In Customer Service, Improvisation is Sometimes Necessary

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from henriqueiwao via Flickr

My colleague was scheduled to present a training session to one of our client’s teams this morning. I was scheduled to attend and observe. While I was aware of the general topic being presented in the training, this was my colleague’s baby. She had written and produced the training and I’d never seen it presented before. She did, however, ask me to arrive early and set up the lap top, projector and slide show for her. Knowing that she was scheduled in a previous meeting, she realized that she would be pressed to arrive on time and needed to be ready to jump right in to her training presentation.

I was happy to help out. I arrived early, set up the laptop, projector and slide show. I greeted our client guests as they arrived and helped them all get settled. My colleague was clearly running behind. I apologized, explained the she would be there momentarily and attempted to initiate some small talk among the 20 or so team members assembled. A few minutes passed by. My colleague had still not arrived.

The Senior Manager in the room grew visibly anxious by the delay. From the oppostie side of the room he said, “Tom, will you please go ahead and get us started? We need to stay on schedule. You can start the training and she can take over when she gets here.”

The subtext of this was not a question as in “Can you start us?” but a gentle demand: “Tom, you will start this session. Our team’s time is valuable and we don’t have time to wait around.”

Ummmm… Okay. So I got up and approached the laptop praying that my colleague’s slide show was thorough and detailed. Slide one contained the objectives. Sweet. I can go through these. The first point of the training was talking about voice tone. I quickly pulled some information from my years as a trainer and plowed forward.

A few months ago I wrote a post on my personal blog outlining Ten Ways Being a Theatre Major Prepared Me for Success. The post went viral. Well over 120,000 views to-date and hundreds of comments from around the globe. Number one on that list was “Improvisation.” I chuckled to myself as I thought about that and now found myself improvising my way through the opening slides of a training presentation I didn’t produce and of which I had no knowledge. To my great relief, my teammate entered the room a few minutes later and delivered me from having to improvise any more than I did.

I always tell my Customer Service training classes that training is all about understanding rules and exceptions. There are Customer Service rules that apply remarkably well to most service situations. Yet, for every rule there are exceptional situations to which the rules don’t fit. You don’t want to make rules based on the exceptions. You do, however, want to be prepared for the exceptional situation that requires you to think on your feet and improvise in the moment.

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