Training Takes Over

 

When Customer Service Gene Fails

A subject of perennial debate among those who manage customer service workers is whether good service skills are innate or trainable - a Nature versus Nurture argument.

On the Nature side are those who claim the key to providing good service lies in the hiring process. They interview, test and screen applicants to make sure they hire only those with the right instincts and attitudes. They scour the labor market looking for those Jeeves types who possess what P.G. Wodehouse referred to as "the proper feudal spirit."

On the Nurture side are those who believe good service skills can be developed through training, coaching, clear standards and consistent measurement. They are willing to hire the Eliza Doolittles, hoping they can make a lady out of a flower girl.

I have seen both approaches succeed (and fail), but the nature approach is becoming less tenable with time.

It isn't that workers with the right instincts are disappearing. The problem is there is far more service choices available to consumers than there was in the past. Expanded store hours, the proliferation of retail and restaurant chains, and the extraordinary growth of 24-hour call centers all contribute to an economy in which customer service workers are in high demand.

As the competition for these workers has increased, the talent pool has been diluted. Companies nowadays rarely have the luxury of looking for Jeeves, so they must invest in the education of Eliza.

Many organizations provided exemplary service through the nurture approach for a while, but few are able to keep it up for long. As they expand into new markets, opened up bigger call centers and faced periodic labor shortages, their ability to rely on hiring "the right people" became more difficult to sustain.

Without a system in place for developing the not-so-right people, service quality declines. In many cases, companies who worked hard to differentiate themselves on the basis of superior service find themselves unable to maintain their reputation in the long run.

Consider Eagle Hardware, the local home improvement retailer that was acquired by Lowe's several years ago. In its first years the service at Eagle was head and shoulders above the competition. Positioning itself as a kinder and gentler Home Depot, Eagle provided exceptional service quality, with well-informed, helpful floor staff who took the initiative to approach customers and answer their questions. Encouraged by its success, Eagle expanded rapidly; however, as the the competition for service personnel increased service quality started to fall.

One manager confided he had switched from being highly selective in his hiring to simply looking for "warm bodies" to fill his staffing needs. In fairness, the service at Eagle remained fairly good relative to many other chains; however, the expectations of its customers were higher, and thus, their disappointment greater when service declined.

This is not to suggest managers should give up their search for the proper feudal spirit. At the least, they should continue screening out those who utterly lack the instinct for providing good service.

There is no doubt many prospective hires are hopeless as customer service providers, and would do better looking for some other line of work. But it is the in-between service workers, those who are neither "naturals" nor hopeless cases, for whom better systems need to be developed.

Consider the following scenario: Several years ago a video rental store, part of a national chain, set up shop in my Seattle neighborhood. The staff - all teenagers - were every customer's nightmare. They talked on the phone with friends, were thoroughly uninformed about the video selection, and treated customers as annoyances who interfered with their personal conversations.

After a year or two the store closed, lying vacant for several months before reopening under the management of another national chain. The service at the new store was excellent. Customers were greeted at the door, the employees were attentive and polite, and the manager - a real, live adult - was always present. Looking at the employees, I thought they seemed vaguely familiar, then realized several of them were the same hopeless cases who worked at the original store. The flower girls had returned as ladies.

This is not an isolated case. Many businesses with vastly different levels of service exist virtually side-by-side, drawing from the same labor pool. Interviews with workers and managers reveal consistent patterns among the superior service providers: Lots of training and coaching, clear standards, plenty of feedback, and high expectations. Those workers with the proper feudal spirit tend to emerge as stand-outs and role models. The rest of the staff - the majority - are exactly as good as the system and processes that support them. When the system is well designed and administered it can survive expansion and tight labor markets - even without the assistance of nature.

 

Without a system in place for developing the not-so-right people, service quality declines. In many cases, companies who worked hard to differentiate themselves on the basis of superior service find themselves unable to maintain their reputation in the long run.