It’s Like, um, You Know, Like, Just the Way I, Like, Talk

CSR I was in Minneapolis a few weeks ago with my high school senior. We were visiting potential colleges and universities. Thus it was that I came across a column in the Star Tribune by Rick Nelson and Claude Peck called Withering Glance that had me laughing. This is definite bulletin board or team meeting material. They humorously chronicle one of a QA analyst's worst nightmares, which is the atrocious way many people converse in today's culture:

CP: So, like, Rick, you know what? I like, um, really like like our little talks. They are so amazing.

RN: No-yeah. Um, like, bee-otch, you know, huh? Wait, dawg, what were you saying?

CP: Speech pathologies, seƱor. Trying to weed out repetitive, unnecessary, inane, trendy and annoying tics of speech is not child's play. I'm, like, talking well is really hard. But so worth it, don't you think?

Having, like, just spent, like, an AMAZING weekend with my, like, high school senior, the column, like, hit the nail on the, like, proverbial head.

Along with voice tone, speech pathologies are sometimes difficult to coach. The QA coach is often faced with the retort "that's just the way I, like, you know, talk." What's worse, others in management will often defend that excuse. Our voice and our speech are learned behaviors. The same way a CSR can learn to control their fingers on the qwerty keyboard, they can learn to manipulate their voice and vocabulary to speak clearly and professionally.

The real question is whether, or not, it is worth the time, energy and resources to do so. I know some call center managers who would rather take someone off the phone rather than training them to change the way they speak and converse.

Have you had success coaching people regarding their tone or speech pathology? What worked? What didn't?

creative commons photo courtesy of Flickr and micronomics

Taking a Team from “Worst to First” in Service Quality

In the past year I watched as a team within one of my clients' contact centers went from displaying some of the worst service quality to performing among the best teams in their company. This team had a reputation of being among the service quality bottom feeders for years. Reaction to the drastically improved performance was shock and awe across the enterprise. "How did they do it?" became the consistent reply.

Here's what I witnessed the management team do over the course of a year:

  • Improve bench strength. The culture on the team was to have a bad attitude and fight quality efforts. As natural attrition happened throughout the year, the management team made service quality a key factor in hiring decisions when replacing team members. They made a point of bringing in traditionally high service performers to their team. New blood brought new life to their service performance.
  • Friendly competition. Between regularly scheduled quarterly coaching and feedback sessions, the sub-groups within this team had friendly competition going for which there were small incentives. Mostly, it was bragging rights, but the supervisors and managers all got behind it and had fun with it. A little friendly competition sparked some fun through the team members' sense of play. Small prizes and bragging rights provided positive reinforcement for team members. There was also a new sense of internal accountability. When a team member performed poorly, they were letting their fellow teammates down.
  • Accountability. The supervisors on this team had not, historically, done much about service quality in between the regularly scheduled quarterly coaching or training sessions. The friendly competition required supervisors to be monitoring each associate's progress, tracking quality scores, and providing feedback on a regular basis. Team members were reminded of service quality on a daily, weekly and monthly basis instead of just quarterly. The management team was no longer paying lip service to service quality, they were making it a part of the team members' every day performance.
  • Send a message. This team had a reputation for being poor performers. Instead of motivating them to improve, some members of the team relished in their position at the bottom and took sick pride in it. To reverse this trend when some members of the team refused to change, the senior management of the team made a point of sending a clear message to select individuals: "We've had enough. You are a capable associate. Either improve your service quality (and be rewarded), or there will be negative consequences to your career with this company." Some team members suddenly got on board and improved. A few members decided to leave, opening new opportunities for the managers to, once again, increase their bench strength with higher performers.

It took one year utilizing these four key principles to turn this team from among the worst performing teams to performing among the best. As my old friend, Buck, used to say: "Make a plan. Work the plan."

Sore Throat Remedies for CSRs

What to do about a sore throat. Here in the northern hemisphere, it's the beginning of cold and flu season. Everywhere I go I hear people coughing and wheezing as they speak with gravelly voices. My own household is a cacophony of hacking, sneezing, and snuffling. Colds can be killer for CSRs whose livelihood depends on using their voice all day (or all night) long.

So, thanks to the folks at Reader's Digest, I pass along four common remedies for those pesky sore throats that plague everyone in the contact center:

Tomato Juice
For temporary relief of sore throat symptoms, gargle with a mixture of 1/2 cup tomato juice and 1/2 cup hot water, plus about 10 drops hot pepper sauce. 
See more uses for Tomato Juice. 

