Always prepare the soil before planting seeds

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A colleague recently asked for my opinion regarding the skills that customer service representatives (CSRs) need the most help with. I qualified my response by saying that it assumes CSRs already possess a positive attitude and a willingness to expend discretionary effort in the moment of choice. If they lack these qualities, although capable of consistently executing the mandatory job functions for which they are paid, no amount of skill development will enable them to consistently delight customers.

In my work, I write about three dimensions of job roles: job knowledge (knowing WHAT to do), job skills (knowing HOW to do it), and job purpose (knowing WHY they do it). Most qualified managers can equip employees with job knowledge and job skills through onboarding, OJT, and ongoing training and development programs. As a result, these managers produce competent employees who are capable of reliably executing the mandatory job functions for which they were hired and are paid. Unfortunately, payrolls are filled with highly-trained CSRs who are capable of reliably executing an array of job functions but who lack awareness of job essence; their purpose or highest priority at work.



That being said, assuming employees have been screened using predictive software and/or behavior-based interviewing questions to validate traits such as initiative, optimism, and team orientation, I would advocate for skill-based training in the following areas: listening, empathy, and problem solving.

Listening: Too many CSRs fail to adequately listen. Two weeks ago, I called United Airlines to change a flight itinerary. After explaining that I was canceling the Wichita leg of my multi-city itinerary (Denver to New York to Wichita to Denver), the CSR said, “So you want to fly from New York to Wichita on Wednesday?” I’m not sure if she was preoccupied with handle time or what, but she had not been listening to me. During the same conversation, I requested the 2:59pm flight from La Guardia to Denver. A minute later, the CRS said that there were numerous flights available, beginning at 6:20am. Again, I asked for the 2:59pm flight that I had originally requested.

Empathy: The ability to empathize with customers is a key skill that separates competent CSRs from extraordinary ones. I recently launched a companion guide to my book on Amazon Advantage. Like most entrepreneurs, I was excited for the opportunity to fill an unmet need in the marketplace by creating and offering a new product. Unfortunately, my initial product page was riddled with inaccuracies causing me to open a case with Amazon support. A day went by without a reply. Then two days. Then three. Then four. On the fifth day, after submitting follow up queries from the Amazon Advantage support page, I took to Twitter. Naturally, I was disheartened to learn that Amazon Marketplace’s latest tweet was more than 15 months ago. On the sixth day, I received an obligatory reply that lacked any empathy or sensitivity. It was clear to me that my enthusiasm for my new product launch was not shared by the Amazon Advantage CSRs who, from my perspective, were busily executing the mandatory job functions for which they are paid with no attempt to reflect voluntary job essence by expressing genuine interest in me (as a new Amazon Advantage merchant/seller), demonstrating a sense of urgency, or conveying authentic enthusiasm for my new product launch.



Problem solving: CSRs are generally effective at following established problem resolution protocol. The problem is that a process, policy, or service model rarely contains the sentiment that a customer’s problem is your problem. When employees lack this mindset, their solutions to customers’ dilemmas are limited to what is on the screen or page before them – and this may not completely solve the customer’s problem. But when employees take ownership by adopting the mentality that a customer’s problem is also their problem, this enhances their ability to consistently resolve problems to the satisfaction, if not delight, of customers.

Last year, my family stayed at a lodge in Breckenridge over spring break. We checked out as the housekeeping crew arrived to clean the condominium unit. From the lodge, we drove into downtown Breckenridge for lunch and shopping. After two hours or so, we were on the road back home to Denver. Two hours later (four hours after checking out of the lodge) we arrived home and, while unpacking, noticed that we were missing a bag. When I phoned the lodge, the front desk agent said, “Oh, yeah. That bag’s right here.” Further questioning confirmed that the bag had been brought to the front desk hours earlier (while we were still in Breckenridge) but, remarkably, no one had bothered to problem solve and call us – although they had all of our contact information, including cell phone numbers!



So, while listening, empathy, and problem solving are a worthy skill set to develop, if CSRs lack traits such as initiative, optimism, and team orientation, then providing training in these areas may be analogous to throwing seeds on rock. Without fertile soil, rather than take root, the seeds will wither over time and blow away…

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