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What makes great customer service? Is it the customer-centric attitude? Is it about changing bad customer experience into a good one? Or maybe it all comes down to motivating and training customer service representatives?
Adam Toporek, customer service expert and the author of Be Your Customer’s Hero, shares his thoughts about what great customer service means.
You are a born entrepreneur. How did you start your career?
I am actually a 3rd generation entrepreneur. My grandfather owned a small, main street shoe store. My father was a retailer, and he opened a wholesale distributorship. And then I have owned numerous companies and small businesses myself.
Like many people, especially when you’re talking about customer service and frontline customer service, I’ve started by having a frontline job. I did telemarketing outside of college, I worked in a bookstore, working the floor, and I worked in a retail music store. I’ve had a variety of retail jobs. As I’ve gotten older and my career developed, I started owning multiple service franchises, so that’s when I became a retail business owner.
I think that background gave me a unique lens, as I now know what it means to make decisions with customer service where every dollar you give away for service recovery comes out of next month’s rent or out of your utility bills. It really gave me a real world focus and real world lens.
And now you are sharing your knowledge?
Oh, absolutely! With CTS Service Solutions and my new book “Be Your Customer’s Hero” I really try to take the experiences I’ve had and the focus I’ve had on customers to help other people with that knowledge. People struggle so much with customer service and customer experience!
Sometimes it can be really difficult but a lot of times it’s really mastering certain basics and knowing when to use the right techniques at the right time.
Where did the idea to write "Be Your Customer's Hero" came from?
You know, it came from my background. As I’ve mentioned, I’m a small business owner and once I was in one of my retail businesses. I’ve just walked into the business, I opened the door for this customer and I watched her walk in. She was just happy, she was smiling, she was having a great day, and I watched her walking up to the front desk of my business.
I watched my front desk employee sit there. She was slouched down, she was reclining in the chair. Her hair was horribly brushed, her uniform was dirty and wrinkled. She did not even acknowledge the customer! She made a few clicks with her mouth and said: “OK, you’re checked in”. And then without even looking at the customer, she turned back to the employee next to her and continued the conversation she had.
Sounds like a nightmare!
I know! It’s hard to describe emotions I had at this moment. It was a shock, “did that really just happen?” There was anger, “how little can one person care?” How little they can care about their job, about other people? And then, finally, I was embarrassed. I thought: is this really a person that represents me? Is this a face of my business to our customers? And I was so upset on so many levels that it literally made me sick.
I considered it a failure on my part. I was sick because I knew I had failed. I felt that I’d failed to inculcate the right customer-centric values in my team, and I failed to give this person the training and tools they needed to deliver the types of customer experiences I’d always envisioned us providing. And that’s when I realized I needed a tool. Something that I could hand my frontline employees that would teach them what they needed to know about customer service.
So over time I’ve developed trainings, I’ve created new positions, I wrote handbooks and many, many years later I ended up writing a book called “Be Your Customer’s Hero”.
And who did you write it for? Is it only for business owners or is it also for customer service agents?
It’s for both, though it is primarily focused on frontline reps and that means people who interact face to face, phone to phone, chat to chat with customers. But past that, it really is for business owners, supervisors and managers, because so many of the principles are applicable to anybody who works with customers.
The techniques in this book and the guidance on mindset and customer mentality can be invaluable in those moments when you interact with customers. They’re certainly invaluable to managing a team of people who interact with customers all day every day.
The introduction to your book says that it is designed “not just to educate but to motivate.” What kind of motivation do you mean? A motivation to have great customer service?
It is to motivate people to want to give great customer service. I can teach you every technique I know, but if you don’t care about giving a great customer service, if you don’t understand why the customer is important, all the techniques in the world really aren’t going to help you. You’ve got to know that you want to be customer-centric.
For a lot of people, it’s not that they don’t want to. It’s that we’re not wired for customer service. We have pride and there’s a positive pride, like the pride in your team, your store, your brand or yourself, but there’s also the “don’t disrespect me” kind of pride. When somebody gets angry at you or customer raises his voice it causes you to immediately react defensively. That may be a natural reaction, but it’s not a good customer service reaction.
Motivation is really getting people to understand why customers are important and how to get around your mindset to want to interact with customers. One of the chapters is called “Complaints Should Come with Bows on Them” meaning a complaint is like a gift. When somebody gives you a complaint, you can look at it as an attack or an assault on yourself, or you can look at it as “hey, this is feedback, I need to be better”.