Here are three ways that you can make a sore throat feel better:

  • If your throat is left raw by a bad cough, or even a speaking or singing engagement, you'll find fast relief by gargling with 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar and 1 teaspoon salt dissolved in a glass of warm water; use several times a day if needed.
  • For sore throats associated with a cold or flu, combine 1/4 cup cider vinegar and 1/4 cup honey and take 1 tablespoon every four hours.
  • To soothe both a cough and a sore throat, mix 1/2 cup vinegar, 1/2 cup water, 4 teaspoons honey, and 1 teaspoon hot sauce. Swallow 1 tablespoon four or five times daily, including one before bedtime. Warning: Children under one year old should never be given honey. 
    See more uses for Vinegar.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and andreanilsson1976

Choosing to Focus on the Positive

Its all in how you see it.

This past weekend was spent conducting customer surveys for a retail client of ours. My wife and stood by the checkout lines and asked purchasers and non-purchasers to take a customer satisfaction survey of their experience. This isn't normally a part of my job (not part of the 85% I love or the 15% I dred), but we found ourselves needing some extra help completing the project.

Though it made for three long days, it was a great experience. The vast majority of customers we spoke with made the task pleasant and enjoyable. I would say that 95 percent of the customers were friendly, kind and gave us valuable feedback. Then there were those five percent of customers who made the task more difficult. A few customers treated us like we had a communicable disease and were downright rude when we asked for their opinion. A few others took the survey but extended their bad attitude towards us as they did so.

It was a good reminder of working in the contact center. The vast majority of customers are pleasant, kind and respectful. It is always that small minority that makes the job more difficult. For some reason, our human nature tends to focus on the few difficult customers rather than the majority of pleasant experiences. It's like one of those optical illusion drawings where you can see different things depending on how you look at it.

If you're working the phones today, I'd encourage you to keep a note pad or sticky-note on your desk. Each time you have a pleasant, friendly customer – jot down a hash mark or write the customer's name on your sheet. When one of those negative customers comes along, look down at your sheet and refresh your memory of all the pleasant customers you've talked with.

Sometimes it takes a conscious effort to see the glass half full.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and bertiemabootoo

Communicate Quickly & Honestly, Even if the News is Bad

Waiting for installation. I've been mulling over my friend, Terry Starbucker's, list of ten surefire ways to impress your boss. Wow! What a great list. One of the items on his list jumped off the page this morning: Display common courtesy, especially by returning phone calls and emails. Why did that one stand out? Glad you asked.

My wife and I made a large investment to replace many of the windows in our house with some great Pella windows. We made the arrangements early in the summer and the windows were delivered in July. The contractor who is doing the work told us to order them and get them delivered, then he would work us into the schedule. The original projection was August. That was eventually moved to September, then  "mid-September." We are past mid-September and I haven't heard a word. This week I've left more than one message asking for an update. No response.

I'm assuming, by the lack of response, that the news is not good and the contractor has to push out the installation. In an effort to avoid the conflict, the messages are going unreturned. The problem is, the lack of response keeps us in the dark. Having no idea when the project will start is worse than being disappointed in the answer. The frustration of trying to get an answer is added to the disappointment of the schedule change.

Contrast this to a call I was analyzing for one of our clients who is in the manufacturing industry. A CSR had been out of the office due to a death in the family. In her absence, the team had not checked or responded to any of the CSR's messages. A loyal customer had been waiting for word on a crucial order for a week. When the CSR called to apologize and provide the information, the customer said:

"Oh, honey. Are you alright? I knew when you didn't call me back that something must be wrong. That's one of the things I appreciate about you. You're the only vendor who I can count on to immediately call me back. Even when you know I'm not going to like the news, you still call me. You have no idea how much I appreciate that."

Avoiding your customers because you've got bad news is only going to delay the moment of truth, increase your customer's frustration, and ensure an even worse conversation when you finally do call. Your customer may be dissatisfied with the news you have to deliver, but quick, honest communication minimizes the damage. Customer satisfaction is built on a foundation of honest communication: good news and bad.

Looking Back After Fifteen Years: Lessons Learned in Time

The race for quality is a marathon. Our group has had the blessing of earning the loyalty of several clients. I'm spending a few days this week coaching teams for one of our long-term clients. I have been analyzing calls and providing call coaching for this company (and some of the same individuals) for 15 years!

As I sat between call coaching sessions and pondered those 15 years, it struck me that there are some life lessons that only come with time and experience. In the realm of service quality, here are a few lessons that I've picked up over the long haul:

