In the marketing world, a brand is so much more than a mere logo or symbol. It is the intangible sum of a product's attributes: its name, packaging price, history, reputation, and customer experience. It represents every touchpoint in a company or organization. Every individual that encounters a customer or client can make (or break) the brand.
Quality customer service means going beyond what's expected, adding value to the customer experience. When you under-promise and over-deliver, your customers will come back, rave about you, tell others, and be your best friend—as long as this behavior and attitude is consistent.
Armand Feigenbaum, one of the original quality gurus, who is famous for his 1961 book Total Quality Control: Engineering and Management, provides this definition:
Quality is a customer determination based upon a customer's actual experience with a product or service, measured against his or her requirements—stated or unstated, conscious or merely sensed, technically operational or entirely subjective—and always representing a moving target in a competitive market.
Why provide quality customer service?
When you provide quality customer service, you help connect the dots for your company' or organization's brand. It's part of your brand promise, stated or not. Meeting or exceeding your customers' expectations gives your company credibility and helps build its reputation in your market.
You have a better chance of retaining your customers for the long term, as well as keeping your employees engaged and committed. Imagine a workplace where service is not strongly valued or is inconsistent. It must be challenging to retain employees who are at the receiving end of incessant verbal abuse from malcontents and dissatisfied customers.
Another important reason to provide quality customer service answers the "What's in it for me?" question, which is not always verbalized by some employees. Good customer service helps generate more revenue, which enables the company or organization to live its mission.
The end result from an internal perspective? More money begets more mission, which begets growth and innovation, which begets increased salaries, bonuses and/or promotions, which begets happy employees, happy customers, and so on, and so on... as the old shampoo commercial says. When the wheels turn efficiently, and customers and employees are content, the "corporate" environment is ripe for the brand to flourish.
Internal Customer Service
Whether your company or organization is large or small, providing good customer service begins with the internal environment. Employee satisfaction, customer loyalty, and profitability are interconnected. Anyone who plays a role in your organization in producing or supporting your end product or service is part of the internal process—from those answering the phone, cleaning your bathrooms, supplying your office products, sorting your mail and fixing your computer, to the president or CEO and board of directors (for corporations and nonprofits). Each one plays a role in the neverending chain of activity that transpires daily. When one link in the chain breaks or falters, it can affect the entire chain.
Answer the following questions truthfully:
- How well does your staff serve your internal customers:
—Volunteers (for nonprofits) or distributors?
- Do staff members respond to emails and return telephone calls to each other in the same day or within 24 hours?
- Do they follow up when they say they will?
- Is there a general sense of teamwork in your company/organization?
- Does resentment exist between departments?
- Do staff members pitch in when asked?
- Is staff morale healthy?
- Do staff members generally feel good about the contributions they make to the company's mission?
- Does management value employees?
- Do managers recognize and show appreciation of staff members who demonstrate good internal customer service?
If there's inconsistency with any of these behaviors, you have some work to do.
Customer Service Standards
If you have existing internal customer service standards or protocols, it may be time to see whether they're still meeting your needs. If technology has changed the way you do things, and your manuals haven't kept up, it's time for a revision. If the existing standards focus solely on external customers, adding a separate section for this purpose will show a commitment on management's part to improve your internal protocols. It should help build morale and encourage a more cooperative workplace.
If you were starting from scratch, it would help to identify current weaknesses and gaps before developing new internal customer service standards.
Fixing the Corporate Culture
Employees often confer in the lunchroom, bathroom, nearby coffee shop or conference room. Office or workplace chatter is a reality, and most of us have been part of it at some point in our careers. Sometimes, the idle workplace gossip is a channel for employees to socialize, share information and connect with each other. After all, when you spend half or more of your waking hours in the workplace, it becomes your home away from home, and your workplace friends become your pseudo-family.
However, if the gossip is widespread or frequent, and is the result of workplace tension, boredom, or demoralization, there's a larger issue at stake besides your customer service needs. It might mean that your company requires a cultural overhaul. Sometimes, being more transparent from the top and developing better internal communication with employees can solve the problem. The more informed they are, the less anxiety and greater sense of comfort they experience.
