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How Managers Can Unlock the Potential of Their Customer Service Teams

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Want maximum results from your support efforts? Here’s how to get the most from your team.

You’ve worked hard to hire the best support employees you can find.

You’ve looked for the important skills, asked the right questions and combed all of the corners of the internet for top talent.

Now what?

Simply having great talent on your team is not going to get them to produce great results.

Support teams—like any other teams—need leadership. Effective leadership can unlock the incredible potential of talented employees, and uncover hidden abilities that you (and maybe even they!) didn’t know existed.

This post will cover what founders, executives and support team leaders can do, including culture changes, training and motivational strategies to help your customer support team get better.

Great Customer Support Starts With Culture

Yes, this post will go into tactics.

But tactics, on their own, are not enough. You need, on the highest possible level at your company, to make it very, very clear how much you value excellent customer service.

A killer customer support team starts with the top-down organizational belief that what they do is absolutely vital to the survival and success of the business.

If that’s not the case right now, don’t worry. Culture change is hard (which is why 81% of culture change initiatives fail), but not impossible.

Here’s how to make culture changes that stick:

Step 1: Start With Why

If a manager sent this email to her team, how would the employees feel?

Confused about how this actually helps the company?

Annoyed at the extra work they now need to do?

Demoralized at having changes mandated without their input?

Yes, yes and yes.

If you want a culture change to fail — either because it doesn’t get adhered to or because it makes your employees unhappy — then simply mandate it and do nothing else.

But if you want to build lasting change, everyone involved must understand why it’s in their best interest.

What’s more inspiring, the manager’s mandate in the beginning of this section, or a call to action that starts with why?

Getting your team eagerly bought into culture shift is the first step to lasting change.

Step 2: Engage Your Team

In The Lenovo Way, authors Gina Qiao and Yolanda Conyers describe how Lenovo needed to make a big culture change in the late 90’s.

The Chinese company had big plans to turn itself into a massive global business. One of the things standing in its way, executives believed, was the company’s strict Chinese corporate culture.

Employees at Lenovo’s headquarters referred to CEO Yang Yuanqing as “Chief Executive Officer Yang.”

Formalities like that simply wouldn’t work if the company wanted to open offices in places like Europe and North America (the “why” for a culture change), and Yang knew that.

But instead of just creating a policy to try and relax the company’s culture — a move that would’ve been sure to fail — Yang dove in and engaged his team.

For two weeks, Yang and other top executives stood in the lobby of Lenovo’s HQ, holding signs with their first names written on them.

They shook hands with employees and casually introduced themselves.

At first, many employees were afraid to address the execs without using their formal titles, fearing that it might sound disrespectful.

But sure enough, after a short time — once Yang began jokingly threatening to fire employees who called him “Chief Executive Officer” — the change took.

Since then, Lenovo has become the world’s biggest PC maker, and Yang — or “YY,” as his employees now call him — has been hailed as one of the most impressive turnaround CEO’s in the industry.

YY isn’t the only proof that employee engagement makes culture change possible. When Gallup studied change management, they found that managers in the top quartile — those most successful in managing organizational change — engaged 77% of their employees, on average. On the other end of the spectrum, managers in the bottom quartile engaged only 1% of their employees on average, and 54% of their employees were actively disengaged.

No matter how hard an organization’s leaders advocate for change, when more than half of the employees on a given team refuse to participate, it’s unlikely that change will happen.
Chee Tung Leong, Gallup

If you want to make change happen, your team has to see it happen from the top down.

Step 3: Take Baby Steps

Just like a couch potato probably won’t succeed by committing to exercise every single day, a company that tries to make humongous culture shifts at once is setting itself up for disappointment.

As author and business consultant Robert H. Schaffer suggests in the Harvard Business Review, start small.

We’ve found that managers get better results when they start with a few smaller successes, which then provide a basis for expanding. Start with one problem — or a few. Get some people to plan a couple of modest experiments to make progress on that issue, with guidance on the kinds of innovation you’d like to see. Build in some learning on the cultural issues that need to change. Try it out. Pay careful attention to what works and how. Incorporate the successful ideas into subsequent steps.
Robert H. Schaffer

By starting small, your team can get a taste of the benefits of the culture change you’re trying to make with minimal effort.