  • Service delivery is a human enterprise, given to a natural ebb and flow of life and the human condition. There are a few stellar service providers on this team. In fact, there is one who has the rare distinction of maintaining a perfect service score over an entire quarter. I've only seen one other person do that in fifteen years. Yet, over the long haul you can see that even this exceptional CSR has dips in the trend line. One of the things that a good QA program does for you is to help catch those dips and provide people two things: the knowledge that their service delviery is dipping and the specific behaviors that they are missing so the dip doesn't become bad habit.
  • When done correctly, QA is a marathon, not a sprint. There are a few CSRs on this team who did not buy in when we started fifteen years ago. They were slow to change, thinking that if they waited long enough the fad would wear out and they wouldn't have to change their behaviors. Guess what? It didn't go away. Their leadership's resolve to invest in QA over the long haul sent a clear message that taking exceptional care of customers was an expectation that does not go away. There are still a few CSRs who make it clear they'd prefer if I just went away (not in a mean way – they are just honest), but they eventually began to change their behaviors and build good habits.
  • There are different paths to excellence. I look at all the CSRs I've trained for this client through the years. Some were exceptional service providers from the start. Some were agonizingly slow to learn and adopt certain service skills in their delivery, but with continuous positive reinforcement they were able to attain a high level of proficiency. Some CSRs have maintained a "manic" trend line. Their service levels rise and fall with their mood, and only vigilant coaching has helped smooth out the peaks and valleys. There were a small group of CSRs through the years who responded only to the stern message from management that service quality was not optional. And a few, and only a few, were never willing to meet service expectations. A good QA program has to be flexible enough to meet individuals where they are and give them what they need to succeed.

Those are just a few thoughts bouncing around my head between sessions. Take heart, my QA colleauges. I've been doing this for 15 years and my brain isn't completely turned to mush, nor have they had to haul me off to a rubber room somewhere. Keep pressing on. The race for quality is a marathon. Pace yourself.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and eleftheriag

What are Your Principles Worth?

It's not always about the cash. Our group has certain guiding principles when it comes to the way we do business. For example, since Mr. Wenger founded the company back the 1980's we have refused to work with directly competing companies. The principle comes from an old teaching:

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.

We have never felt that it was right for us to say to one client "We are committed to your success and want you to be the best," then walk down the street to a competitor and say "We are committed to your success and want you to be the best."

So, if there is some question about conflict of interest, we go to our current client and ask them. They are our client. We are committed to their success. If they feel that a potential new client is a competitor, then we respectfully decline the business. If our current client doesn't see it as a conflict and doesn't care, then we will continue to pursue the potential project.

Of course, principles are easy to live by when times are good and it seems like there's plenty of work to go around. But, in the worst economy since the Great Depression, when revenues are fraction of what they were last year and new clients are as rare as a Chicago Cubs winning streak, it can certainly test your mettle. When a company comes looking for a project that could turn into a lucrative, long-term relationship – those pie-in-the-sky principles get put to the test. They have. They will.

In those moments I simply let my mind consider current client relationships that span five, ten, 15, and almost 20 years. I start calculating the time-value proposition of long term loyal clients, and the incalculable worth of the relationships they represent. It helps put a quick buck in perspective, even in the present economy.

Worthwhile principles prove their worth over the long haul.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and Thomas Hawk

Do We Have a Leadership Problem?

Leadership. I was recently with a client who has a team struggling to provide a consistent, quality service experience. The team is made up of senior agents who have all of the skills necessary to wow their customers, but a quick analysis of their phone calls reveals that they are stuck in a quagmire of mediocrity.

As I spent some time evaluating the situation, two things became very clear to me. The leader of this team is extremely competent and highly productive, but he doesn't care at all for the quality with which his team communicates with customers. The call center manager is aware that the team leader himself provides poor quality service, but is so pleased with his competent productivity that the poor quality is overlooked and ignored.

The result is that the entire team follows the example of their leaders. The CSRs can easily dismiss their own poor quality scores because their team leader doesn't care what they are, nor will they be held accountable to a higher standard. The call center manager can bark all he wants to about improving quality scores, but the daily reality on the call floor is that the team does whatever it wants and neither the team leader nor the manager does anything about it.

The head of a highly effective international organization, whom I respect, once addressed the issue of poorly performing teams. When confronting the fact that a team is not performing well, he gets the key players together in a room and starts by asking the question, "Do we have a leadership problem?" No leader in the chain of command is excused from consideration of the question.

I often witness managers, when grappling with poor performing teams, who start by asking questions like "Do we have a technology problem?" or "Do we have a training issue?" If your team is struggling, I would respectfully suggest that you start with an honest examination of leadership within the organization.

Are You Creating a “Powerful Customer Experience?” You Could Win!

Icmi acce logo I'm proud to have been asked to be part of the faculty for ICMI's ACCE Conference & Expo in Las Vegas October 5-9. My pre-conference workshop will focus on building an effective Quality Assessment scorecard. If you're building or revamping your QA scale, it would be a profitable 3 1/2 hour workshop for you and your team. The week will include a veritable plethora of valuable workshops, keynotes, and networking opportunities.

ICMI has just announced a contest in which you could win a free trip to the event! All you have to do is create a short, creative video describing how your call center is improving the power of your customers' experience.

Come on QAQnA readers! Get your team's creative caps on and come meet me in Vegas!!