Forum: Are Your Customer-Service Representatives Prepared?

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It is not news that the first employee that your customerinteracts with is one of your customer-service representatives. And you may already knowthat this contact represents 80 percent of your customers' opinion of your company.My questions to you are:

• How well have you prepared your CSRs for thiscustomer challenge?

• Are they prepared to sell multitudes of products,prices and new technologies?

• Are they measured and rewarded in a way thatpromotes their success?

• Are managers effective in supporting their efforts?

• Last, but not least, what's in it for you?

As MSOs increase revenue through expansion of serviceofferings, perhaps it is time to re-examine the expectations that we have of CSRs. Have weprovided them with the tools that are necessary to succeed in this new climate? Have weallowed extended phone time for them to sell telephone service, digital services and newpackaging, and to handle rate increases, marketing campaigns and more? Have we trainedthem properly? Have we communicated our expectations? To maximize our investment in newproducts, services and technologies, you need to look not only at your investments inengineering, research and development, marketing, etcetera, but also at your front-lineinvestment -- your CSRs. You can deliver the most well-thought-out product or service andspend millions of dollars on marketing and promotion, but if it falls apart at thefront-line level, you have wasted the company's time and money.

We expect CSRs to sell all of our products, services andnew technologies in one brief telephone call. What's more, we frequently do notprovide the skills, product knowledge and empowerment that is necessary to conduct thetransaction professionally. This conflicts with the "personalized" service thatwe say we want to deliver as an industry. So, how can we help CSRs to carry out themission of selling value-added products anddelivering quality service?

By committing to and instituting new paradigms at thecustomer-service level, we can begin the process. These paradigms include:

The "art" of servicing a customer is really ascience. In the past, we thought of customer-service skills as an innate art. Eitherthe person had those skills, or not. Our experience in dramatically improving CSR skillshas proven this to be false. In today's environment, where customer expectations areheightened by companies that deliver excellent service, we must consider customer servicea science that can be taught. Then, we must continually reinforce it.
Information must be shared broadly and frequently for success. To deliver quality service,we must recognize that interdepartmental and intradepartmental communications systems needto be institutionalized.
We must empower our employees to deliver quality service. When employees are forcedto adhere to strict policies, we limit their ability to deliver the kind of qualityservice that we are trying to attain. To quote Tele-Communications Inc. president andchief operating officer Leo J. Hindery Jr. in a recent CTAM Quarterly Journal,"We must push customer-service decisions down to the local level, where ourcustomer-service representatives understand the marketplace and the customers." Wehave to encourage and train employees to make sound, business-based decisions. Then, weneed to honor the decisions that they make.

So, you ask, what is good customer service? What does itlook like? How does it feel? How do we get it? The paradigms above lead us to customerservice not by touch and feel, but as a quantifiable cycle. At CSR Inc., we call this,"TheTraining Cycle."

The first step in the cycle is to define quality service byunderstanding the expectations of the customer. Customers are more aware now then ever oftheir rights and their power as consumers. Nevertheless, we should not presume to knowtheir expectations. We need to ask. Good market research will, at least, define what goodcustomer service looks like and feels like to your customers. Once it is defined, it iseasier to develop the science of delivering it.

Now that we have defined quality service, we need todocument the skills that exemplify the serviceexpectations. These are referred toas performance standards. Performance standards need to be very specific and practical touse. They also need to incorporate the sales and marketing strategies and core businessrequirements of the company. Once all pertinent departments of the company have reviewedand approved the standards, they need to be communicated to all levels of personnelinvolved in customer interaction. Supervisors and management will also utilize thestandards to measure and track results. Management must be committed to the successfulimplementation of performance standards, or else it will not happen.

The performance standards function as the backbone of allother quality-assurance tactics. From this point, you can develop training and monitoringprograms for CSRs and supervisors. The important point is that all of those tactics shouldconsistently communicate the same message. The monitoring program should reflect the sameskills documented in the performance standards. Supervisors and trainers should bewell-versed on these standards and communicate to the CSRs the same performance message asoutlined in the standards. CSRs should have a very clear and consistent understanding ofthe skills for which they will be monitored and held accountable. Trackable goals shouldbe set at all levels. Once you train them to do so, supervisors should be accountable forproviding continual feedback and support to CSRs. In order to succeed, it is not only theCSRs, but also the managers, trainers, call-center directors, vice presidents, etcetera,who should be held accountable for measurable goals.

This is beginning to sound like an overwhelming task: thecreation of a customer-driven organization. Now we have a culture change! Time to call inhuman resources. Does this mean a change in job descriptions, and possibly even headcount? Does compensation change? If we offer incentives, do we also institute disciplinarymeasures? To be successful, all of these things need to be taken into consideration.Companies that we work with have tied career-progression models into an employee'sability to adapt to new performance standards. Annual performance evaluations are nowtaking on a new meaning, and they are more directly tied to merit.

Everyone hears when service is great. They also hear whenservice is bad. In fact, as the theory goes, a customer will tell four friends of apositive customer-service experience, but at least 10 will be informed if the service ispoor. So, while it may sound herculean, the process that I have outlined can be taken insmaller steps, each one measurable. It is the first step -- commitment -- that requires usto enter a new era that is truly difficult.

I have outlined some of the steps that will help you toquantify customer-service performance. Once you have trained your employees to implementthese steps, you will begin to see the improvement process. As the incidence of callbacks,truck rolls and escalated calls decreases, you will experience sales, but also an increasein productivity. The effective measurement of strengths and weaknesses will save you moneyin the long term by allowing you to direct your attention to areas that need improvement.Another benefit is the identification of problems in other departments within yourorganization.

Overall, the process delivers greater customer satisfactionand loyalty, because employees demonstrate more of the product's value to customersupfront. The training cycle represents a more disciplined approach to delivering qualityservice while growing our business.

Liz French is vice president and co-owner of CustomerService Review Inc., a provider of quality-assurance and training programs to the cableindustry.