Customer service training: Keeping the customer satisfied

Good customer service training equals happy clients and repeat business. It could be magic.

For any business, the case for customer service training is obvious: good customer relations help generate repeat business, attract new clients, reduce costly complaints and in turn, minimise staff turnover. These are key components to the success of any organisation.

Good customer service is increasingly being seen as a number one priority for businesses which are looking to improve sales and keep existing customers happy,” says Don Hales, founder of the National Customer Service Awards and the Customer Service Training Association (CSTA).

“But on the other hand, when an organisation wants to cut costs, it’s often the customer service department that gets scaled back.”

Bottom line

And while good customer service clearly affects the bottom line, Hales says many customer service directors often struggle to produce the black and white evidence that finance directors want to see.

Tee Dobinson, associate director at training firm Impact Factory, says the rise in the number of call centres and internet businesses, where customers don’t have face-to-face conversations with a company employee, is making the issue of customer service far trickier.

Even so, she says demand for customer service training has remained pretty constant for the past 10 years. In the case of call centres, Dobinson says many staff have to tackle customers’ residual anger, thanks to ‘faceless’ telephone systems and automated queues.

Helen Eades, head of training at learning consultancy 3C Associates, believes the global credit crunch has led many businesses to put sales training at the top of their priority list.

This means, she says, that many companies are still only paying lip service to customer service training, treating it as a cost, rather than as an opportunity to drive profits and a chance to generate loyalty and referrals.

“Customer service training is still often treated as a ‘sheep dip’ activity. One of the national utility companies spends millions on customer service training every year, but still languishes at the bottom of the customer service league.

“This is probably because the training offered may be good in itself, but is not focused on those aspects of service that customers actually value. The training needs analysis for customer service is a sophisticated activity, but is often treated as no more than teaching people how to implement company policy without being rude,” she says.

One of the courses that 3C Associates is offering to companies is ‘how to value customer service’, a one-day workshop that 3C claims gives managers the requisite tools to understand how customer service adds value to their organisation and to quantify that value.

“Clearly, the answer will be different for each organisation, but the process is the same,” explains Eades.

“The methodology can be applied to public sector and not-for-profit organisations as well. The essential outcome of our ‘how to value customer service’ process is that managers will understand which aspects add value to the customer and which don’t. Armed with this information, customer service managers can guide investment decisions, training and even recruitment to deliver the customer service that adds most value with the available resources.”

Training is usually run in the form of open or tailored programmes, with open courses usually available as a one or two-day classroom session.

Impact Factory, whose clients include Airmiles and Huntingdon District Council, claims that its programmes specifically focus on what it is to be a customer. “We look at where it’s easy to give good customer service and where it’s difficult. We spend time researching a company before we conduct the training, so that we know the issues they have and what they want from a programme.

“On our open course we take eight delegates from any company with any needs. The advantage here is that they see customer service in different industries. Alternatively, some people don’t want to come with colleagues, or bigger numbers can’t be spared,” Dobinson says.

Blended approach

Hales believes that effective customer service training should predominantly take place in the workplace, with coaches and mentors underpinning any initiatives, although he adds that classrooms can be useful for basic training. Dobinson advocates the blended approach – insisting that training should be very practical, as opposed to ‘chalk and talk’.

Impact Factory uses Forum Theatre, a training method where the delegates use actors to work through situations, preparing their own scripts for each training session.

3C Associates also uses this type of approach. “Forum Theatre is great as it allows staff to interact in a different way,” says Eades. “Our actors create and act out a short play made up of key customer service issues and the audience (the delegates) take control and re-work it to address the issues more effectively.”

3C Associates has also been using Phone Delivered Training (PDT) in its customer service training for more than six years. Phone workers remain at their desks or are put in a nearby conference room during the training sessions. They dial into a virtual training room where they are greeted by a live trainer and led through a two-hour training session.

“Sessions are short and frequent, allowing time in between for practice with real life customers,” explains Eades. “It is supported by further one-to-one coaching to accelerate learning and offer further guidance.”

Impact Factory runs a one-day open customer service training course at £395 per person. A bespoke course costs £3,000-5,000 per day, depending on the amount of development work, location and number of people.

3C Associates has four training programmes: customer service skills, internal customer service skills, telephone service skills (a course that is delivered via two telephone two-hour sessions) and the aforementioned how to value customer service skills. Prices are subject to course requirements.

Myriad qualifications

Official qualifications supported by the Institute of Customer Service include NVQ/SVQ frameworks, with bronze, silver and gold membership awarded.

“There are myriad qualifications available,” says Hales. “First, L&D managers have to discover the range of qualifications that might be applicable to their range, and here it’s a good idea to talk to other organisations to discover what problems you might encounter – which is where the CSTA comes in.”

Founded by Hales a year ago, the CSTA is a non-profit making membership body that specifically supports customer service skills trainers. Hales, who founded the National Customer Service awards nine years ago and remains chairman of the judges, modelled the CSTA on the Sales Training Association.

“If you’re the customer service skills trainer you’ll know all about the profession you’re in, but there won’t be anyone else to discuss this type of training with. The idea is that the CSTA will be run by a committee as a mutual organisation,” explains Hales.

Case study: Barclaycard Business

Ray Harrison, head of training, development and coaching at Barclaycard Business:

“In July 2007, Barclaycard Business launched a customer service programme called ‘Service Excellence’. It provides us with excellent quality data, which in turn means we have been able to focus our managers on one of their core objectives – colleague development.

“We truly believe that the most effective development happens in the workplace in ‘real time’ and to this end, as a business, we have allocated more than 2% of our shrinkage (non- customer facing time) to this activity on top of a further 1.9% shrinkage already allocated to ‘classroom development’ for all colleagues.

“As part of our ambition to become a self-directed learning organisation, we have opted to provide our colleagues with the tools rather than force-feed them with what could be inappropriate training solutions. To this end we focused on our management population and supported them by identifying quality champions from across our population of around 600 customer- facing colleagues to share and embed best practice.

“We have also built a partnership with the TUC and the union Unite to fund (as a partnership) a resource centre within our Teesside site. This is a first within Barclays and something that both the unions and Barclaycard Business are extremely proud of.

“While we don’t insist on qualifications, as a business we support colleagues in any way we can on any formalised qualifications they wish to complete. We are in the process of looking at introducing a Customer Service NVQ as part of the work we are undertaking in Talent Management. However it is unlikely that this will be an enforced undertaking.”

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