Key Staffing Issues Faced When Replacing Retiring Technicians with Millennials

[Bill Pollock’s response to the first of seven questions posed by Brian Albright, contributing editor, Field Technologies magazine. An edited version of Bill’s responses will appear as part of a Technology Update Article in the August, 2016 issue of the magazine. This excerpt, in particular, sets the stage for how millennials are likely to be assimilated into the existing field service workspace.]

BA: What are some of the key staffing issues field service companies face when it comes to replacing retiring technicians?

BP: Historically, the replacement of a retiring field technician was nothing more than the “changing of the guard”, that is, hiring a new, typically younger, individual to serve in his place (i.e., given that, historically, most field technicians were male). This would require the presence of a sound and professional Human Resources (HR) operation and, once the new hire was selected, a full round of training, certification and company orientation classes to ensure that the replacement technician could move into his predecessor’s slot without any major disruption either to the quality and consistency of service delivery, or to the customers’ ongoing business operations.

In general, the only area where the replacement technician would not be up-to-speed from the get-go would be with respect to the retiring individual’s accumulated knowledge and familiarity with the installed base of equipment, company policies and procedures, and – most importantly – with the experiential knowledge of the individual customer interactions that had taken place in the past. The retiring technician would have undoubtedly learned all the “tricks of the trade” and “secret sauces” for managing his customer, obtaining parts, making quick fixes and otherwise taking care of the installed base of equipment.

However, he would also have an accumulated knowledge of the customers themselves, in terms of their names and nicknames, their requirements and expectations for service, their position and roles within the company, how involved their supervisors would normally get with respect to service calls, etc. They probably also knew the names of their family members, their favorite sports teams and, generally, what it would take to make them happy.

It is typically in these “softer” areas of customer service where the new hires would find themselves to be most disadvantaged. This would not necessarily be the end of the world for them and, for those individuals who are basically user-friendly to begin with, would not represent a particularly long-term problem. Of course, this may not apply to all of the millennials just now entering the services workforce.

In the past, the accumulated knowledge of each individual technician was generally quite extensive (i.e., both from a technical aspect, as well as from a customer relationship vantage point); also, the technician training and certifications undertaken were typically routine (if not boilerplate) and easy enough to apply to the next generation of hires.

However, in today’s world, instead of sending new hires to the same types of training classes and certification exams as their predecessors, there is a much more fragmented set of alternative training scenarios available (e.g., on-site, distance learning, self-administered PC training, etc.). Further, with the growing use of Augmented Reality (AR) in support of field technicians, some organizations are likely to cut back even further on training, since the Internet and/or AR could be used as impromptu “on the job” instant training, whenever the case warrants.

Still, there will always be numerous geographic, skill set, personal interest and training considerations that will need to be addressed whenever new hires are brought into the mix. This will not likely change over time. However, a proficiency for utilizing new technology will separate the “good” new hires from the “bad”; but there will always remain the question of chemistry – both with respect to dealing with their peers, as well as with their customers.

[Watch for more of Bill’s responses to the Field Technologies questions over the next few weeks. The publication date for the Technology Update Article is August, 2016. A direct link to the article will be provided at that time.]

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Selling Services – How to Recognize Customer Buying Signals

Understanding your customers’ needs, and knowing what is available for sale, complete one key equation; however, there is still one other key unanswered question: How can you tell when your customer is ready to buy?

Recognizing a customer’s buying signals is one of the most difficult things there is to teach. In fact, many will argue that this is an innate trait that only “true” salespersons are born with. Whether this is true or not is really only a side issue. The main issue is that every one of your customers and prospects sends out signals that you can rally around with respect to determining when they are ready to buy. Some will be “hard” signals that you can practically take right to the bank; although most will be “soft” signals that will vary from customer-to-customer, person-to-person, and situation-to-situation. Let me explain.

