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Where is customer service training going wrong?

23rd Nov 2009
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With customer service training budgets being slashed, spoke with leading learning & development expert Dr Peter Honey about the L&D issues facing customer service departments.

When research by The Institute of Customer Service (ICS) recently revealed that a third of organisations had cut their customer service training budgets as part of cost-saving exercises to survive the recession, there was much disappointment - but little surprise. In previous downturns, after all, training budgets have been one of the first funds to face the axe.
However, with customer service levels likely to become collateral damage as a result of these cuts at a time when experts have been predicting a flat Christmas for retail, concerns have been voiced for those organisations making cutbacks at a time when a strong service culture could be key to customer satisfaction.
“Investing in your people is a key differentiator in business today,” emphasised Jo Causon, chief executive of the ICS. “An organisation that emphasises customer service, through training and development, goes a long way to retaining staff – which motivates them to satisfy customers.”
Someone who knows more than most about the importance of learning and development in the workplace is Dr Peter Honey. Dr Honey, a chartered psychologist and founder of Peter Honey Publications, is a patron of the Campaign for Learning and a trustee of the Lifelong Learning Foundation, and has served as a consultant to organisations such as the Bank of England, The Automobile Association and AstraZeneca.
However, he is probably best known for his work on the Honey & Mumford learning style questionnaire, the renowned self-administered questionnaire that enables users to determine the preferred learning style to optimise their development. And for Dr Honey, some of the most important learning to take on board surrounds behaviour.
“As far as other people are concerned, you are your behaviour,” he emphasises. “In other words, what you say and do is what they know about you. Therefore, the way that you behave when dealing with a customer, and the way your staff behave when dealing with customers, is absolutely critical because it will inform what the customer knows about.
“There was a fascinating study conducted many years ago in a library, which experimented with different ways of handing customers their books once the date had been stamped in them, and the influence this had on their perception of the library. One way was to just push them across the counter for the customer to pick up. The other way was to actually hand them to the customer. On the way out of the library, customers were approached to answer some survey questions about a variety of issues, many not related to customer service, for example stock and availability of books.
“Once they had crunched the numbers they found that where the books had been handed to customers, which apparently is a better behaviour than just pushing them across the desk, the customers had far, far better things to say about the whole library. Despite it being apparently trivial, it was the only thing that could statistically explain this. So it is a reminder of how important these small behaviours can be in affecting somebody’s perception.”
Training purposes
By now we are all familiar with the call centre message informing us that “your call may be monitored for quality assurance and training purposes”. And Dr Honey believes that these interactions would be rich in information to aid learning. “Every encounter with a customer, whether it is face-to-face or over the telephone or by email, whatever it is, is a learning opportunity. I think that it is rich in opportunities to learn and to think about customer service and to think about the way you behaved and the impact your behaviour is having on the customer for better or for worse.”
However, he is sceptical about how much they are used for “training purposes” compared to “quality assurance”. Furthermore, there has traditionally been a tendency for organisations to focus their training around scripts, rather than behaviours, something that is especially prevalent in the contact centre environment. This kind of rigid teaching only serves to provide staff with a knowledge of how to respond by the book, with a verbatim response. Dr Honey, however, believes that frontline staff must have more authority to be able to behave appropriately for each individual case.
“They must be able to make on the spot decisions about how best to handle a customer,” he explains. “There are hundreds of different circumstances that could arise – some disgruntled, some complaining and so on. They shouldn’t have to run off to their manager to ask what to do. There are always limits to responsibility, obviously, but often they are too tight and people have no room for manoeuvre when they should be able to use their initiative to know how to best delight a customer. The limits are too tight and people are just behaving like zombies, sticking to the script when half of the time it doesn’t even fit the circumstances.”
This raises the interesting question of whether it is the staff that require training the most – or the leaders themselves. Certainly there seems to be a lot of what Ken Blanchard has called “stinking thinking” from leaders about customer service.
“It is important for leaders or managers to learn to let go, because the point about the frontline staff taking more responsibility means that they are less dependent on their manager for all sorts of decisions,” says Dr Honey. “But we know how tough that is. We know that lots of people have big hang ups about letting go.
“In fact, if you twisted my arm and said you only had a small budget and could only afford to train either the line managers of the staff, I would recommend the line managers because they create the environment and the way they behave is just so important. They are going to be doing all the coaching. They are the support. So I would put it there. But that is not to underestimate the importance of training frontline staff.”
Unfortunately, of course, the ICS research suggests that a third of organisations aren’t in agreement with Dr Honey when it comes to customer service training. This, he says, is a great shame.
“Enough organisations don’t realise how important it is as a differentiator. It can be your unique selling point," he concludes. "And it is also proven that there is a link between development opportunities and lower staff attrition. People stay with organisations that aren’t necessarily paying them the most, they tend to stay and rate organisations that give them development opportunities. So if you cut your budget, it is actually going to cost you more as you are going to have to recruit more people and then they are going to have to be trained.”

Replies (2)

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By jphillips
04th Dec 2009 11:17

I believe the key is in actually recruiting the right people in the first place.
Most companies don't do this, they simply employ people who fit other criteria - basically how they fit into the organisation.
In my experience the best customer service people are those with a 'natural' talent for engaging with people.

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By Neil Davey
04th Dec 2009 11:54

Thanks for your comments - and I completely agree that the recruitment phase is critical. It doesn't matter how good your organisation's training is, a square peg will never be a good fit for a square hole!

However, employees rarely (if at all) arrive at an organisation as the finished item, so training has to have an important role. And I'd also suggest that the company culture also plays a big part on the performance of the employee.

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