Atlanta Business Chronicle
It seems that everybody has a horror story of some surly customer service representative who half-listens to a complaint, feigns ignorance, refuses to get a supervisor, and then "accidentally" drops the call.
These front-line employees, typically the lowest paid, are often the customers' first brush with a company. And one bad experience can sour them on a brand.
"That one (front-line) person becomes your company," said Rhonda Hudson, founder and executive director of The Treasure Box School of Etiquette in southwest Atlanta. "That can damage a company and you're not going to survive."
To encourage employees on the front line--everyone from operators to receptionists--to represent the company correctly, managers need to clearly communicate the company's vision and establish firm guidelines for appearance, attitude and written and oral communication, according to local business etiquette experts. Putting a positive face on the company is even more paramount for growing small- to mid-sized organizations, where every customer counts and word-of-mouth travels fast.
In interviewing customer service personnel, human resources representatives need to seek out individuals who are patient, can effectively multi-task, and convey genuine concern across the telephone line, said Oscar Alban, a Roswell-based global market consultant for Verint Witness Actionable Solutions, which specializes in analyzing customer service interactions.
"Not just anybody can be empathetic and create that bond in a magic one minute and 35 seconds," he said.
Shelley Hammell, a senior consultant at Bixler Consulting Group in Atlanta, has heard receptionists mispronounce the names of their organizations.
"That's unacceptable," she said, adding that companies need to invest more in training their customer service personnel either before they start the job or during the initial training period.
Miscommunications can be compounded by offshore call centers, where language barriers impede the agent's ability to solve a customer problem and it's more difficult for companies to enforce standards, said Hudson. Foreign employees may not appreciate Americans' desire for customer service at lightning Internet speed, or they may refuse to deviate from the script. Responding to customer backlash and rising wages for Indian workers, in particular, some companies are moving call centers back home and limiting offshoring to back-office operations.
Companies like Starbucks and Chick-fil-A understand the importance of educating the front-line staff in the "DNA of the company" and their role in contributing to its success, said Alban. That translates into courteous, articulate servers who have a polished appearance, he said.
Alban recalled one particularly exasperating hunt for quiche (for his wife) at a Marietta Publix. A manager asked if he needed assistance, walked him over to the quiche, and even gave him one on the house.
"It is the customer service experience that is the true differentiator," he said.
Front-line personnel should mirror their customer base in appearance, because it's easier for people to relate to those who look like them, he said. While low-riding pants may be appropriate for a sales clerk at a video game store, they're off-limits at the insurance office.
Employees need to "dress the part," taking their cue from an immediate supervisor, Hammell said. That means say yes to coordinating jackets, conservative colors and tasteful jewelry. Different corporate cultures and lax policies, such as allowing open-toed shoes and skirts without pantyhose, can blur the lines. But bare midriffs and plunging necklines are not appropriate in any work setting, etiquette consultants agreed.
"If it were something you would wear out to a bar, then it's probably not appropriate for the office," Hammell said. Companies need to inform candidates of the dress code at the interview stage, making it easier to broach the subject if problems arise later on.
Excellent customer service, uncovered through quality checks, should be rewarded, Alban said. Today, customer service agents can earn up to $15 an hour, particularly at financial services firms.
In the end, it all comes down to employees knowing how to market themselves, said Hudson.
"If this person is not going to be able to sell themselves, then how are they going to sell anything else to me?" she said.
Five tips from the pros on how companies can entrust their image to staff on the front line:
Let the front-line staff become loyal to the brand by experiencing the product themselves, said Alban. Pitney Bowes, a postage meter machine company, has one of everything it makes at its call center, he said. 1-800-Flowers hires semi-retired horticulturists as its customer service agents.
Empower customer service personnel by asking them for ideas on how to improve their interaction with clients, said Hudson.
Front-line employees need to be reminded that first impressions are more important than they realize, said Hammell. A receptionist who routinely hacks and reeks of cigarette smoke is not going to win any points with clients.
Educate staff in the company culture by arranging for small group meetings with the CEO and other top executives to share their vision, said Hudson.
Follow this simple rule: "Treat others the way you want to be treated," said Hudson.
"Everybody walks past a thousand story
Copyright © Margie Fishman, 2009