The various types of buying signals “transmitted” by your customers may typically be classified into the following categories:

  • Overt
  • Passive
  • Observed

Overt Buying Signals

An overt buying signal is the closest thing to a gift that you may ever receive from your customers. This is when the customer calls you, or comes right up to you, and says something like, “Our copier is pretty much shot, and it simply won’t handle all of our volume anymore. Don’t you guys have a newer machine that you think can do the job for us?” Or, “You know, our machine will be coming off warranty soon. Don’t you guys offer some kind of extended warranty contract? If you do, we’d really be interested.” While these opportunities may seem just like manna fallen from the heavens, the problem is, if you do not take immediate advantage of them, the opportunities themselves may either fade over time, or go away altogether.

For example, given an opportunity like one of these, it may simply be a matter of speaking briefly with your customer, showing him or her a new brochure or directing them to your company’s web site, and casually discussing the enhanced features of a new system or service offering on a face-to-face basis. However, if your response is more like, “I have a few ideas. Why don’t I get back to you in a week or two when I’m not so busy, and maybe we can work out something.” By the time a couple of weeks go by, the thought of acquiring a new piece of equipment or service offering may have moved from your customer’s top-of-mind to their back-of-mind – and once there, it may involve much more work on your part to get it back up front.

Overt buying signals do not happen all the time; but when they do, you pretty much have to take advantage of them as they occur, rather than run the risk of having the customer push it far back into the recesses of his or her mind – or even worse, allowing them to have the same conversation with a competitive vendor’s sales or services person.

Passive Buying Signals

Passive buying signals may not be as obvious; however, they are still fairly easy to identify, and even easier to take advantage of. The tell-tale clues that your customers may give to you typically manifest themselves in comments or questions such as, “Man, this old machine keeps breaking down, and breaking down, and breaking down. I don’t know what I’m going to do if it shuts down during one of our big production runs”; “Ever since this machine came off of warranty, whenever we call for service, we end up paying you guys on a time and materials basis. There’s got to be a better way”; or “I don’t know. It just seems like our other division on the next floor gets their copy work done a heck of a lot faster than we do. I think they have a new machine up there, and they just keep making us look bad in comparison”.

Any of these comments or questions represent just as valid a selling opportunity as any of the overt buying signals we just talked about earlier. The only real difference is that, in these cases, you will typically need to be the one who initiates the conversation about replacement units, new machines, and/or enhanced service level agreements – and not the customer.

Even so, you may still be surprised as to how receptive your customers will be in having such a conversation. What’s more, since you already understand your customers’ needs and requirements for business imaging systems and equipment, and you know what your company has available for sale, you can probably step right in, provide some specific suggestions or recommendations, and convert a potential customer problem into a potential company sale.

Observed Buying Signals

Sometimes the customer does not even have to say a word. Since you already visit the customer’s site, on average, about once a month or so, you are probably in an excellent position to observe how one or more of their machines are routinely being overused, misused, or otherwise used improperly. You have probably also seen some of your customers reach new levels of frustration in dealing with machines that simply cannot ratchet up to their increased levels of volume or throughput, or effectively deal with emerging areas of business imaging applications.

We have all heard the expression that “a picture is worth a thousand words”. In both the overt and passive buying signal situations, it will primarily be the words that are either conveyed to you, or conveyed by you to the customer, that will ultimately lead to the potential sale. However, in an observed buying signal situation, it is the “picture” you observe at the customer site that will ultimately tell you the “story” that you will need to focus on in order to ultimately make the sale.

At the end of the day, it really does not matter whether the buying signal you get is overt, passive, or simply observed – what does matter though, is that you get the signal, you know what to do with it, you take advantage of it, and you serve effectively in your role as an intermediary between what your customer needs, and what your company offers.

The Differences Between “Best-in-Class” and “Mere Mortal” Customer Service Organizations

The main differences between “best-in-class” and “mere mortal” customer service and support organizations may best be summarized as follows. “Best-in-class” customer service and support organizations actively:

  • Encourage customer feedback
  • Seek to delight their customers
  • Understand their customers
  • Manage customer expectations
  • Know how to say “No”
  • Maintain the human touch

Encourage Customer Feedback

In many of the “mere mortal” customer service and support organizations, customers typically have no idea who they need to talk to if they have a problem that is anywhere out of the ordinary. In fact, most customers will think that it is simply not worth the effort to complain, “create waves”, or “rock the boat” – because it is unlikely that anything constructive will ever come out of it! Some may also be skeptical as to whether the organization will actually do anything at all, or they may even fear retribution from certain impacted individuals.