Once you’re reaping the rewards of your small change, your team will be more motivated to work towards larger changes.

In the case of building a culture of support, here are a few examples of baby steps that you can start with:

Five baby steps that can help you build a culture of customer service

  1. Everyone responds to a single customer support ticket each day… or even each week. If your company is larger, then reduce this to a one person from each department.

  2. Add this simple question to your project planning sessions: “How does this help our customers succeed?”

  3. Commit to doing a single Net Promoter Score survey. Once you see the results, you’ll be inspired to act on them.

  4. Wow just one customer each week. Send a handwritten note, treat or other small customer gift.

  5. Try incorporating one of the essential customer service phrases that you’re not already using into your support vocabulary. Gradually add the others.

Your Customer Support Team Only Has as Much Power as You Give Them

At Ritz-Carlton Hotels, each employee is given a $2,000 budget to make any single guest happy. Let me repeat: that budget is PER GUEST.

How’s that for empowerment?

Now, a $2,000 allowance to make things right for a guest sounds like a lot.

And it is.

But here’s the thing: the average Ritz-Carlton customer will spend nearly $250,000 with the business over their lifetime.

In that context, $2,000 is actually not that significant.

Relating this to your own business, that’s why it’s so, so important to know what your customers are worth to you, and to always be thinking about ways you can add more value to drive customer lifetime value higher.

The higher your CLV gets, the bigger the meaningful commitment you can make to making them happy when things go wrong.

But let’s dig even deeper into the Ritz-Carlton example, and what it can teach us about empowering our support teams.

That $2,000 number isn’t just a budget. In fact, that entire amount is rarely used.

But the freedom that a number so large signifies to the support team shows that the brand trusts them to make the right decision; and that the right decision is to do whatever it takes to make the guest happy.

We entrust every single Ritz-Carlton staff member, without approval from their general manager, to spend up to $2,000 on a guest. And that’s not per year. It’s per incident. When you say up to $2,000, suddenly somebody says, wow, this isn’t just about rebating a movie because your room was late, this is a really meaningful amount. It doesn’t get used much, but it displays a deep trust in our staff’s judgment. Frankly, they could go over that amount, with the general manager’s permission.

The concept is to do something, to create an absolutely wonderful stay for a guest. Significantly, there is no assumption that it’s because there is a problem. It could be that someone finds out it’s a guest’s birthday, and the next thing you know there’s champagne and cake in the room. A lot of the stuff that crosses my desk is not that they overcame a problem but that they used their $2,000 to create an outstanding experience.

There are stories about hiring a carpenter to build a shoe tree for a guest; a laundry manager who couldn’t get the stain out of a dress after trying twice flying up from Puerto Rico to New York to return the dress personally; or when in Dubai a waiter overheard a gentleman musing with his wife, who was in a wheelchair, that it was a shame he couldn’t get her down to the beach. The waiter told maintenance, who passed word, and the next afternoon there was a wooden walkway down the beach to a tent that was set up for them to have dinner in. That’s not out of the ordinary, and the general manager didn’t know about it until it was built.

Simon Cooper, Former President of the Ritz-Carlton Company

Invest in Your Customer Support Team

Look, it’s no secret anymore that even small improvements in your business’ customer service can lead to big gains in growth.

For example, a 2011 Oracle survey found that 86% of customers would pay more for a better customer experience.

And similarly, a Bain & Company study suggests that businesses that grow their customer retention rates (which great customer service can absolutely do) by as little as 5% typically see profit increases ranging from 25% to 95%.

With those kinds of potential returns, why wouldn’t you invest your customer service assets?

The three best ways to invest in your support teams’ growth?

  1. Training: Check this post out for 5 great support training exercises your team can do today
  2. Tools: The right tools can help your team work faster and have more fun doing it. Here are our favorite customer service tools.
  3. Culture: Make sure you’re putting in the time and resources to build your company’s culture and make your team feel aligned and excited about the bigger mission that they’re a part of. This is how we’ve built culture at Groove.

