Customer service: When the customer is king

Customer service training – can organisations afford to be without it? Probably not

Organisations do not require the assistance of a global financial downturn to reach the conclusion that anything less than perfect customer service could have serious repercussions for the bottom line.

However, the growing propensity of customers to point and click their business elsewhere means customer service training is once again a priority on the training curriculum.

“Customers know they have the choice of going online and finding other companies – which is no drama – so the loyalty between the customer and a company is not there unless a company is delivering 100%,” says Kasmin Cooney, managing director of customer service trainer Righttrack Consultancy.

Multi-channel support

The level of performance now required for great customer service is light years away from the ‘Have a nice day’ model that may have sufficed in the past, say training experts. Indeed, according to Marc Jantzen, chief executive of customer service specialist Blue Sky Performance Improvement, the demand for multi-channel support means that it was actually a lot easier to give great customer service five years ago than it is today.

Cooney says good customer service is now the result of an organisation designing its processes and strategies around customers’ needs. Jantzen would add one other component, however: emotion.

“The key thing that makes organisations stand out is if they’re able to engage at an emotional level through those conversations which are typically transactional,” Jantzen explains. “The challenge for businesses is to be able to equip people to have the type of conversations that are engaging and emotionally connecting – and to motivate them to have the desire to do that 40 or 50 times a day.”

Taking ownership

Meanwhile, Sue Glynn, strategic director of professional development at the Institute of Customer Service (ICS), believes true customer service only occurs when individuals really look at taking ownership, delivering on promises and taking the time to understand customer needs before they put forward a possible solution.

“But it’s not just about the customer,” she says. “A true customer service professional will also consider how their interactions with customers fit in, impact and link to the service strategy of their organisation. They also look at colleagues and the impact on the team, as well as themselves. It’s a holistic approach to service delivery.”

As a business-wide strategy, Cooney adds that companies should be making sure customer service is part of the whole organisation, rather than just the responsibility of the customer service department.

Jantzen, whose company has run large conference-style customer service events for a range of companies including travel firm First Choice, says that employee engagement can be effectively obtained by taking people on a customer service journey – leading them through an experience using a customer’s eyes, with video and actors really bringing this process to life.

While old favourites, such as complaints handling, still have their place on the customer service curriculum, Cooney says course content now focuses on being proactive, understanding the product/service you’re selling, understanding diversity (ie, that customers are different), the way customer service care needs to be fashioned, confidence, good questioning and good listening. Some will also incorporate negotiation and retention skills.


She makes the point, however, that these skills can only be harnessed when companies have strategies in play that enable staff to make decisions: “Unless you have that, all the training in the world won’t do any good.”

Jantzen goes further: “Too often, management pays lip service to creating a customer-centric organisation, and this leads to staff disillusionment and a loss of engagement.” He points to Virgin Atlantic Airways – which actively inducts new recruits in customer service by putting them into a first class customer’s shoes – as a great example of best practice customer service training.

Virgin Atlantic has also conducted focus groups with its employees to identify staff actions and attitudes that have really impressed customers, and these anecdotes have then been used as part of its ‘brilliant basics’ training programme. Originally designed for crews, this customer service course has now been rolled out across call centres and there are plans to take the training to airport staff.

Helen Eades, head of training at 3C Associates, says it is tailoring more and more of its courses to include a mix of both sales and customer service skills for companies, to reflect the need for customer-facing staff to be able to retain existing customers – the so-called sales-through-service approach.

Intervention methods should depend on the organisation and the type of service people are going to be delivering, advises Glynn, although because the nature of a customer service role is about having true conversations with customers – whether that’s face-to-face, via telephone or electronically – she believes companies should be looking at practical ways to get that across in training.

Role play

Most customer service programmes incorporate an element of role play or use Forum Theatre techniques to enable delegates to discuss and play out challenging scenarios. Righttrack favours the experiential approach over telephone tuition, says Cooney, because it can be blended with more conventional approaches to make a more effective intervention.

“We write very detailed, quite complex scenarios that mirror some of the challenges the organisation is facing. People work through them and begin to understand what customer care – good or bad – feels like,” she explains. While Righttrack mainly offers bespoke solutions, Cooney estimates that a one-day programme for 15 people (with a day’s research and a day’s writing) would cost around £3,000.

As well as a range of face-to-face interventions, 3C Associates offers a blended phone-delivered training service called PDT. It claims this is a low-cost, time efficient and effective way of delivering key skills. It also includes a classroom session that Eades says enables 3C to confirm and discuss call and customer service standards, leaving delegates time to concentrate on skills and practice phone sessions.

Phone-delivered training

“Phone workers in call and contact centres are our main customers in this area,” Eades says. “With PDT, 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 an intensive two-hour training session. Other benefits include the immediate transfer of skills back to the workplace, small groups being trained in the same medium in which they work – and cost. The total price for a group of six can be the same as the cost of training for one person on a one-day workshop.”

Post-course coaching is also a key element of any customer service offering these days, according to Glynn, who adds that ICS-certified qualifications are based on this method of delivery. Blue Sky explains that it brings customer service managers in as coaches for post-intervention support and as part of the measuring process.

Companies looking to formalise customer service training may do so with work-based qualifications accredited by the ICS that can be completed over four to 12 months. As part of the customer service membership, companies also have access to members of the development team, although Glynn says the idea is really for organisations to develop and roll out their own programmes.

“Customer service NVQs, SVQs and apprenticeships are also available,” she adds. “More and more employers are looking for people with good customer service skills and with them being fully transferable, it’s something that allows career progression and moves cross-sector, as well as within organisations.”

However, Cooney of Righttrack, which offers a ‘managing your customers’ programme in conjunction with the Institute of Leadership and Management, says most companies are not looking to incorporate official qualifications into their programmes.

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