However, “best-in-class” organizations actively encourage customer feedback – even complaints. Some companies refer to what they do to encourage complaints as “marketing” their complaint system. Many companies (perhaps yours) hand (or mail) out customer service/satisfaction cards immediately following service calls. Most solicit feedback wherever they can, and make it easy for the customer to fill out a form and mail or e-mail it back to the appropriate department for review and response. Without customer feedback, services organizations operate in a vacuum; however, only with the ability to “hear” the voice of the customer will they (and you) ever hope to be able to identify the key areas that require improvement.

Seek to Delight Your Customers

“Best-in-class” organizations often use the phrase “delight the customer” to signify the extent to which they “go out of their way” to “exceed customer expectations”. Sometimes, all this necessitates is the ability to “lend a compassionate ear”; other times, it requires a much more proactive, and interactive, approach.

If all you ever do is just what the customer expects from you, then it is a fair bet that you will only be able to satisfy them – but that won’t delight them, and it certainly won’t make them loyal. Only by going “over and above the call of duty” will you ultimately be able to delight them with your ability to meet – and exceed – their needs.

Understand Your Customers

“Best-in-class” organizations also tend to demonstrate a much greater commitment to understanding the customer – but, from the customer’s perspective. Many companies conduct customer surveys on a regular, periodic basis to see exactly where they stand with respect to customer service and support, and how their performance may have changed over the course of a year or so. Some also conduct surveys among customers who have recently experienced “poor” service, or who may have otherwise complained with respect to a recent service call.

The best way to look at it is that every time a customer communicates with you, it is providing you with “free information” about their service and support needs, requirements, and expectations. And this is information that you can use to improve the way you are able to support their needs in the future – through this increased understanding.

Manage Customer Expectations

“Best-in-class” organizations do not typically wait for customers to come to them – they go directly to their customers on a regular basis. Since you are already in direct contact with your customers on a frequent basis, you are in an excellent position to be able to anticipate their needs and problems – before they hit the radar screen – and to set realistic expectations for them through company and/or self-taught customer service and support education and communication strategies.

Past studies have shown that up to one-half of complaints typically come from customers who have received inadequate, or incomplete, information about a product or a service. Using your own customer input/feedback communication channels to collect information that allows you to understand your customers’ expectations and needs better will allow you to “tune in” better to their innermost concerns and, thereby, put you in a much better position to manage their expectations more realistically.

Know How to Say “No”

Sometimes the answer will be “yes”; but, sometimes, it may have to be “no”. In every case, it will be helpful to know when – and where – you have to draw limits. In those circumstances where it is not possible to give the customer what it wants, it is still possible for a customer to feel that he or she has been “heard”, and has been treated fairly. However, this will be almost entirely up to you, as you are typically the one that has most of the interaction with your customers.

While you should always strive to provide your customers with full and “total” solutions, sometimes, it simply cannot be done. However, much of the negative fallout from having to say “no” may be avoided simply by your ability to conduct yourself in a professional and caring manner at all times until the situation is finally brought to a close. In some cases, it may be necessary to close a call even though it is felt on the customer’s part that the company has not done everything that could be done. Recognizing that it is not always possible to satisfy every customer, it is important to feel confident that you are supported by the proper processes, policies, and procedures – and training – to handle these cases to the best of your ability.

Maintain the Human Touch

Technology does not do the job – people do the job! Technology merely supports the people. Customers cannot make eye contact with technology – they make eye contact with you. Therefore, you must always make sure that you allow this eye contact to take place – and that you maintain the human touch as much as possible. Don’t use technology as a crutch; use your own people skills to deal directly with the people whose equipment you support.

Stifling customer feedback, providing “average” customer service, treating all customers the same, being “surprised” by customer wants, saying “yes” all the time (even when it cannot be done), and hiding behind technology is what makes “mere mortal” service organizations “mere mortal”. However, encouraging customer input and feedback, seeking to delight them with your customer service skills and expertise, understanding their service needs and requirements, managing their expectations, knowing how to say “no”, and maintaining a human touch at all times is what will make you a “best-in-class” service technician – even if your company has not yet become a “best-in-class” customer service organization.

Identifying the Differences Between Customers’ Wants and Needs

In many cases, there may be great differences between a customer’s wants and a customer’s needs; but sometimes there may actually be only very little difference. It all depends on the specific customer. However, the way in which you manage each customer relationship will ultimately make the greatest difference with respect to your prospects for gaining customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Typically, the more knowledgeable customers are about the equipment they are using, the more their wants and needs are likely to be the same; however, less knowledgeable customers may not really have a clear idea of the distinction between the two.

For example, a copying machine customer may want you to clean the equipment while you are on-site if they had been noticing black marks or spots on the copies coming out of the unit; when, in fact, the main reason for the black marks may have entirely been due to a worn-out roller or other part that needs to be replaced. In a case like this, what the customer really “needed” was clean copies coming out of the machine; however, what they thought they “wanted” was simply for the machine to be cleaned.

If you had listened only to the customer, you might have embarked on a faulty corrective action with respect to satisfying their needs. Remember, when it comes to repairing the machine, you are the expert – not the customer!

Similarly, a customer may want you to take the machine apart and put it back together again, or replace a part that is not really defective, simply as an exercise to ensure that the copier continues to run “smoothly”. However, what the customer may really need is a more effective preventive maintenance schedule for the equipment that would otherwise negate the need to actually have to take the machine apart or perform a parts swap, etc.

In this case, what the customer “wanted” was for you to take the machine apart and put it back together again; however, what they really “needed” was a machine that would not break down in the near future as they were preparing for a major copy run. Properly scheduled preventive maintenance would have accomplished this, making any further corrective actions entirely unnecessary.

The best way for you to understand the differences between customers’ wants and needs is to help them to understand the differences in the first place. It all goes back to the “Listen, Observe, Think, Speak”, or LOTS, approach. By listening to the symptoms that the customer is describing once you arrive on-site, and the problems that they tell you they have been experiencing until you got there, you will probably already be in a good position to surmise what is needed. However, upon further observation with respect to the machine, you will undoubtedly have an even clearer picture. In fact, by this time, you should probably already have a good idea of exactly what the customer “needs”.

This would also be a good time to explain to the customer what the initial diagnosis is, what you plan to do about it, and the anticipated amount of time it will take for you to repair it. By providing this information early, you can avoid running into situations where the customer is telling you they “want” one thing and being forced to tell them they really “need” another.

In other words, the best way to avoid a “debate” about what is “wanted” vs. what is “needed” is to identify the problem and appropriate course of action as soon as possible, keep the customer informed on an as-needed (or as-requested) basis, and let them know what they “need” upfront, before they feel compelled to tell you what they “want”.

Of course, it may not always be this easy. There will always be situations where what you feel the customer needs is not what the customer wants. This is where an ongoing educational process between you and your customers needs to take place. This does not mean to say that the two of you need to sit down, read the equipment manuals together, compare notes, and enter into “philosophical” discussions about equipment maintenance; but, rather, that a series of ongoing, brief discussions should take place every time you are on-site to repair the equipment to ensure that the customer understands why the machine failed, what they could do to lessen the chances for failures in the future, what the recommended “fix” is, and why your way of addressing the situation is better than their way. Sometimes, the solution may be as simple as upgrading to a newer unit.

Basically, what the customer really wants is a piece of equipment that is always up and running, ready to use, unlikely to fail, easy to repair, easy to manage, and easy to use. The details with respect to how each of these is accomplished should really be of no consequence to the customer – although they usually are!

Your role, over time, will be to make sure that you always communicate to the customer about what is “needed” to the point where they have full faith in your knowledge and experience, and are willing to defer to your judgment. The more communications there are between you and your customers, the quicker they will get to the point where they will defer to your recommendations, and the quicker the distinction between their “wants” and their “needs” will disappear.

There Is an Alternative to Staffing Your Field Technician Force Yourself – the Case for Utilizing an Onsite Freelancer Platform

“The world of work has changed,” according to Jeffrey Leventhal, CEO and co-founder of Work Market, a leading platform and marketplace for finding and managing freelance labor. And this may be especially true for the services industry, where simply doing things the same way they’ve always been done just doesn’t cut it anymore.

However, Leventhal also warns that, “finding the right talent is one of the primary challenges in building an on-demand workforce. Especially for companies who use freelancers at scale, it’s imperative to find a reliable place where you can routinely tap into top-tier freelancers.” For the services industry, top tier typically means highly trained – and in many cases, certified – field technicians that may be confidently dispatched shortly after being recruited and vetted by the organization. Oh, yeah – and they must also be conveniently located proximate to a wide distribution of customer sites.

How can this be done? And what are the potential pitfalls of not having a well thought out plan for action, or not employing the proper tools to support an expanding market demand? Well, … unfortunately, there are many potential stumbling blocks – unless the plan is built on a foundation structured upon an effective onsite freelancer platform.

According to Diego Lomanto, vice president of marketing for Work Market, “there are six tools, or processes, that a services organization requires in order to effectively manage its field technician freelancers. They are find, verify, engage, manage, pay and rate.” Each of these tools may be described as follows:

Find

Identifying and finding the right freelancers for the job at hand represents the best place to start. For many businesses, it is relatively easy to screen lists of potential freelancers in easily defined industry segments, such as accountants, home healthcare aides, plumbers and electricians, etc., by relying on any one of a number of widely used list sources such as Craigslist, the Better Business Bureau (BBB), LinkedIn or Google, etc. However, in the services community, most of these list sources will often come up short.

However, an onsite freelancer platform, such as that offered by Work Market, can handle things much more efficiently by providing a tool that:

  • Allows the user to build assignments quickly, based on previous work,
  • Identifies candidates that best meet the required skill sets, and
  • Provides a mechanism for generating and tracking community ratings for each selected candidate (i.e., to assure a consistent level of freelancer quality)

Verify

The verification of the required skill sets represents another major obstacle for most services organizations in terms of their ability to check out the candidate’s background and capabilities, as they relate specifically to field service. In other words, do they have the right stuff – stuff meaning skills, experience and certifications, among others?

The use of an effective onsite freelancer platform takes nearly all of the burden out of the verification process by allowing the user to:

  • Verify the candidate’s credentials via an integrated verification process; and
  • Identify limit functions which, in turn, will automatically off-board the independent contractor when compliance thresholds are reached, or if certain details change, (i.e., such as expiring insurance coverage or certifications, etc.).

Engage

The engagement process is typically where too many organization begin the process, as it is typically far less painstaking for some to start with the recruitment of “warm bodies”, rather than mounting a concerted effort upfront to find the most qualified candidates – and be able to verify that they are, in fact, eminently qualified for the job.

This is where an onsite freelancer platform provides, perhaps, one of its greatest value propositions to its users, by allowing them to:

  • Organize their field technician workforce into groups for easy assignment en masse; and
  • Eliminate the need for having to deal with only one contractor at a time, or conversely, having to rely on group e-mails that make it impossible to manage responses quickly or effectively.

Manage

Managing the freelancer field force should require the greatest levels of attention and oversight by the organization; however, many managers find themselves too overwhelmed and/or understaffed to effectively handle the situation. Nonetheless, this is often the single process that ultimately defines the direction – and the success – of the organization in terms of its ability to send the best qualified people to each site, and track their performance and progress over time. Many services organizations utilize fully functioning mobile applications to communicate with their mobile field force in real time – but this may not be enough!

By utilizing an onsite freelancer platform, users benefit from a variety of tools that allow for:

  • All field communications and management tools to be resident in a single system,
  • The use of geo-location tools to identify the exact locations of their freelance contractors in real time, and
  • The ability of workers to upload and complete all tasks directly through their mobile devices.

Pay

Paying the organization’s mobile field force freelancers should be one of the easiest jobs to do – but any HR or accounts payable professional will likely tell you different. What should typically only involve the tracking of hours, and cutting checks to the appropriate individuals is generally anything but easy – and PayPal simply doesn’t cut it!

