Everybody loves a good story—in this article Donna Stevenson explains how story telling can actually result in amazing customer service.
During an employee focus group session, at an international bearing manufacturing company, located in Toronto, Canada, one of the employees described an experience he’d had with an international courier company.
According to his story, this company had gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure same-day delivery of a bearing from Toronto to a hospital in the U.S.
The other session participants then shared stories of excellent service they’d received in the course of their daily lives.
The group was asked if their company was capable of delivering equally impressive customer performance. They concluded their companies were capable of delivering superb customer service but they thought they would have to make changes to their inside sales operation.
To validate their assessment, the facilitator of this group session was sent out to ask customer groups to tell their stories, about good and bad customer service they had received, no matter who the provider. Then the employee group compared the customer service attributes the customers identified as desirable to those they had identified. They shared these results with their management.
Fast forward a few months and the management had incorporated the recommendations of this employee focus group. As a result of these storytelling sessions, new workstations were installed, upgrades to the telephone system were made, inside sales personnel were trained in the latest customer service techniques, and extended customer service hours were implemented to provide more coverage and better access to the sales operation. In addition, the performance evaluation process was changed to include customer service excellence measures.
As a result of these changes, employee satisfaction survey results rated the company twice as high in ‘career development and training’ and ‘satisfaction with how performance is measured’ compared with the rating received two years previously. And customers praised the company for seeking their input and recognizing the value of the front line, both at their own place and at their customers’.
All of this improvement was as a result of sharing stories.
Of course, there is more to this customer service process than participants in a group session telling their stories. It takes a skilled facilitator to capture the essence of these stories, a facilitator sensitive to the service attributes, the moral of the story, that lies behind the story.
The stories have to be ‘translated’ into actions based on a diagnostic assessment of each story, whether about good or bad customer service. Once the story is told, the group works through the process of identifying the attributes (favorable characteristics) of the service provider, comparing these attributes to their own environment, and developing a gap analysis.
With the service gaps clarified and understood, the group brainstorms solutions to close the gaps so they are able to provide superb customer service. The value in using storytelling as a springboard for creating an environment of customer service excellence is in the engagement of the story tellers. The stories help them see themselves through their customers’ eyes.
They are able to recognize what they value, themselves, as customers and begin to understand that they are really no different than their customers. This is their ‘aha’ moment. They, too, want to be treated with respect, listened to, and have their needs met.
The value of a story is in its’ telling, the passion the storytellers express as they describe their experiences. Unfortunately, research tells us that more people share stories of poor customer service than good. This research tell us that if a customer receives poor service they will tell eleven people about this experience while they will most likely only tell two or three people about a good experience.
During the storytelling process, participants are encouraged to share good customer service stories because they have a positive tone and make us feel good. This is the feeling participants in these sessions should experience so they are better positioned to develop actions that will provide superb service to their customers.
The steps used for the “Tell Us a Story” process are straightforward yet extremely effective. (Before these sessions are undertaken, senior management needs to be on board with the process as they will be expected to implement recommendations arising from these sessions.)
To facilitate an effective group storytelling session, participants are provided with the session content and format prior to the session and requested to come to the session with two or three customer service stories, actual events they have experienced within the past year.
Each participant shares his or her story. After a story is shared, the group identifies the customer service attributes found in the story and documents them.
The group reviews the attributes list that has been built and compares each attribute to their own company experience. Dependent upon the size of the group and the list, this may be done in sub groups then summarized by the facilitator when the sub groups present their findings. At this point, the sessions are suspended until the customer sessions have been held. This will allow the employee participants evaluate the customer input and capture all the issues.
A gap analysis is performed and the gaps documented. With the gaps identified, the group starts the action planning stage. Dependent upon the size of the gap analysis and the number of actions identified, this process can be quite time consuming. It may require more than one session with the group to finalize the action plans. These plans are submitted in draft form to the management group for review and revision, as required.
A management team is assembled to review the action plans and decide on the best method to proceed to address the requirements. Their decisions are shared with the employee group participants to explain the decisions, what will be implemented, and to keep them engaged in the process. Prior to the implementation of action plans, methods for measuring the results are developed and put in place. Without these measures, the business value of the storytelling process will be in question.
For the customer storytelling sessions, the focus is on identifying the positive attributes and selecting those the customers would most like to see their provider put in place. Actions taken by the service provider are shared with their customers and a process for securing their ongoing feedback implemented. In other words, on a frequent basis they are asked, “How are we doing now? What is working better for you?” To close the loop on the process, employees are provided with this customer feedback. And on it goes.
This process provides a collegial environment for both employee and customer group session participants. It encourages them to share their experiences—in an interesting and passionate manner. They are encouraged to apply these experiences to improve their own situation and building their relationships. And this process is relatively inexpensive as a learning and development activity.
The story shared about the courier company may be an extreme customer service situation but it happened and it was a good story.
And, everybody loves a good story.
About the Author
Donna Stevenson is the owner of Boomer Match to Business (BM2B). She is an expert in leadership development and employee engagement, working effectively with all three generations of employees, Boomers, Generation X and Y.