Thursday 23 April 2009

What is service?

It’s certainly not what I experienced in a store last weekend. Don’t panic, for once I’m not going to criticise a store at home in Botswana but one in South Africa instead. My family and I were in a Woolworths store in large shopping centre in Jo’burg. My wife, not able to find exactly what she wanted, turned to a passing Woolworths employee and asked for assistance. Her response?
“I can’t help you, I’m from Customer Service.”
There are days when I think that is typical of the Customer Service departments of most companies. What, after all, are Customer Service departments really for? In reality a Customer Service Department is what used to be called the Complaints Department. Most of them see their role as putting out fires, not buying fire extinguishers.

Yes, of course I know that there are specialist departments in every large organisation that do certain specific things like the HR, IT and Finance departments but their jobs are necessarily specific. They provide a service to all the front-line, money-making, service-delivering people in the company. Surely customer service is similar, a general thing like turning up for work on time, being polite and not picking your nose in front of a customer? Isn’t customer service is something everyone has to do?

Every time I see and Invitation to Tender from Government inviting companies to deliver customer service training my heart sinks. Likewise whenever I hear from a parastatal, or even a bank that they’ve sent their staff on a 5-day customer service workshop I have enormous pity for the poor souls forced to attend such drivel. Haven’t they suffered enough?

The truth is that smart companies don’t train their staff on how to deliver good customer service. What the smart companies do is, well, smarter. They hire people who can deliver customer already. No, not people who’ve been trained by another company, they seek out people who have excellent customer service skills in their bones, the people who were born to deliver such service, the ones with a genetic vocation for it.

A long time ago I was involved in the development of recruitment polices for nurses and we were all forced to think about the qualities needed in a good nurse and they were all the built-in ones. They were attributes like empathy, attention to detail, curiosity and patience. I don’t think any of those qualities can be learned in a classroom or a workshop. You’re either born with them or you’re not.

It’s the same with teaching, policing and military service. You need to have the right attributes or you will simply be bad at your job.

Customer service is no different. If you genuinely like dealing with people, strangers as well as friends, people different to you as well as your twins, people less pleasant than you as well as the nice ones then you stand a chance. If you truly get a thrill from spending your time, perhaps even your spare time, trying to find a solution to someone else’s problem for no reward then you might make it. If you can cope with being insulted by 10 horrible people in a row but still treat the next person who comes through the door as if they were your long-lost brother or sister then you might pass.

If you can’t do any of these things please don’t apply for a job facing customers.

There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Not all of us have those particular skills. We have other skills that mean we’re better placed in other parts of an organisation where those skills aren’t as important. If you have a highly technical mind, great attention to detail, a natural flair for technology go into Information Technology. If you have amazing numerical skills and a fascination for financial issues become an accountant.

If, on the other hand, you have no attention to detail, no interest in enforcing the law and no passion for justice then perhaps you should join one of the older government regulatory authorities.

Before you think that I believe that training is useless let me say this. Training is only useful if it’s specific, focussed and concentrated. Training is also only successful if it’s rewarding, enjoyable and stimulating. Training is only worth the money when it focusses on tangible skills, not wishy-washy, namby-pamby nonsense like customer service. By all means train your staff on telephone answering techniques, new product details, new procedures you’ve developed but none of those should take more than an hour or two. Once they’ve finished they can go back to work and do what you hired them to do.

If you really want to push the boat out then you can do some team-building workshops but again these only work if the teams you’ve hired comprise people who can get along with their colleagues.

So my point is this. Don’t waste your money on pointless customer service training, enormously expensive customer service “gurus” and the latest gimmicks. Instead form your customer service team from people with a real passion for service and make sure they get out of the office. Get them out there every day, on the front line, supporting the real people who do the real work in your company. If you ever find one of your customer service people in the office you should really wonder what game they’re playing with themselves.

This week’s stars
  • Charles at Barloworld Motors for really friendly service.
  • Nandos Game City for going extra the mile to make a customer smile.
  • The staff from Department of Wildlife at the Mabuasehube National Park, in particular their mechanic Phologolo, who helped a group of tourists by welding their broken suspension allowing them to continue and enjoy their holiday. Phologolo even took the time to phone the tourists when they were n their way home to check everything as OK.

No comments: