How your people behave towards your customers has a massive effect on reputation and loyalty. But how do you measure and manage something so emotive?

I’ve had two positive experiences as a customer in the past week. Both made me smile – meaning I’ll definitely come back.
One was in a superstore in Peterborough – I was there with my Dad, who loves a particularly sweet, red, Greek wine. But how to find it? An employee noticed our confusion and, with a friendly offer of help, pointed us to the exact bottle we were looking for. In about 30 seconds, he’d saved us a lengthy search, sold us some wine and sent us away happy.

The second was in a carpet shop in Winsford, where I and my husband were looking for a (very inexpensive) off-cut for our caravan. Rather than dismissing us as unimportant, the man on the service desk treated us like VIPs, advising us on the right kind of hard-wearing carpet, finding a colour and pattern that we liked. He then divided one of his off-cuts in half, to make it fit both space and budget. He also explained how to create a template from the old carpet and cut and glue it in place (and where to buy the glue!). As a result, I am now asking him to come and quote for replacement stair and bedroom carpets in our house.

It doesn’t matter how large or small your organisation is. Memorable customer experiences are very often about interpersonal skills, not simply knowledge or technical ability. However, many people shy away from measuring or managing these behavioural elements of performance, because they see them as too subjective.
Well-designed behavioural measures enable you to recognise and build the confidence of your best people – the greatest ambassadors for your brand. They also enable you to identify those who struggle to communicate effectively and to improve the quality of their interactions with customers and colleagues.

If you haven’t already built behavioural elements into your people management programme, here are some key things to consider:

Recruit for attitude and communication skills, not just technical knowledge
As a general rule, it’s easier to teach technical content than interpersonal skills. So when you’re recruiting, test for the attributes that are most important. If they’ll be talking on the phone, call them. If they are expected to communicate by email, have an email conversation with them before you meet. Check that they have the basic skills and tools to communicate in that medium. Do they sound approachable on the phone? Do they articulate clearly? Does their email make sense? Is the language conversational and friendly? Are the grammar and spelling correct? If you warm to them, the chances are that your customers will like them too.

Be careful who you ask to talk to your customers
Not everyone is cut out to be customer-facing. Some people’s strengths lie in sorting out technical problems or inventing new and exciting products – we can’t all be good at everything! You can offer training to fill gaps and improve confidence – but be prepared to accept that some people are too uncomfortable or lack the adaptability to come across well to customers.

Set and maintain clear standards – and aim for excellence
Make sure that your behavioural standards are clearly defined and explained from the start. Ensure that interpersonal skills form part of your induction training, alongside any technical content. Don’t assume people know how to communicate in an engaging, professional way – these aren’t skills that are generally taught at school! Once initial training is over, ensure that people get regular coaching, to maintain a culture of excellence and continuous improvement.
Stick to your guns. If a team member continues to come across as abrupt or dismissive or struggles to inject some energy into their voice, don’t be tempted to give them the benefit of the doubt. It may take time and superhuman effort for them to change a long-standing habit, but what an achievement when they do!

Watch, listen, learn
Record calls; listen in when people talk to customers; read emails; observe meetings. It’s not about creating a Big Brother culture, but helping people to hone their skills and become more aware of how they come across. Have open and honest conversations about things that go well (what can I do more of?) and things that go awry (what would I do differently next time?).

Encourage peer coaching and feedback
This isn’t all about the manager. If you create the right environment from the start, people will get into the habit of noticing what other people are doing and giving them instant feedback. Being told by a colleague how well you handled a difficult customer situation or being able to discuss what went wrong, without feeling criticised, can really boost morale and develop a culture of supportive teamwork.

Make it positive
None of us is perfect, and too many ‘quality programmes’ seem to be designed to catch people out, creating a culture of fear. Focus on the things people do right, not always on their mistakes. Creating great experiences for customers is rewarding – and if you’ve recruited the right people, it’s what they enjoy doing. It’s in everyone’s interests to recognise your best people and to reward the behaviours that make customers happy and encourage them to come back for more.

Nickie Hawton
After studying languages at university, Nickie gained over 15 years of operational and senior management experience in the UK and Europe with the Eurocamp (Holidaybreak) Group. This included overseas operations management, recruitment and supplier relations, as well as responsibility for the contact centre, sales and customer service.
Since 1997, Nickie has worked as a specialist customer and employee experience consultant, assisting companies in industries as diverse as telecommunications, financial services, travel, security, hospitality and retail, as well as working with the NHS and other not-for-profit organisations. She works with managers and employees at all levels to inspire them to deliver exceptional service to their customers.

In addition to her practical experience, Nickie is a qualified manager, trainer, performance and life coach and NLP Practitioner. She co-founded Definity in February 2011.

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