Recently, I attended a meeting that started with a great motivational quote:
“Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.” “Or, since the quote is from Michael Jordan,” chimed in a participant, “Just jump over it”!
Looking around, I could see people nodding their heads enthusiastically in agreement. And since the meeting was about finding ways to improve customer service, the quote seemed a particularly fitting way to start. After all, as anyone who has worked in any kind of service industry knows, there are countless obstacles to satisfying customers that occur on a daily basis: from ever-changing industry regulations, to ever-more-particular customers, the list can seem endless. Finding ways to overcome obstacles is just part of the everyday process of delivering great customer service, right?
Problem was, as the meeting proceeded, I could see – and hear – that although people agreed with that idea in theory – it didn’t seem to be quite the same in practice:
- “Everyone was in mandatory training last week, so it’s not surprising we didn’t hit our on-time delivery targets…”
- “We’re down two team-members. Once we hire new people, I’m sure we’ll start meeting our service level agreements again, no problem…”
- “We have two new team members. They’re not up to speed and fully trained yet. After they are, they’ll be able to work more quickly and I’m sure we’ll start meeting our service level agreements again, no problem…”
After the meeting, I talked with the leader. “Great choice of quote to start with,” I said. “Michael Jordan’s right. Whether it’s basketball or customer service, how we deal with obstacles makes a huge difference to whether we satisfy our customers and hit our business goals or not. Not sure that the people in the meeting understood that though.” Then I went over the list of ‘obstacles’ and the list of ‘reasons’ given as to why they couldn’t be overcome. “I understand that people are busy, and that it’s not necessarily easy to figure out what to do, however, your customers don’t need excuses, they need you to find ways to overcome obstacles so that they can get the service that they want. That’s why they hired you.”
In my opinion, the first step to learning to overcome obstacles is simply changing your service reps’ attitudes about what is and what isn’t possible. Or, as I like to say:
“Where there’s a ‘will’, there’s a way. Where there’s a ‘won’t’, there’s no way.”
What I mean by that is that is if your service reps have a ‘can do’ attitude and believe that overcoming obstacles is possible, they’ll have the ‘will’, and be more likely to look for ways to overcome them. If they don’t, they simply ‘won’t’.
And having a ‘can-do’ attitude is extremely important. Customers want what they want, when they want it, exactly as they want it right the first time. Every time. And what your customers really don’t want is to hear: “Impossible. Our systems just can’t do that”, or “‘I’m very sorry, but that’s not what my department does,” or “I know that’s what your sales rep promised, but we don’t actually do that”.
So how can you help your services reps develop a ‘can-do’, attitude so that figuring out how to overcome obstacles simply becomes part of their regular customer service process?
In my experience, the best way is by focusing on the ‘how’.
Often-times in service organizations, the focus is on the outcome, or result: meeting the target for a variety of end-of-pipe metrics such as response time, or customer satisfaction. Metrics that are simply ‘lagging indicators’ of whether your customer and business needs were met or not. However, in my experience, the ability to meet those targets actually occurs in the process of ‘how’ your customers are satisfied: how the work is done for them every single day, including how obstacles that prevent them from getting what they want, when they want it, are overcome. Unfortunately, though, it’s easy to become so focused on the ‘ends’ that you forget that the ‘means’, or how the work is done, are how the results, are created.
If you aren’t sure whether your organization is more focused on the ‘means’ or the ‘ends’, here are some ways to find out:
- Take a look at what metrics your organization is using to measure success. Are they metrics that measure the ‘end result’ of a process only (lagging indicators): number of new clients, retention, customer satisfaction, etc.? Or are there also measures of how those end results were achieved (leading indicators)?
- Take a look at what metrics your service reps are being measured on in their performance reviews. Again, are they metrics that only measure the end results? Or are their measures that address the ‘how’?
- Take a walk and see what supervisors and managers are doing. Are they holed up in their offices looking at reports of what’s already happened? Or are they out helping your service reps figure out how to solve problems and remove obstacles for customers?
- Listen to how your service reps interact with your customers. Do you hear a lot of “No. Sorry. Can’t do that…” Or do you hear, “Let’s see if I can find a way to get that done for you. I’m sure I will be able to…”
If you determine that your organization is focused mostly on the ‘ends’ and not on the ‘means’, before anything else can change, you’re going to have to change some attitudes.
And in my experience, what’s the best way to change attitudes? By changing what you, and what the service reps who work for your your organization, are doing. Sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s really not. Think about a time someone tried to convince you to do something that you didn’t think was possible. Were they able to talk you into it? Or did you have to try it, and see that it was possible, on your own. Chances are, if you’re like most people, you’re not going to be convinced until you do something differently and see that it has a positive result.
If you find that your organization is more focused on the ‘ends’ than the ‘means’, here are some suggestions of things to do differently:
- If you are a manager, make sure you are concentrating on how your reps are working to satisfy your customers and not just on the end results. Practice spending at least half of your day on the floor, where your service reps are, listening to their conversations with your customers. Watch how your reps are doing the work that creates the results. And when you hear your reps say, “I can’t…”, step in and help them figure out ‘how’ to overcome the obstacle the customer is having.
- Make sure that ‘explanations’ aren’t really ‘excuses’: There’s always going to be people out sick, new people being on-boarded, and training that needs to be done. Busier times of the month and year are usually known in most businesses. Spend time working with your team to plan ahead for these common scenarios.
- Create an ‘obstacle parking lot’ on your team. You don’t need to do anything fancy. A simple flip-chart in the team will do. When a service rep identifies an obstacle, have them write it on the flip-chart. The team can then brainstorm solutions to try to overcome it!
- Instead of measuring only the ‘results’ or lagging indicators, figure out what the important leading indicators are and measure them as well. Each organization will be different depending on its customers and services. As an example, for customer satisfaction in a call center, figure out what the most important components of customer satisfaction are for your specific customers, perhaps number of rings before the phone is answered, ability of the rep to answer the question on the first call, and friendliness, and find a way to measure and track those on an ongoing basis. That way you’ll have a way to see ‘how’ the process is going before you get to the results.
Although it might feel strange at first, focusing on the ‘how’ will soon become second nature. And when it does, finding ways to overcome obstacles in the process of how the results for your customers and your company are created will become much easier.
If you have customers, there are always going to be obstacles. And like Michael Jordan so correctly pointed out, obstacles don’t have to stop you, or your service organization. You and your service reps simply have to decide that you can – and will – figure out how to overcome those obstacles. Because where there’s a ‘will’, there’s always going to be a way…