Moving. They say it can be as stressful as a family death. While I wouldn’t go that far, I would rate our October office expansion very high on my list of “I’d rather eat a bug than do this again!” Now safely and happily settled in our lovely, bright and clean new offices, I can reflect on something that stunned me throughout this renovation.
As you might imagine, we dealt with several contractors and vendors throughout this experience. The range of customer service I encountered was extreme. I went from being delighted all the way to Dante’s 9th circle of hell. The customer aspect of this transition—me—was consistent. The service component? Not so much.
The question that keeps ringing in my head during this reflection is “Why—at a time of great economic challenge, when companies should be doing everything to exceed expectations and win customer loyalty—is there such inconsistency in customer service levels?” In my mind, it’s a workforce performance issue. Whether businesses are succeeding or failing in nurturing workers through training and incentives, performance is at the core of the gulf in customer service today. And while in some cases an all-out failure to train employees may be the reason some businesses have lost their ability to ensure quality service, I see two additional factors contributing to the customer service challenge across the American workforce.
Factor #1: Generation Gaps
By 2015 there will be five generations working side-by-side in the American workplace. That’s right—five! As this blog from the Harvard Business School explains, the “newest employees entering the workforce might not be joining their parents or grandparents, they might be joining their great-grandparents.” Traditionalists (workers born before 1946), baby boomers (born 1946 to 1964) and Gen X (born 1965 to 1976) will be joined by the young, sizeable group of Millennials (born 1977 to 1997) and Gen 2020 (born after 1997).
It’s an unprecedented workforce configuration, and it creates an unprecedented training challenge: to design effective learning programs and performance management solutions for a workforce made up of people who learn, collaborate, communicate and leverage technology often in vastly different ways. Take technology for example. Despite what many may assume, older generations are actually quite comfortable with tech-infused communications that go beyond e-mail. Forrester Research recently reported that more than 60% of baby boomers use social media and Socialnomics.net reports that the fastest growing segment on Facebook is 55-65 year-old females.
That said, older generations still see great value in person-to-person communications, especially in professional settings. Younger generation workers, like Millennials and Gen 2020s, can sometimes use technology to communicate in ways older generations couldn’t imagine. Take the young office worker who didn’t think twice about quitting her job by text message to move onto a new, better opportunity. Or consider the sales manager who asked for updates on recent communications with prospects and was forwarded records of tweets and text messages from Millennial-age workers on the team. These two examples highlight both the risks and opportunities of a technologically diverse workforce. They also underscore the importance of managing performance expectations, providing consistent training and reinforcing those expectations through appropriate recognition or reward.
The way we work and communicate is constantly evolving. For training to be relevant to all employees, regardless of their generation, it must address the various ways people access information and communicate in each particular work environment. In terms of customer service, this means monitoring the many ways staff members interact with the customer base and ensuring guidelines in these areas and performance expectations are clear. Advancing technology and generation gaps can be markers along the path of training’s evolution—reminders to keep training and performance management relevant to an evolving workforce.
Training Focused on the Generation
A CARA client that “gets” generational influences is Potbelly Sandwich Works, an innovative restaurant chain founded in Chicago. Potbelly’s team prides itself on great food and the “experience” they offer customers—friendly, attentive and fun service in a unique, eclectic atmosphere.
The company understands who its core target employees are: Millennials (people under 25). In fact, Michelle Reid-Powell, the Director of Training and Leadership Development at Potbelly Sandwich Works, did significant research on the generation itself to learn about how these young workers best learn and interact.
What she and her training team learned, they translated directly into one of the most fun, engaging and well-measured training programs today. Just look at these examples of how they turned insights on Millennials into training excellence:
Generational Insight Training Results
|Millennials are collaborative, resourceful and innovative thinkers.||
|Millennials want to work with others and partner for learning.||
|Millennials want to make a difference and connect with their communities.||
The scores Potbelly gets on its training reviews from staff and managers alike are head-of-the-class, valedictorian-level scores. The company has also integrated its own low-tech and low-cost performance management system, which leverages Excel to track and post training results. This simple system gives employees an incentive to complete their training and management a way to measure their progress and the stores’ performance companywide.
By focusing training on the unique traits and learning habits of its core workforce, Potbelly is successfully training a happy, fun and high-performing workforce, with a strong customer service orientation. And many of those workers will likely grow with the company to become the mature, seasoned generation that will need to learn the unique ways of the incoming generation.
Factor #2: Managing in the Face of Adversity
The second factor contributing to a customer service deficit today is the need to focus more on adversity training. Since the recession derailed the U.S. economy, a lot has changed. But are companies helping their employees better meet the ever-increasing expectations of customers to provide consistent, continual value?
Training for the status quo doesn’t work when the status quo no longer exists. More than ever, companies need to ensure their employees understand how to handle client objections proactively and to the client’s satisfaction. How do we provide a value proposition for that sensitive price point? How do we anticipate adversity and prepare for successful resolution? These questions can be addressed in many ways, such as informal conversations and more formal role plays at training events—the touch points where company leaders and visionaries can guide and support individuals responsible for delivering service to the customer.
For CARA, we are tackling today’s adversity by working even harder to first serve and support our talented pool of consultants. Today all CARA consultants must take an eLearning course on CARA’s expectations of how to serve our clients; they are indoctrinated into CARA’s PURE Service Program, a tenet of our success since CARA was founded. To ensure consistency and continuity in our development and delivery of world-class training for our clients, we have periodic check-ups with both the consultants and clients, on a formal and informal basis, to validate how we’re doing. Recently, one client shared that our efforts resulted in the course becoming the Gold Standard by which other courses will be measured. Feedback like this has enabled CARA to honor more than one consultant quarterly with our prestigious PURE service award for Professionalism, Understanding, Responsibility and Excellence.
The Only Constant is Change
Change creates adversity in the workplace. Unacknowledged, adversity can jeopardize customer service. Whether the change comes from generation gaps, advances in technology, an office expansion, or the economy, anticipation and a planned response can help weather the storm. Now, I might be a little training-centric (you know, “life’s work” and all), but I am certain that the majority of customer service issues I encountered during this office renovation could have been easily overcome with solid training, performance management and oversight by the vendors with whom I dealt. And while I don’t plan on renovating, moving or really even shifting my posture in this chair for a few years, I do plan on taking extra care to ensure that CARA is acutely aware of, and stringently proactive in, addressing the changes in our workforce and the environment that affect how we provide customer service.
What is your business doing today to ensure customer service quality and consistency in today’s challenging economy and generationally diverse workforce?