Authentic Customer Service: Leadership Through Authenticity (Part I)
Let’s say you’re the Leader of a Customer Service Intensive Environment or a Customer Service Rep working in one those environments. How can you be authentic – and promote authenticity – in your customer service interactions? That’s the motivation for our post: we’ve brainstormed some actionable ideas for how these Leaders and Customer Service Reps can achieve authenticity by using the 10 Commitments devised by leadership researchers Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner.
First and foremost, everyone in the organization must converge upon shared or core values – those principles or beliefs that everyone feels are important and worthy of merit. Usually, these values are determined by the leaders of a company, but in some progressive organizations and start-ups, core values emerge more organically as everyone collectively defines the organization.
There are lots of examples of core values, if you need to get some ideas:
Once you know what your core values are, and know that everyone is solidly committed to those values, it’s time to start exploring authenticity in customer service. This initial article explores the first 5 of Kouzes & Posner’s Commitments; Part 2 will discuss the remaining 5 Commitments.
The search for challenging opportunities to change, grow, and improve coupled with an authentic desire to do what is best for the customer creates an environment ripe for customer-driven development. In a customer-driven development environment, the concerns and ideas of customers are carefully examined and any insight gained is folded back into company policies. As a result, the customers actively participate in defining the organization they want to serve them. Customer-driven development can occur at all levels of a company.
Leaders & Senior Management: Generate an atmosphere of proactive customer contact. And we don’t mean contacting customers with the primary goal being to sell them more stuff. Proactive customer contact done in an authentic way means finding out what (if anything) the customer needs or will need. Sometimes your product meets those needs. Sometimes it doesn’t. If it does, help your customer leverage your product to meet their needs. If it doesn’t, do a quick gap analysis and fold that amazingly valuable information back into your product development plans.
In the trenches: Ask customers directly how your company or products can be more responsive and useful to them. Then listen to what they have to say! Highlight how your product fits their needs now. Resist the urge to shoehorn their needs into the bounds of your product’s current capabilities. If higher management has done their job, there should be mechanisms in place for you to feed back what you learn into ongoing product development plans.
Leadership is fearless and daring – and simultaneously a practical endeavor that’s infused with a solid vision of where to go. That vision, however, can and should change in response to prototyping and tinkering with new ideas.
Leaders & Senior Management: If your CSRs have new and innovative ideas for how to make customers happier – set aside a period of time to pilot new approaches and techniques, even in they seem crazy. You never know what customers might really respond to, and appreciate. For example, try one of Kate’s Seven Kid Secrets from Tom Kelley’s book The Ten Faces of Innovation. According to Kate, the way to make anyone comfortable sharing their ideas is to use techniques that make kids comfortable sharing ideas. How do you do this? Ask them about their shoes (or something personally important to them). Offer information about yourself. Ask them to invite their best friend along to chat. Remind them you’re working on a “top secret” project. Ask them to describe their house or surroundings. Ask what they would buy with ten dollars (or half an hour of your company’s time). Make them laugh.
In the trenches: CSRs can be leaders too! Use your customer service script for ideas, but don’t be afraid to diverge from the plan to make your customers feel like they’re valued friends. One of the best customer service experiences I’ve ever had was on a two hour call waiting for engineers to fix my DSL service. Turns out the CSR was a retired homicide detective who told me all about how customer service is – and isn’t – like solving murders. It was the best two hours I ever spent waiting for anything. He probably violated his script quite a bit by telling me about murders, but I really felt like he was being compassionate about my ungodly two hour wait. It gave me wonderful fuzzy feelings about my telephone company… can you imagine?
Leaders & Senior Management: Positive attitudes are not only important, but infectious. If leaders don’t believe that their organization’s efforts can help make the individual worlds of their customers better places to be – then there’s no sense providing the support! If you really don’t think that the service you provide is useful, maybe it’s time to build a better company. The future is bright! If it’s not, change course – your bleak prospects will poison your customers’ experiences with you.
In the trenches: You have an image in your mind of a world where you can – and routinely do – make your customers happy. You share in the joy of solving their problems, and feel a sense of camaraderie and community as you do your job. This Commitment establishes the kind of attitude you should aim to bring to your store or call center.
Commitment #4: Leaders enlist others in a common vision by appealing to their values, interests, hopes, and dreams.
Leaders & Senior Management: In Allen Schoer’s article, Uncovering alignment with authentic stories, storytelling is promoted as an effective mechanism for creating alignment (or common vision within an organization). In an organization for which customer service is an important component, leaders can create a cohesive culture of authenticity through compelling narratives that inspire Customer Service Reps on the front lines. In order for storytelling to be most effective in creating a common vision, Schoer reminds leaders to encourage employees at all levels to participate in customer service and tell their own customer service stories.
In the trenches: For the customer service reps that interact daily with customers, being leader who enlists others in a common authentic vision can manifest in a couple important ways. First, a customer service rep can appeal to the desires of the customer directly through authentic behavior. By listening to the needs of customers and folding their values, interests, hopes, and dreams, a rep works with the customer to create a truly customer-oriented solution. Second, a customer service rep can build a common vision with other reps by example. By consistently demonstrating authenticity in customer service, a CSR provides a model for others to follow!
Leaders & Senior Management: In any organization, but particularly within an organization that values authenticity in customer service, leaders need to create an atmosphere of cooperation and trust. This means leaders should actively provide guidance to CSRs, empowering them to shape customer service goals. Sometimes, the best way to refine an approach is to temper it through constructive, third party feedback – and that’s the role a leader can play. In the end, the overall quality of customer service will benefit from a closed-loop system where guidance comes from the corporate level but is refined through experience.
In the trenches: From a previous blog post, Getting to Great: Authenticity in Customer Service, trust between a customer and the company that a CSR represents results from combining authentic behavior with an authentic desire to do what’s best for the customer. Moving beyond a desire to do what’s best for the customer and into doing what is best for the customer requires a collaborative effort between CSR and customer – combining input from the customer and a sense of empathic understanding from the CSR!