What can make this process as easy as it gets is the ability of the onsite freelancer platform to empower the organization to:

  • Allow for Application Programming Interface (API) integration into existing payment platforms so they can continue to manage their respective accounting processes all in one place, and on a business-as-usual basis; and
  • Create a robust mechanism for reporting key financial and compliance data to HR, Accounting – and the CFO – as necessary.

Rate

However, the series of processes does not end once the freelancer is paid, and the transaction is reported. In fact, the process is never-ending – and cyclical – in that the performance of each and every freelancer is rated, tracked and ranked to identify top talent for future projects, and measure the performance of the onsite freelancer model as a whole, over time. It can also be well argued that the organization will likely have greater confidence in the ratings provided directly by their customers (and/or, their territory managers) rather than by an outside third party, such as Angie’s List or the Better Business Bureau (BBB), etc.

Therefore, the principal benefits of an onsite freelancer platform are that it provides users with:

  • An online capability for rating, and viewing ratings, on a much broader scale, and
  • The ability to determine the “height of the bar” with regard to the desired, or expected, quality of the worker’s performance.

Coordinating all of these individual tools into a single set of processes may be daunting for many organizations – but not so much when they have the power of an effective onsite freelancer platform such as that offered by Work Market, at their disposal. It is difficult enough to run a services organization (or any business, for that matter) in general – but it is far more difficult to attempt to do so without the support of the proper technology, tools and processes.

[To download a complimentary whitepaper on “Finding & Managing Onsite Freelancers” for businesses and field service organizations, please visit the Work Market website at Work Market Guide to Finding & Managing Onsite Freelancers.]

Evaluating Your Own Customer Service & Support Performance (Part 2 of 2)

The best driver of your own customer service and support performance will ultimately be the establishment – and use – of realistic self-guidelines that balance all key aspects of customer service and support. For this, we suggest the following:

Define in your own mind what means the most to your customers by fostering an interactive services partnership with them, based on “real” two-way communications;

  • Commit to making changes in the way you manage your customer relationships wherever you – and your customers – feel it to be necessary; and
  • Maintain your flexibility by recognizing that customer service and support performance management – and CRM – is an ongoing process.

Taking this all down one step further, we also suggest that you strive to incorporate each of the following into your customer service and support “way of life”:

  • Adapt, don’t adopt; make “best practices” work for you.
  • Acknowledge that customer service does not come from the top, but rather from all levels within the organization – and especially from the field.
  • Listen to your customers; “hear” what they have to say.
  • Listen to your managers and co-workers; work together as a team.
  • Partner with your customers; manage your customer relationships better.

Adapt, don’t adopt.

A best practice process may not always be adopted exactly the way it is done in another “best-in-class” organization; but it can generally be adapted to fit your organization’s needs and culture with some modifications, changes, or “tweaks”. At the end of the day, you will need to adapt a specific approach that fits your own – and your customers’ – particular needs.

Acknowledge that customer service does not come from the top.

Customer service management is important, but it does not necessarily come down from the top levels within the organization. Leadership by example – by employees like you – in managing customer relationships, resolving their problems, and converting satisfied customers into loyal ones are what makes for a successful customer service and support organization.

Listen to your customers.

You will never know what is important to your customers until they tell you – and no matter how smart you think you are, or how well you think you know them, they will continually surprise you with what they say. Learn to listen to them (i.e., LOTS), and learn to act as quickly as possible based on what they say.

Listen to your managers and co-workers.

Your managers and co-workers may also have a great deal of historical knowledge and experience on a day-to-day operations level with respect to the systems and equipment you support – as well as some of the customer themselves. Don’t underestimate the importance of this information and expertise – and don’t prevent yourself from gaining from this expertise. Make sure that your channels of communication with your managers and co-workers is as open as the ones you have with your customers.

Partner with your customers.

Finally, the more you partner with your customers, the more likely you will be to provide them with “over and above the call of duty” customer service and support. Also, the better you are able to communicate with them (and them with you), the more quickly you will be able to act in their (and the company’s) behalf.

Remember – these are only guidelines, designed for the masses. But, you are an individual; and every one of your customers is different – no matter how similar they may appear to be at any given moment in time. Establish your own set of measures and guidelines – and then, follow them! Remain flexible and open to change as you deal with your customers, and they will lead you down the proper path. You can bet on it!