Know What Motivates Great Customer Service Teams

Nurturing your team’s motivation is tremendously important, especially when their job means daily encounters with difficult situations.

Here are three tested and proven ways to keep your support team happy (and happy to work hard):

1) Appreciation

Glassdoor, a career site, asked more than 2,000 people about what motivates them to work harder.

The leading answer?

Appreciation. In fact, appreciation was cited more than twice as often as the second most common response.

81 percent of employees said that they’re motivated to work harder when their boss shows appreciation for their work.

And while we might think we’d work harder if we were more appreciated, is it actually true?

Another study suggests that the answer is absolutely.

In 2010, researchers from the Universities of Pennsylvania and North Carolina set out to study the impact of gratitude on people’s behavior.

Participants were asked to give feedback on a fictional student’s (“Eric”) cover letter.

After the feedback was received, the participants got a reply asking for feedback on a second cover letter.

Half of the participants got a straight, to-the-point email with the second request, while the other half got an email expressing gratitude for completing the first review.

The results?

32% of the “No Gratitude” group provided feedback on the second cover letter, while 66% of the “Gratitude” group sent more feedback.

Gratitude more than doubled the response rate.

Gratitude and appreciation don’t just feel good; they can motivate your employees to perform.

2) Foster (Friendly) Competition

When used properly, competition can deliver tremendous results for a team’s performance.

To see what I mean, check out this story about steel magnate Charles Schwab motivated his employees (excerpted from Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People).

Charles Schwab had a mill manager whose people weren’t producing their quota of work.

“How is it,” Schwab asked him, “that a manager as capable as you can’t make this mill turn out what it should?”

“I don’t know,” the manager replied. “I’ve coaxed the men, I’ve pushed them, I’ve sworn and cussed, I’ve threatened them with damnation and being fired. But nothing works. They just won’t produce.”

This conversation took place at the end of the day, just before the night shift came on.

Schwab asked the manager for a piece of chalk, then, turning to the nearest man, asked: “How many heats did your shift make today?”

“Six.”

Without another word, Schwab chalked a big figure six on the floor, and walked away.

When the night shift came in, they saw the “6” and asked what it meant.

“The big boss was in here today,” the day people said. “He asked us how many heats we made, and we told him six. He chalked it down on the floor.”

The next morning Schwab walked through the mill again. The night shift had rubbed out “6” and replaced it with a big “7.”

When the day shift reported for work the next morning, they saw a big “7” chalked on the floor. So the night shift thought they were better than the day shift did they? Well, they would show the night shift a thing or two. The crew pitched in with enthusiasm, and when they quit that night, they left behind them an enormous, swaggering “10.” Things were stepping up.

Shortly this mill, which had been lagging way behind in production, was turning out more work than any other mill in the plant.

One important takeaway for managers that’s not to be missed: note Schwab’s tact. He didn’t set a new production quota (which can actually demotivate employees), or tell the team that their jobs depended on how they performed compared to their peers.

He simply set the stage for some friendly competition, and let human nature take over and do the rest.

3) Get Your Hands Dirty

Customer service is not an easy job.

But it’s an absolutely essential part of your business, and one that can make or break the way your customers feel about you.

Want to motivate your support team and get deep insights about your customer experience?

Get your hands dirty and spend time on the front lines.

Many companies, including Zappos, Amazon, Craigslist and Rackspace practice “everyone does support,” a model that calls on all employees to spend time responding to support tickets and engaging with customers.

You’ll not only get a better appreciation for what your customer service team does — and build a better relationship with your support employees — but you’ll get potentially business-changing insights about your product that you’d never get from hearing customer concerns second-hand.

We all benefit from being in touch with customers. For example, as an engineer it can be very powerful to see first-hand a customer struggling with a bug.
Joel Gascoigne, Buffer

Managing a Winning Customer Service Team

Your support team is the first point of contact for your customers, and often the only contact they have with the business.

Keep your team empowered, motivated and excited about their jobs, and you’ll be rewarded with happier, more loyal customers who love doing business with you.

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About the Author

Len Markidan heads up marketing at Groove. He’s focused on helping startups and small businesses build better relationships with their customers.

Read his latest posts or follow him on Twitter

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