In extreme circumstances, the environment may be toxic or very negative, with employees on their guard, feeling tense and uneasy. This environment often has a high staff turnover and absentee rate. It's ripe for internal sabotage of conflicting goals and objectives, a disaster for the mission or bottom line. It would be a waste of time developing internal customer service standards in a workplace such as this, when the corporate culture is dysfunctional. It would be like icing a cake made of hardened sawdust. It may look good on the outside, but once you cut into it, it crumbles.
No amount of superficial remedies can correct a poor corporate culture. It requires examination of the root cause and changing things from there. Bringing in outsourced specialists to analyze, make recommendations and conduct staff training often helps to reconfigure attitudes and build trust.
Dr. W. Edwards Deming's 14 Points for Management
Dr. W. Edwards Deming, the late consultant in statistical studies and author of Out of the Crisis and The New Economics, founded a nonprofit organization—The W. Edwards Deming Institute—to "foster understanding of The Deming System of Profound Knowledge to advance commerce, prosperity, and peace."
His 14 points of management are the basis for transformation of American industry. "It will not suffice merely to solve problems, big or little. Adoption and action on the 14 points are a signal that the management intends to stay in business and aim to protect investors and jobs," Deming said.
These 14 points below can apply to small or large organizations, or a division within a company.
The 14 points
- Create constancy of purpose toward improvement of product and service, with the aim to become competitive and to stay in business, and to provide jobs.
- Adopt the new philosophy. We are in a new economic age. Western management must awaken to the challenge, must learn their responsibilities, and take on leadership for change.
- Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for inspection on a mass basis by building quality into the product in the first place.
- End the practice of awarding business on the basis of price tag. Instead, minimize total cost. Move toward a single supplier for any one item, on a long-term relationship of loyalty and trust.
- Improve constantly and forever the system of production and service, to improve quality and productivity, and thus constantly decrease costs.
- Institute training on the job.
- Institute leadership. The aim of supervision should be to help people and machines and gadgets to do a better job. Supervision of management is in need of overhaul, as well as supervision of production workers.
- Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.
- Break down barriers between departments. People in research, design, sales, and production must work as a team, to foresee problems of production and in use that may be encountered with the product or service.
- Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.
a) Eliminate work standards (quotas) on the factory floor. Substitute leadership.
b) Eliminate management by objective. Eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals. Substitute leadership.
- Remove barriers that rob the hourly worker of his right to pride of workmanship. The responsibility of supervisors must be changed from sheer numbers to quality.
- Remove barriers that rob people in management and in engineering of their right to pride of workmanship. This means, inter alia, abolishment of the annual or merit rating and of management by objective.
- Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement.
- Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody's job.
Adopting this management philosophy, even in part, can benefit any organizational structure to create a positive and healthy workplace where quality customer service can flourish.
Strengthening Internal Customer Service
When your workplace is ripe for improving internal customer service, begin with market research. The more you learn about existing gaps and shortcomings, the better you'll be able to correct the situation. Understanding internal customers' needs, frustrations, and challenges give managers the opportunity to make improvements and increase performance and employee satisfaction.
Enlist the assistance of your internal human resources (HR) executive or outsourced professionals to develop a staff survey and research methodology. If budgets are tight, develop a cross-department staff committee to work on this. It's especially valuable when the staff owns this process.
Communicate with the staff, outlining what your objectives are. As part of the survey, ask staff to give examples of desired outcomes. When you provide quality internal customer service, how will staff members conduct themselves and what will the workplace look like as a result? Here are some examples of possible desired outcomes:
- When a deadline is imminent, or a problem requires solving, staff members can ask for assistance from another department or staff person, and they will work together or brainstorm as a team.
- Employees do not complain to customers about other employees or departments.
- Employees' opinions are valued and they are empowered to make decisions.
- The company recognizes and rewards employees who exemplify quality customer-service behaviors.
Keep your staff informed on the progress of this process. The more empowered staff are, the more engaged they will be in making changes.
When results are evaluated and new protocols and behaviors are established, it helps to put it in writing in the form of a manual or policy. Following up with staff training ensures longer-term results and should incorporate the rationale behind quality internal customer service, as it relates to the company brand.