Customer service is not a game, any more then the technical training you have received is a game. Both are serious matters, and both go hand-in-hand. We would strongly argue that you cannot be successful in your position without a fair mastery in both areas.

You have probably already received extensive training on how to fix various types of business systems and equipment. You probably also take remedial courses from time-to-time; and whenever a new product line or upgrade is introduced, you probably receive special training on how to service that equipment as well. Customer service is no different. There’s no question that you will need to take follow-up training courses in this area over time as well. That’s the nature of the business, and you’re directly involved in it – right at the front lines.

Whether you call it “customer service”, “technical support”, “field service”, “Customer Relationship Management”, “CRM”, or whatever – it just makes sense to treat your customers better! It’s basically a win-win situation for everybody involved. The “best practices” organizations have already learned this – and now, you have as well.

When you think of it, isn’t that what we’re all looking for – making our jobs a little easier on a day-to-day basis; earning the respect and trust of the people we support; improving the way we are able to conduct our own affairs at our respective jobs; and treating each other the way we want to be treated ourselves?

There is nothing difficult about customer relationship management. In fact, if you do it right, it can be argued that fixing the customer is really a lot easier than fixing the equipment.

Evaluating Your Own Customer Service & Support Performance (Part 1 of 2)

Evaluating your own customer service and support performance is a critical component of your job position. Your employer does it on a regular basis and, as such, it would make great sense for you to perform your own self-evaluation on a regular basis as well (i.e., probably before your employer does).

The key to achieving success in customer service is to distinguish yourself and your company – positively – against the competition by doing everything it takes to make your customers happy. But, in order to do so, you will first have to:

  • Totally embrace the CRM philosophy of managing your customer relationships better;
  • Accept the principle that “the customer is always right” – and learn to practice it every day in the “real world”;
  • Work toward gaining a more thorough understanding of your customers’ specific services needs, requirements, preferences, and expectations; and
  • Set your own goals, objectives, and targets for customer service improvement.

Once you have accomplished this, you will also need to master the ability to:

  • See things through your customers’ eyes (i.e., not just through your own, or your company’s);
  • Support them with dedication, compassion, competence, and professionalism; and
  • Work as hard as you can to get the job done, and provide your customers with a “total” solution.

The United States Government, Academy for Educational Development (AED) suggests that “customers are constantly internalizing their customer service experience. What this means is they are grading your customer service during each transaction, but you rarely know it”.

In a published report, the agency cites six basic needs that stand out in the minds of customers with respect to customer service and support. They are:

  1. Friendliness – the most basic need, directly associated with courtesy and politeness.
  2. Empathy – the need to know that their service provider understands and appreciates their wants, needs, and circumstances.
  3. Fairness – the need to feel that they have received sufficient attention, and reasonable answers.
  4. Control – the need to feel that their wants, input, and feedback have had some influence on the overall outcome.
  5. Alternatives – the flexibility to choose the service and support options that will best satisfy them.
  6. Information – the need for precise – and concise – information about products and services, provided in a pertinent and time-sensitive manner.

Therefore, the key questions you will need to ask yourself as part of any self-evaluation process are:

  • Do my customers believe I am friendly enough when I’m dealing with them? Am I accessible enough? Do I treat them with courtesy and politeness, or am I at times unapproachable or condescending? Do I come across as being too formal? Or not formal enough? Do I comport myself in a professional manner? Or do I show up at their site looking unprepared or unable to do the job?
  • Do my customers believe that I understand their day-to-day challenges, trials, and tribulations with respect to the use of their business imaging systems and equipment? Do they think I’m sincere? Do they think I care about their situation, or the fact that their system is down? Do I look like I have other things on my mind while I’m working to fix their problem? Or do I look like everything I’m doing is just for them?
  • Do my customers believe I am treating them fairly? Or do they think that I’m not treating them as well as some of my other, larger, or “more important” customers? Do they think I’m showing favoritism to others, but not to them? Do I make them feel uncomfortable, or less important than they really are?
  • Do I communicate well enough with my customers? Do I listen attentively to them? Do I “hear” and understand everything they say? Do I respond to their input and feedback quickly enough? Do I give them the sense that what they say is important? Or do they think I am just giving them “lip service”? At the end of the day, do they really believe they’ve had some say in the way things turn out?
  • Do I listen to what my customers tell me, and give them “real” choices based on the options I have at my disposal? Am I too rigid in my approach to providing them with practical, tactical business imaging service and support strategies? Do I need to be more flexible in dealing with their critical needs? Are my interactions with them too one-sided, or are we truly working as an interactive “partnership”?
  • Do I provide my customers with enough information? Or do I give them too much information? Is the information I give them really actionable, or is it just “nice-to-know” information with no specific purpose or use? Do I have enough information at my disposal to provide them with everything they need when they ask for it? If not, do I know where to get it?