What is the reason why so many people do not understand that customer service is so important?
There are people who don’t understand it. There are people who understand it and act on it. And there’s this big chunk in the middle that understand it intellectually – they know that customer service is important, they know that they should treat customers well – but they do not do that.
The thing is that there are a lot of younger people in customer service positions, especially here in the States, and a lot of times it’s their first job. You throw them on the service floor and when somebody starts yelling at them or presenting issues they’ve never dealt with before, we expect them to automatically react exactly how we think they should. It’s very unrealistic.
Our natural state is not necessarily designed for customer service. Some people are sort of natural “people people” and those people can sort of get by with those skills in a lot of situations, but even they still need techniques and training.
We’re coming back to the motivation again. Will a customer representative be more motivated to perform better if they identify with the company?
Identify with the business, and with their own sense of accomplishment and pride. Any job you have, even if it may not even be your favourite job, you have a choice, every day you walk in the door. You can either decide to do as great job as you can, or you can decide to just go through the motions and just not get fired.
Let’s get back to your book. Does it show how to use the discussed techniques?
Yes, I’m trying to share a couple of them here on the call but also at the end of the book there is a free download of a mini-workbook which will help you get started with some of the techniques. That’s available in the last chapter.
Also, short chapters in the book make it very easy to go back and say: “that’s what I want to work on, that technique really helped me”. I urge people to look at the whole set of customer service techniques and find the ones that are going to move the needle for them at their job. And that’s the best way to start because you can’t master all of them at once, and you really can’t master all of them.
So I always say: pick your three top issues and work on those. Look at which technique works for them, script them out, and try to prepare to use them. And you will be much more comfortable and much more ready for every customer service situation.
What was your worst customer service experience?
That is a tough one! Like everybody, I’ve had a few. One time, I was actually in college, I was at this diner downtown. A lot of students would eat there during lunch. I had this waitress, she was so rude, it was many, many years from this day, but I still remember how bad it was.
She took my order, she barely said a word. I realised there was no silverware on the table so I asked her for it. She snapped at me something like “I’ll get it when I want to.” Literally, it was awful! She comes back with the silverware, and throws it on the table without even looking at me.
The food took forever, I’ve asked about it once but she didn’t acknowledged me. When the food finally came, she slammed it down. I’m not kidding, she literally dropped it from a few inches above the table. I was mystified! I had never been treated like that by a frontline associate before.
It is very obvious looking back now that she was just bringing her personal life and frustrations with whatever was going on that day, and she was letting those affect relationship with the customer.
In the book, there is chapter “It’s Showtime”. What that means is when you get to work, it’s sort of letting everything else go; it’s showtime, you are performing. This is literally a performance, it doesn’t matter what kind of day I’ve had, it doesn’t matter if my dog is sick, because we all have that. We are all going to have some sort of personal issue going on at some point in our careers, but there’s no reason to take it out on the customer.
It’s about being professional, and I think that’s what this person lacked. Many years later it still stands out because it was so rude! I hope she was having a better day afterwards.
OK, and what if she was your employee? Which technique from your book would you choose to fix the situation?
I’d first try to identify was it coming from something that was going on at home or was she just having a bad day, and maybe somebody else has treated her rudely earlier and now she was taking it out on me.
Let’s say that somebody has treated her rudely, she was in a rush and everything just wasn’t working for her. I would ask her: “Hey, let me ask you a question: did that customer affect your day?” She would go “yes”. And I’d say: “why is he still affecting your day? Why are you letting him ruin the next hour?”
You’re always gonna have somebody rude, and you’re gonna have a negative experience when you work with customers because it’s always going to happen. One of the keys is not to let them rent a space in your head, not to let them stay in there for an hour or a day or even a week. People let this stuff really bother them. The first thing to do is to identify the problem, step back and say “why am I letting this person ruin my day? Why am I giving him that power over me?”
It is all about the mindset.
So the conclusion is that customer service is about overcoming our weaknesses, isn’t it?
In many ways it really is. The techniques are important, but you’ve got to have the right mindset before you can get there.
Adam Toporek is the author of Be Your Customer's Hero (2015), as well as the founder of the popular Customers That Stick™ blog and co-host of the Crack the Customer Code podcast. Connect with him on Twitter.
Cover photo courtesy of Loren Javier via Creative Commons.