The Key to Outstanding Customer Service

by Scott C. Whiteford, Ph.D.

Ask leaders about what issues concern them most, and “customer service” is routinely among the top two or three items they mention — regardless of industry. Such a top priority among leaders should lead to superb customer service scores, right?

Of course, it is not. Invariably, we run into situations where we receive bad service. Perhaps the employee is upset, mean or simply rude; but because customer service is a top priority, the employee most likely received some type of training.

Why the disconnect, and can a leader train customer service? Well, yes, but probably not the way most leaders think about training.

Most customer service training programs focus on the basics — how to serve customers. However, these training programs focus primarily on the superficial topics of customer service, such as: (1) how to greet the customer, (2) when to smile, (3) what to say and (4) what to do. These are important elements of customer service, but they are simply superficial methods to inject strong customer service.

If these methods worked, we would all receive outstanding customer service every time, and there would be no need for Yelp or TripAdvisor. Clearly, this is not the case, so there must be alternative methods to discovering strong customer service.

Here it is: instead of focusing on the superficial ways to attract strong customer service, focus on the heart of the matter — people.

I posit the two best methods to improve customer service are:

  1. selecting strong employees with a penchant for customer service, and
  2. developing and maintaining strong employee satisfaction (yes, “employee” not “customer”).

Horst Schulze, hotelier of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company and Capella Hotel Group fame, states the three most important aspects of customer service are caring, timely and defect-free service. All three of these aspects can be found in the heart of the employee, and none of them are focused on direct customer service training. In other words, customer service is not training people how to greet the customer, how to smile, what to say and what to do. He understands the root-cause of strong customer service rests with the employee. Therefore, there are two primary areas of focus: selection and employee satisfaction.

First, selecting strong employees is essential to outstanding customer service. Finding employees whose natural propensity is to smile, be positive, display empathy, work efficiently and focus on exacting outcomes is essential to great customer service scores. By focusing on these strengths, leaders can hire employees who are already 50 percent ahead of everyone else.

As a leader, have you ever hired a negative individual and tried to train them to be positive? It is unlikely to work well. Simply hiring the right employees will render the superficial training aspect of customer service almost unnecessary, and leaders receive stronger customer satisfaction scores.

Second, employee satisfaction is equally important. Why? The most significant correlation with strong customer service scores is strong employee satisfaction scores.

Sounds simple. However, the method to gain strong employee satisfaction can be a bit challenging.

Employee satisfaction comes from investment in the employee by his or her leader. This takes time. Leaders must be willing to allocate more of their time on meeting their employees’ needs and strengths through “career investment discussions.” The leader must also be willing to follow-up on those expressed needs and goals.

To my leaders, I recommend holding career investment discussions annually, with quarterly sessions to follow-up on goals and initiatives. By spending time investing in their people, leaders will see stronger employee satisfaction and greater customer satisfaction.

Here’s an example of this approach in practice. One of my clients, a health care organization in California, found their patient satisfaction (HCAHPS) scores in the 20th percentile of all health care systems nationally. Of course, they had training programs on how to provide strong patient service, but they were unable to move the needle past the 20th percentile.

10 years ago, their incoming president took a much different approach to customer satisfaction. He knew if he focused on selecting the right employees and developing strong employee satisfaction, he would see the organization’s patient satisfaction scores improve. When he stated “customer service” was his number one priority, he knew he had to approach this change from the heart of the issue. Five years later, their HCAHPS scores were in the 90th percentile of all health care systems.

The bottom line: if leaders don’t have the right employees and don’t focus on their satisfaction, no amount of customer service training is going to make a difference. Of course, training is important, but selecting employees with a talent for customer service and focusing on employee satisfaction makes the real impact.

Scott C. Whiteford, Ph.D.

Scott C. Whiteford, Ph.D. is the Director of Leadership Analytics at Talent Plus where his role is to partner with, listen to and find solutions for our clients, their teams and organization. With an emphasis on strengths, through selection and development, he helps our clients find success on their Talent-Based Journey.

“I focus on the strength management approach to help grow leaders and improve team and organization cultures.” – Scott Whiteford

Talents: Relationship, Ego Drive, Focus, Conceptualization and Intelligence