Want to increase customer service and employee engagement?

Want a way to increase customer service and employee engagement?

I love this article on letting go. Rob Markey tells the story of how Jim Bush revolutionized customer service at the American Express call centres.

And whilst it may seem counter intuitive – he did this by letting go.   But letting go within clever and clear parameters.

There’s nothing new in these elements but it’s interesting to see them so clearly articulated in this story; and to see the amazing impact that they had on customer service and employee engagement:

Key elements of employee engagement
  • Employees had a clear end goal;
  • They were clear on their boundaries – where they had latitude and where they didn’t;
  • They got real time feedback; and
  • They received coaching and support.
Does regulation improve employee engagement?

You can tell a lot about a culture from the degree of control. Often this is exhibited by visual signs exhorting employees what to do (or what not to do!) or a high degree of rules and regulation within the workplace and its systems.

But there’s an interesting paradox with this – the more that you try to regulate and control what an employee does, the more you lose what often differentiates you from the competition – an employee that goes above and beyond what is expected, an employee that uses their initiative to solve a problem, an employee that isn’t just talking from a script but actually connecting with your customers, clients etc.

Think about how you feel as a consumer when you can literally hear someone reading off a script on the other end of the phone. It doesn’t do much for the interaction or for your perception of that organization.

The other interesting thing about regulation is that it is often self-perpetuating. So it starts with a sign above the dishwasher asking people to stack their dishes, and soon there are signs everywhere, all over the office, the factory, everywhere. And the thing we know about human behaviour is that people stop seeing those signs pretty soon after they’re put up; so their effectiveness is questionable at best.

Perhaps the new year is a good opportunity to look around your organisation. How controlling are you of your employees? And is that working? Perhaps there is another way.

Leading by Letting Go

Here’s the excerpt of Rob’s article:

“….Bush took over American Express’s far-flung service operations in 2005. He was suddenly responsible for many thousands of call-center employees. Even though American Express was well-known for its outstanding service, the company at the time regarded Bush’s organization purely as an expense, and it followed the conventional command-and-control model in its call centers. Leaders kept a tight rein on costs, with goals for reducing average call time, improving customer satisfaction levels, and driving more service volume to the Web. While customer satisfaction was at acceptable levels, competitors seemed to be catching up. Especially troubling to Bush, employee turnover was high, reflecting a long-standing decline in employee morale and imposing a huge burden on the organization.

Bush saw a way to change the game. Service at American Express, he argued, should not be treated as just a cost center; rather, it offered an opportunity to invest in building the sort of warm relationships between American Express and its customers that the venerable company’s brand had always been based on. Every interaction offered a chance to make people feel good about their relationship with the company. Every contact offered an opportunity to increase the likelihood that they would sing the company’s praises to friends. That kind of viral marketing would be invaluable in setting American Express apart from rivals and would power the company’s growth and profits.

The trouble was that the scripts, metrics, and rules were getting in the way. Heavily scripted representatives couldn’t form genuinely warm and empathic relationships. They sounded wooden and stilted. Real relationships are built on open, person-to-person communication, one caring human being to another.

So Bush decided to let go. He eliminated the scripts. He stopped focusing on call time and declared that from now on representatives would let customers set the pace, determining how much time they would spend on each call. He elevated the hiring process, seeking out people with the right personal qualities and values, often with experience in the retail or hospitality industries rather than in other call centers. (The centers’ high turnover helped him change things on this front pretty quickly.) He even changed the name of the job. He called the service reps customer care professionals and gave them business cards, along with higher pay and greater flexibility in scheduling their hours.

Then he created a system that enabled and encouraged these professionals to deliver outstanding service on their own, day in and day out. It depended upon four key elements:

  • A clear goal. American Express wanted warm, caring interactions with customers, unregulated by the clock or by scripts. The customer care professionals would see information about each caller on their screen, and they would get intensive training in the company’s products and policies. What they talked about was up to them — and to the customer. They would measure their success by the Net Promoter score — the percentage of customers who said, when asked, that they would recommend American Express to a friend.
  • Guardrails. People handling calls understood where they had latitude and where they didn’t. They knew they were accountable as teams for delivering the best possible service within the constraints of the company’s policies and in strict compliance with laws and regulations. Within those guardrails, however, they were free to exercise their judgment.
  • High-velocity feedback. The company began seeking feedback from a sample of customers after each transaction, asking them how likely they would be to recommend American Express to a friend and why. The resulting scores and verbatim comments flowed to frontline team leaders and customer care professionals every day, so they could see where they were succeeding, where they still had work to do, and what, specifically, the customers had pointed out.
  • Coaching and support. Supervisors and experienced customer care professionals were freed up from a number of other tasks so they could devote more time to coaching around the feedback. They helped new hires get up to speed. Trainers taught best practices and ways to improve. Teams shared with and learned from one another

The results? Call-handling time edged up slightly at the very beginning, then dropped and kept falling. Likelihood-to-recommend scores doubled, indicating far more enthusiastic advocacy of American Express on the part of customers. Employee attrition was cut in half. Within just three years, the company saw a consistent 10% annual improvement in what Bush calls “service margins.” The company began to win the J.D. Power customer service award in credit cards year after year…”

Thanks to www.equityscholar.com for the image.

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Tammy Tansley
I am a coffee loving, energetic human who loves words, bright colours and spots, silly t'shirts and good champagne. Mum to two beautiful mischiefs. Long time wanderer around the world. Author. Blogger. Speaker.
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