Coaching for good customer service

Organisations are spending money on the wrong type of training. So claims Zita Richardson, partner in the Liverpool-based soft skills consultancy Motivateme. “Good customer service is central to the success of the business,” she says. “But lots of organisations are spending money on skills training without thinking that good communication skills and manners matter.”

For Richardson, the way forward is coaching. “You need to coach the managers in how to use their emotional intelligence and assertiveness to enable them to coach their reports in responding to the customer,” she says.

The problem is that not enough managers know what coaching is, says Janet Curran, research and instructional design consultant at customer service specialist Skill4. “A lot of operational managers are focused on getting the task done with coaching, you have to focus on the people.”

Coaching has now been identified as a definite need in customer service work, says David Kennaway, learning consultant for Capita Learning and Development, who has seen it grow in popularity over the past five years.

“The demand for coaching has grown from the use of 360-degree feedback,” he says. “It has turned the hierarchy upside down because managers realise they now have to support staff rather than be directional – they know directional managers will not score highly.”

Kennaway outlines the key to a successful coaching approach.

He says managers must:

  • Be involved in the business and understand what their coachees do
  • Give their feedback without creating resentment
  • Understand the learning style of staff members and deliver training and coaching to them appropriately
  • Be willing to listen to staff suggestions to improve customer service.

These things must be done regularly, says Clare Hollett, managing consultant at Blue Sky Consulting, which specialises in performance improvement in sales and service operations.

Organisations not only have to coach the managers but also encourage them to offer regular coaching.

“The most important detail is live consolidation,” says Hollett. “Many managers hold monthly sessions with staff but they also need a weekly session.”

Hollett says that, as well as encouraging this frequency, managers must tailor their sessions. “Managers also need to understand that these sessions should be motivational – they are about topping up the emotional bank accounts of front-line staff.”

She says all coaching initiatives have five parts:

  • Explanation
  • Demonstration
  • Imitation
  • Consolidation
  • Validation.

The demonstration element distinguishes customer service coaching from other types of coaching, she says.

“In sports coaching, for example, the coach can nurture a world-class athlete without running around the track, but in business it is crucial to be able to do it and to say let’s get on the phone,” Hollett says. “The demonstration element is key.”

It is also essential to establish a positive tone to the coaching, says Nick Drake-Knight, director of Performance in People (see case study below).

His company uses mystery shoppers who go into a retailer and record their interaction with staff. Managers are then shown the footage and given questioning and motivational techniques that will enable them to coach the staff to better performance. “We base our approach on a platform of what I call ‘positivity’, because when people feel good about themselves they can take on improvements,” says Drake-Knight. “We like the new coach to observe, not judge, and to stick to the facts.”

He says new coaches are encouraged to ask questions such as: ‘What would happen if you could ?’, which will help dispel limiting beliefs because they lead to positive benefits. The answer will always have positive outcomes.

So far so good, but when an organisation has put the coaching in place, how does it measure its benefits?

Hollett suggests that it is tied to key performance indicators, such as the customer satisfaction score. Or, in a customer contact centre, the call length, because if staff ask the right kind of questions, the calls are shorter.

Case study: O2 Retail UK

The power of coaching has got us to a high standard of customer service,” says Sameer Pathak, customer experience manager for O2 Retail UK.

He has used a video coaching method developed by customer service training specialist Performance in People and has found that its emphasis on positive performance is most effective.

Pathak trialed it in the company’s six EVO2 stores – O2 shops that act as test-beds for new ideas. The method uses a mystery shopper who films their interaction with a sales adviser. The store manager is then shown the film and how to coach that salesperson to improve motivation.

“The emphasis is always on doing things well,” says Pathak. “The video coaching method works on praise and never gives more than three things that the coachee needs to improve on.”

Such is his belief in the method that Pathak has taken it to all O2 stores by training store managers, area managers and divisional managers to be coaches. “We also invited other senior and head office staff to show what good video coaching looks like,” he says.

Pathak keeps the groups small, with no more than 15 delegates at an event. “We ensure everyone spends one-on-one time practising with the Performance in People trainer and the in-house O2 trainer,” he says.

In addition, Pathak has given the 20 area managers ‘super coach training’, which is a half-day’s training on how to coach a coach.

By Stephanie Sparrow


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