help you? You will need to fill out this form and then hand it in over there. Let me know if you have any questions”, we feel valued. The procedure is the same, but adding the personal touch changes our perception.

When our current personal needs are not recognized, the transaction can lead to conflict. In my customer service training, we role play how to enter the conversation at the personal level before doing business. During the transaction, we practice things to say that can diffuse anger. When the business is complete, there are effective ways to exit through the personal level. The personal level is the one that the employee has the most control over. Practicing these skills increases overall service consistency and team communication.

In presenting this material to hundreds of audiences, I have witnessed a powerful change of mindsets. Employees begin to realize they have an impact and they have choices. They also realize that providing exceptional service not only benefits the organization, but also themselves. Giving service makes us feel appreciated, satisfied, energized, and renewed. When employees actually see what quality service has to offer them and that every effort has impact, they are motivated to go the extra mile.

Impact can happen in every point of contact. This concept, “Moment of Truth,” was first coined by Jan Carlzon of Scandinavian Airline Systems. At the time Carlzon became president of SAS, it was losing $17 million per year. With his leadership, SAS was earning $54 million within a year. He made quality customer service paramount. He decided customer service wasn’t just a smiling attendant, but was the culmination of every single encounter the traveler had with the airline. He called each encounter a “Moment of Truth”. Challenge your staff to treat each interaction as the most important one for the customer.

Every contact has a compounding and cumulative effect. It could be the initial phone call, or having a friendly employee at the counter, or the service on the flight. We have no way of knowing if we are providing the critical moment of truth for our customer.

To make your customer service programs unique and more effective, begin by addressing internal service and loyalty. Seeing employees as internal customers, improving both the procedural and personal levels of service, applying Jan Carlzon’s “Moment of Truth”, and pointing out the benefits that quality service has to offer employees, all increase awareness and insure that our organizations model consistent high levels of service and loyalty both inside and out. Keep your competitive edge.