Getting a grip on emotions: 3) Putting customers second

Putting customers second is possibly a counter-intuitive response to superior customer service but it’s at the heart of creating an emotional connection. The point is not to disregard customers in favour of e.g. shareholder value, profit or some other measure but to put the needs of employees before those of customers.It was Herb Kelleher, CEO of SouthWest Airlines, and the man who was responsible for transforming the company who first coined the phrase. It’s possibly been taken out of context: he was referring specifically to SouthWest’s view that if customers were abusive to their staff then they would always support their staff. However SouthWest’s overall philosophy makes it clear that focusing on and caring for employees will make it more likely that they will translate this into a higher level of customer care.

So my contention is that if making an emotional connection with customers is your number one priority then equipping your front-line staff to achieve this should be top of your agenda as well. But there are two things you need to bear in mind here: 1) only do this if you genuinely want to have superior service as your number one priority and 2) make sure that the medium and the message are consistent.

The first point is, I hope, self-explanatory, the second needs some explanation. In my experience organisations very often function in a top-down directive mode – here’s what we need to do, here’s the process/procedure/system/training, now do it – and, whilst this is fine for any kind of hard objective – putting in an IT system or moving goods from A to B – it’s not so effective for ‘softer’ kinds of work like customer care.

Those organisations with a predilection for strong direction might respond to the customer connection priority with a newly documented set of values, a checklist and a training programme to develop greater empathy and listening skills. Again this is fine but will only get you so far. To foster a culture of customer care you need to make sure that the organisation is fostering a more caring attitude with employees. Here are some questions that might help determine whether your organisation is serious about fostering the right attitudes in its staff:

  • If a customer service advisor has a bad experience with a customer is your first action a) to find out what went wrong or b) to find out how the advisor feels?
  • Do you view the amount of time spent on a customer call as a) a cost that has to be managed or b) an investment in the relationship?
  • Are performance improvement programmes viewed a) as the first stage of an exit procedure or b) an opportunity for individuals to improve?
  • Is training viewed primarily a) as a way of enabling employees to get their jobs done more effectively or b) as a way of helping the individual’s personal development?

Answering a) rather than b) to most of the above questions means that your ambition to provide superior service may be working against the grain of your prevailing culture and management behaviour.

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