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Management Development

Training on how NOT to exceed expectations

How to lead organisational change
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My grades varied at school, but I always received an ‘A’ for effort. When I started work, “incentive” schemes ran from the premise that merely ‘achieving’ targets would leave you with a poor score; one needed to more than exceed in order to achieve top bonus results. But now the times are changing, and I’ve spent the last two years training staff on how to do less for customers.

To put this into context, I’m speaking about primarily customer-focused roles, where the emphasis has shifted from ‘going over and above’ to simply ‘meeting expectations’ or ‘doing the basics well.’

This is a common theme across sectors and industries. Increasingly, with globalisation, we have been forced to deal with large international companies that don’t have the reach to be able to deliver that intimate and personal service that you may previously have received from your local grocer or butcher.

At first, the struggle for those corporate giants lay in trying to deliver this personal service at a local level, while being operated from afar and without localised relationships. Over the last ten years, companies have struggled with this conflict.

Strategies have largely been divided into two camps; we are all familiar with the ‘sheep-dip’ type approach to customer service, in the manner of an Apple Store or Starbucks; where customers in any store around the world can anticipate a beaming smile and the use of their name or enquiries into their wellbeing. The clear strength of this approach is a very positive service and consistent standard. The downside is that it doesn’t take into consideration the different cultures and communities in which the stores are located.

The most common approach to customer service became the localised approach; companies give corporate guidelines and then empower staff on the ground to go 'over and above’ to help the customer. This is a technique particularly visible in bigger supermarket chains or clothing retailers. It can have a great impact on a brand by allowing staff to interpret great customer service in a way that is real for them and specific to the communities in which they work.

However, this approach will only work with well-trained and trusting management who are prepared to empower and accept the decisions of individuals on the frontline, potentially at a cost to the company. And arguably, a greater problem is the lack of consistency this creates to your service and brand - no two customers are likely to have the same experiences.

A Housing Manager I used to work with, (we’ll call him John), looked after a block of council flats housing over 200 people. He became concerned for an elderly resident he knew after the lifts broke down, and he offered to carry her shopping up for her whenever she needed. It turned out that she went shopping every day. So every day, she would call John and ask him to walk to her building and carry her shopping up. After a week of this, other residents noticed the treatment she was getting and enquired as to why they weren’t getting the same. Some of them had disabilities, were also elderly, or had other reasons for needing assistance. John had no option but to help them as well. This meant him regularly being called out of the office to carry shopping.

I love this story because John did nothing wrong and was in fact, empowered by the organisation he worked for, to make those decisions for the good of his customers (residents). However, his actions led to higher levels of complaints from people in the same block who felt this lady had received preferential service; and then from the wider estate, who wanted to know why their housing managers were not doing the same. He ultimately cost the company money in the time he was spending out of the office and his disrupted work. John was not a deliveryman and was failing to do his job because of his desire to give top-level customer service.

Say “No” to the customer. Customer service training has seen a radical transformation in the past few years. Common mantras in the previous management handbook might include ‘the customer is always right’ or ‘always say yes’. Now they are likely to train staff on ‘how to say no’, ‘assertiveness training’ and the ‘firm, but fair’ approach. Although counter-intuitive, giving customers fewer options and a less personalised experience is likely to lead to a reduction in complaints and an increase in efficiency and productivity due to the consistency of the service and the reduction in time wasted by staff.

In addition to this, the customer is changing! Increasingly customers prefer to have as little physical interaction as possible with their providers and would rather do things for themselves online or using an app. This affects what they look for when physically interacting with a staff member, increasingly rating an efficient and fast service over one where they receive a personalised service (Institute of Customer Service).

I’m not suggesting that you should promote a sub-standard service, but when looking at your customer service training, it is worth challenging those presumptions that remain around what customers really want and require. Maybe a ‘B’ for effort would create greater satisfaction.

Rachel Sedgwick is a People Development Consultant and Trainer at Citywest Homes.