I remember when I started working in retail at a customer facing position. It was my first real job and didn’t really have a clue how to do anything.
I was promised a quick customer service training and was really looking forward to it. I love working with customers and was eager to learn new ways to approach them and create a good experience.
However my hopes were quickly shattered as I started my training. To be perfectly honest I shouldn’t even call it training but that’s how it was presented to me by the company.
I was a student at the time and therefore signed a part-time student contract. Needless to say that I was at the bottom of the chain. As I understand it, the company wasn’t really willing to put in time and efforts into training someone that was only going to be there few hours a week. Even if I eventually stayed 2 years with them.
This was a set back but I honestly don’t mind learning by doing.
I still remember going there on my first day. I was briefly introduced to the team and thrown in there with no experience what so ever. As the day went by it became clear that my supervisor had a lot of experience in doing but not so much in training. I basically spent my first day wondering why I was there and fighting this recurring thought that I was actually getting in the way more than helping. Not that the staff wasn’t nice to me. Just that they didn’t really know how to include me.
On my second day the training really began! The reason was that I would spend part of my next day alone and needed to know the basics to “not mess everything up”. I was taught mainly technical things such as names of the products and how to operate the register.
I did however learn few things about customer service by observing my colleagues work. At this point I wasn’t as concerned about doing an excellent job as I was about blending in. So peer pressure applied and I decided to just replicate what my colleagues were doing:
– “always greet customers with a smile” turned into “try to smile but if you’re unhappy you can let everyone know”
– “build relationships with customers (especially returning ones)” became “you don’t have time to make small talk, there’s always something to do”
– “do anything to please the customer” quickly turned into “if it’s not directly related to your job, then you can’t help them (again there’s no time for that)”
AND of course all our breaks were dedicated to complaining about customers or managers. Both doing everything in their power to make our life a living hell.
The worst part is that I started to believe that. I started hating customers who didn’t make my job easy. I’m talking about the ones who came in just before closing time, the ones who asked for things that were harder for me to do, or even the ones who came to me while I was cleaning up the shelves (knowing that the customer was always the priority and that’s how it should be, don’t get me wrong).
Now I think about those years and can’t help but wonder. How did I turn into a customer hater?
That’s certainly not how I planned to act and feel when I started working. It just slowly came over me and I then passed it onto the new employees I trained. That’s something that really doesn’t make me proud but it’s the truth: I trained others to become customer haters.
Now my goal is to see how that happened to help you make sure it doesn’t happen in your company. I’m sure you don’t want your customer service training to turn employees into haters.
Here are few key lessons I get from my personal experience:
Foster better relationships between managers and front line employees
In my example most employees were actually pretty nice to clients (we had good feedback compared to other stores). The problem was they hated the management team and were ready to do anything to show they were not happy to work for them.
There was no strong reason to hate managers. They were not unfair, or constantly yelling at us. They just didn’t treat us as their peers.
As futile as this might seem it actually creates a wall between employees that’s really hard to destroy. I remember managers seldom sat with us during breaks and the only time my direct supervisor asked me how I was doing was during the annual review meeting.
I quickly got the feeling that managers were from another world and didn’t really care about us. They were like kings and we were peasants. I know that’s how most of my colleagues felt like and many issues came from that feeling.
That led to us feeling really bad about our job and therefore not wanting to really put extra efforts into it.
The best moments I can remember were when managers came to do front line jobs. We were a little short on staff and it wasn’t rare to see them restocking shelves or serving customers. In those moments we actually felt like a team and you could see people lighting up and treating clients a lot better.
The key point is that they were not there to watch us, they were here to do the same job as us. You can’t imagine how good it feels for a front line employee to have a manager ask them for advice on how to do things.
Beware of bad peer pressure
Peer pressure can be your best friend or your worst enemy. The only thing that’s sure is that you will need to take it into consideration.
I never worked somewhere where I wasn’t confronted to peer pressure. I experienced both bad and good pressure and learnt a lot from it.
My previous example was clearly about bad peer pressure. With management’s little involvement I had to learn from my peers and the problem was no one before me really had any formal training regarding customer service, company values or anything else really.
This resulted in an underground corporate culture created by front line employees themselves. Just let me tell you it wasn’t pretty to look at. Employees felt undervalued and hated their jobs. Our common “culture” revolved around few guidelines like “hating the company”, “hating managers” and “hating customers”. It created things to talk about and a weird sense of belonging. Our jobs sucked but at least we were in there together.
Imagine if that sense of belonging was created around positive values?
I’ve actually been there and experienced positive peer pressure. It was back in my early university days. I had to find my first serious internship and ended up getting this summer 4 months placement in the communication department of a big food company.
I worked directly with customers again but in a much happier environment. I was amazed at how the company created a strong sense of belonging around this very positive eco-friendly culture. Here’s the first step I went through and that partly explains how the company had such a successful culture:
The first 3 days of the internship were dedicated to a general training about the brand. We learnt about the company’s values, where and how much products they were selling, the challenges they were facing and also toured the factory and were told about how important safety is.
All new (or returning after more than 6 months break) employees were required to go through this 3 days training and I remember we had few factory workers with us on the first day. This one guy said something that I still remember today: “Listen to the safety rules, they don’t mess around with that, you can be fired for not wearing your helmet even once. They’re doing it for us you know”.
This sentence is perfect to illustrate the success of those tranings. There are 2 really important points made by this worker:
– the company doesn’t allow anyone to disregard their rules (prevents bad peer pressure)
– they make sure workers know why the rules exist (I think everyone there was really aware that safety rules existed to protect them and not just annoy them)
I loved working there and started loving customers again. I was proud to represent the company and get its message out there and so were all of my colleagues. Of course we still had few customers I didn’t really like dealing with but I did it with a smile on my face and all the words I could find to make them calm down.
Design your customer service training with employees in mind not your company
All brands want customer service to send out a positive image of the product and the company to the world. What they forget is that this positive image is communicated by their employees.
Too many companies make the mistake of designing customer service training thinking about how it can benefit the company. The goal should be to help employees acquiring new essential skills.
By helping your employees you are making them feel valued and you are eventually helping your company. Most customer service representatives would love to learn how to face angry customers or what to say when they don’t have the answer.
What do companies do instead of training them? They give them scripts to follow. Or even worst, just they don’t give them any guidelines.
My training didn’t teach me anything valuable. Sure I can operate a register but I’m still not sure how I was supposed to treat customers. I never really knew who I was supposed to call if I didn’t have an answer. So I did what seemed like the best thing to do, I refered people to one of my older colleagues.
I am sure I could have learnt a lot from this job, but I never really had anyone to teach me. Front line employees never got tools to get better at their job. It seemed like no one really ever took the time to think about customer service. This was just considered as a natural skill every employee had.
It’s not easy for employees to know how to react in front of customers. You can’t assume that they all have exceptional social skills and don’t need training.
You need to give your front line employees the tools to succeed!