Communication Is the Key
When employees understand the big picture of the company's vision, and the role they can play in achieving that goal, there's a greater likelihood that they'll be team-oriented. Internal communication is imperative for keeping employees informed, not only of the latest company policies but also of the organization's strategies.
As part of staff orientation, it's important for management to impart the company's mission and vision. When each department leader prepares a presentation for new staff members on the roles and responsibilities of their areas of focus, it gives the staff an opportunity to ask questions and understand how each cog contributes to the overall result.
Follow this up with internal newsletters or open forums to allow departments to share their successes or keep other staff informed of their efforts. For companies and organizations in one location, this can take the form of monthly lunchtime presentations. For larger organizations in multiple locations, the corporate intranet and staff newsletters can fulfill this purpose.
Though time is a luxury, it's important for senior staff to visit periodically with other departments and office locations, not only to show the face behind the title but also to keep the lines of communication open. This time can be tacked on to another purpose for cost savings, and incorporated into staff training in the executive's area of expertise.
In an ideal world, directors and managers will communicate regularly with their own staff. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case. On one occasion, a video crew appeared at my office to shoot raw footage for an event video. The staff director who had made the arrangements was out of the office, and no one else in her department knew anything about the production. At the time, there was little to no communication or cooperation between her department and my staff in the marketing and communications department, which alone says a lot about internal territories working against each other.
I stepped in to work with the outside production crew, but came at it from a distinct disadvantage, unaware of the details. In the end, it worked out; but it sent a very negative message to the supplier, to the director's staff, which scrambled but couldn't find any information about the shoot, to the local staff, which witnessed the confusion, and to me. This wasn't the first time that director's staff complained to colleagues that they didn't know what was going on within their own department. The director's management style had them working in silos—an unhealthy and unproductive situation.
When directors and managers meet regularly and communicate with their staff members, giving them every opportunity to understand the projects and tactics of the larger strategy, department staff will be more engaged, more team-oriented, and have a stronger morale. And from a risk management perspective, if someone becomes sick or quits, others in the department have an understanding of what's going on.
Rewards and Appreciation
One of our common human needs is for acceptance or approval. Sometimes, the simple act of saying thank you to employees goes a lot further than a monetary bonus. In fact, some studies show that one of the "push" reasons (dissatisfaction) employees resign is due to a lack of appreciation for their efforts, or unhappiness in the workplace.
A 2003 study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in the UK found that "it is relatively rare for people to leave jobs in which they are happy, even when offered higher pay elsewhere."
Rewarding positive behavior is not a Pavlovian exercise; it shows employees that they're valued and honored. This can be a simple or extravagant gesture, depending on your budget and the nature of your organization.
In my nonprofit experience, where budgets are typically conservative, I didn't have the luxury of rewarding staff with an ample bonus. However, the small things went a long way in building relationships and showing my appreciation. When an employee went above and beyond, I used my managerial discretion to give him/her lieu time. I purchased movie gift certificates and placed them inside handwritten thank-you notes.
When someone displayed exemplary behavior at work, I sent emails to specific staff members or managers, commending my employee on his/her achievements. I lauded an individual's or a group's work in department staff meetings. Sometimes, if I had funds remaining in my professional development or training budget, I paid for a professional seminar or workshop that an employee wanted to attend.
The organization's staff had a high level of esteem for my department staff overall, and counted on its professionalism and internal customer service. Its reputation was well known, even in satellite locations. As a collective show of appreciation, I invited my department staff to my home twice annually—once during the holiday season for lunch, and the second for a summer afternoon barbeque. Both were scheduled on business days, giving me an opportunity to entertain them and show my thanks for their hard work. Before the holiday luncheon, I would frequent store sales from September through November and picked up inexpensive but meaningful gifts for each one of them.
To celebrate our department's major successes, I took them to lunch or for an after-work drink (one only, so they could drive home). These occasions also served as opportunities to team-build and bond. The level of cohesion and mutual respect in the department was exceptionally high, and I owed it to this staff appreciation policy.
The old adage about attracting more bees with honey than with vinegar is not a myth. It's a basic principle that works. Treating colleagues like valued customers, and developing solid communication channels and respect between internal departments, will help improve your internal and external customer service, ultimately contributing to your brand equity and bottom line.
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