Never Ask a Question: Does your Organization Make the Grade?

The saying, “Never ask a question you don’t already know the answer to,” has been made famous over the years and by the people who live by that motto.

Manager asking a question

But never was it better portrayed than in the movie, The Verdict. In this award-winning courtroom drama, the main character, Frank Galvin (played by Paul Newman), is an aging alcoholic who once was a promising attorney and now longs for a second chance.

During a pivotal moment in a trial scene, Galvin asks a key witness an ill-prepared question, and receives an unexpected answer. His whole defense goes into a tailspin and his case is nearly blown. Later on in the film, Galvin recounts the disastrous moment to his mentor, Mickey (Jack Warden).

Mickey gently reminds Galvin, “The first thing you learn in Law School is never ask a question you don’t already know the answer to.” Cynical words perhaps, but sound advice.

How does this apply to customer service? Well recently I was hired to improve the level of customer service at a large, member-based organization. The CEO was concerned by shrinking customer retention levels and poor customer survey results. Customer numbers and profitability were bleeding, and he had to stop them, fast.

As I assembled the customer service team to talk to them, the CEO interrupted the meeting and took the floor. He said he wanted to conduct a quick and impromptu quiz – a survey of his own.

He handed out scrap paper and asked everyone to be totally honest and grade the organization’s customer service on a scale of 1 to 10 – with 10 representing outstanding. On a count of three, everyone (including the CEO) held aloft their score.

But the result was not what the CEO intended. He had never asked the question before – had no real idea of what their viewpoint was likely to be – and maybe now was not the best time to ask. Every member of staff – bar the CEO – was holding up an 8 or above. The CEO was holding a 2.

How could the CEO’s view of customer service levels be so out of kilter with the rest of his staff?

The Gap

It is not uncommon to find a gap in customer service understanding between management and staff. Here are three reasons why this can occur:

1. The staff are kept in the dark about the data

Management get to see customer service data all the time. They analyze the key indicators of service delivery every day as it passes across their desks. They see customer numbers falling; they take the calls and letters from the disgruntled public.

They can recite the facts and figures in their sleep. But often this information goes no further. And if the basic measurements of success are not shared with frontline folks, how can they know if they have failed?

2. The staff are kept in the dark about the business

Without a real understanding of the connection between customer service and the wellbeing of the company, staff won’t appreciate why customer service makes such a difference.

They will know in general that customers need to be kept happy, but without specific business knowledge, they won’t appreciate the bigger picture.

3. The staff don’t own the level of service that they give

Staff need measurements that they can own. When staff own something and feel responsible for it, the difference in their performance can be amazing.

So how can staff be brought up to speed?

Keep Staff Informed

Share measurement results – good and bad – as they happen, and with every member of staff. Let them know when things have gone well and when things have got to change. Show them feedback surveys, reports that monitor customer calls, mystery shopper reports.

Also, share the basics of business with every member of staff. Tell them what a retained customer/member means – how much it costs to find new customers compared to the savings of keeping them happy. Explain about lost market share, profits in jeopardy, failure.

Trust Employees to Understand

Employees aren’t stupid. They will “get” customer service, if information is shared. And not only will they understand about it, they will also, in most cases, care. Once that happens, customer service initiatives become more natural, and improvements are more likely to succeed.

And of course it’s a two way street. Frontline staff will be able to identify problem areas themselves, since they deal directly with the customers every day.

Trusting staff with data and information is also the first step to instilling a sense of ownership.

Introduce Measurements that Staff can Own

Some organizations use a service level measurement such as the number of calls taken. Another option is to hold staff accountable for the retention of the customer. This is measurable in many ways and is truly a bottom line indicator – showing up in the profit and loss statement soon enough!

Over time, the best “key customer indicators” for staff to own can be determined and honed. Keep in mind though that being able to measure something doesn’t necessarily mean it has any real impact on performance.

Many years ago, the management team I worked for in a large call center introduced a “longest call to wait” measurement. It showed up on their daily reports and it became a real challenge for my staff and I to get them to focus on anything else.

They were literally using up half their time on that one item, which meant that they were taking their eye off the ball – focusing, not on what was worth measuring, but on what they were capable of measuring. The fact was, day in and day out, one call was always going to be the longest call waiting; that was a certainty.

Once management and staff are talking the same customer service language, it’s much easier to introduce change:

Changing the Status Quo

When the current customer service direction isn’t working, it is never easy to change it, because people don’t really like change, especially if they can’t see the need. But if staff have been kept informed – if they have access to the customer service data and an understanding of the business’s needs – they will buy into the need to relinquish the established status quo.

Accepting a New Model

Once staff can appreciate the importance of customer service, their focus shifts. They are ready to embrace a better way. Of course, constant support from the management is still needed. The reasons for the new “model” must be repeated in a compelling and believable way. Emphasize the rewards.

Paint the bigger picture – gains in the market share for example, and securing the company’s future.

Communication is the clever way to go. If everyone is kept in the loop, there will be fewer misunderstandings, fewer awkward moments, and hopefully fewer surprises. Does anybody have any questions?

About the Author

Neil Newcomb is a recognized authority on customer service, having spent 15 years managing customer service operations and call centers, and running his own customer service solutions company, Event Learning LLC.

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