Keep in mind, that merely evaluating yourself on the basis of individual “line item” attributes will not provide you with a realistic assessment. Every facet of your self-evaluation must be measured in terms of its overall contribution to your ability to establish and maintain an “interactive partnership” with them. However, the only way this will happen is if your customers truly believe that you have their best interests at heart, and with the various skills and abilities you have acquired over the years, you are capable of providing them with “real” solutions.

Some of the key benefits of attaining real “partnerships” with your customers may be best illustrated by the following examples:

  • Only after you have earned their complete trust and respect will your customers feel comfortable enough to be completely forthcoming with you; but until they do, you might find it difficult to get to the root cause of some of their more complicated customer service problems. Therefore, it is essential that you allow your customers to gain your trust as early as possible in your relationship with them.
  • Building strong, interactive relationships with your customers allows you to be “less than perfect” from time-to-time. Your customers realize that everyone makes mistakes at some point, and while they may never forget them, a strong customer relationship will allow them to forgive them that much sooner.
  • Customers are people, and people like to do business with other people – not necessarily with companies, organizations, or enterprises. Humanize your interaction with your customers; act as an ambassador of your company, but do it on a personalized basis.

The key questions to ask at this point are:

  • Have you gained the respect and trust you deserve from your customers? Or do you still have a way to go?
  • Have you been able to build strong enough, interactive relationships with your customers to allow for an occasional misstep from time-to-time? Or are you still “walking on eggshells” when you’re dealing with them?
  • Do you present a warm, caring, human presence to your customers? Or are you perceived as just another interchangeable service technician that simply arrives on-site from time-to-time to fix their equipment?

Whatever you do, you need to be honest and forthright with your customers – because, if you are not, they will know it in an instant! The minute your customers believe you are being less than honest with them, hiding something from them, or not telling them the whole story, you’ve lost them – period. If your customers do not believe you’re being honest with them, it almost doesn’t matter how well you are performing on any of these other self-evaluation points – you’re already “dead in the water”.

In summary, the three things that you will ultimately need to do to ensure that you have laid the proper foundation for a successful customer service and support “partnership” are:

  • Expand your idea of service – chances are your customers have a more broadly defined idea of what “total customer service and support” means than you do. Try to approach the way in which you support your customers using their definitions as much as you can. Don’t necessarily give away the shop – but, be prepared to address any gaps between what the customer wants, and what you are realistically able to provide them.
  • Know who your customers are – you can really only know who your customers are by knowing what they do, how they use the business imaging systems and equipment you support, what happens when their systems go down, and how important your contribution is to their overall ability to get their work done.
  • Develop customer-friendly service techniques and processes – make sure that the way in which you support your customers is highly accessible, logical, flexible, and understandable. This is the only way that your customers will truly believe that you are working in their behalf, and that you are all in it together.

The key self-evaluation questions to consider in these areas are:

  • Do I share similar definitions of “customer service and support” with my customers, or are we talking about two different things in some cases? How can I make sure that we are always on the same page?
  • Do I really know who my customers are? And more importantly, do they think I know? Is there a disconnect; and if so, how can I successfully bridge that gap?
  • And I truly accessible to my customers? Do they feel they can talk to me? Confide in me? If not, what can I do to convince them otherwise?

[Watch for Part 2 to provide additional guidelines for evaluating and improving your customer service and support performance.]