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Why customer service training won’t work

Idora Silver

Many times over my 21 years in business, I have been asked to present customer service training programs to company employees. I have been proud to conduct high-level, interactive customer service training sessions designed to give sales reps and other employees tactics and techniques to improve their interactions with customers and clients.

And, hey, I’m a good trainer. I’ve always worked hard to make the programs meaty and fun. We use handouts and audio-visuals and have ourselves a good time. The evaluations have been positive, with many folks reporting that they learned some valuable stuff. Unfortunately, though, some of the attendees were able to use the techniques to improve their customer relationships, many never did and never changed much.

It’s taken me a few years to figure out why – and I should have done so sooner. As a management consultant specializing in organizational development, I understand the importance of structure and systems in the productivity and profitability of companies. Customer service is a strong reflection of such structure and systems. Unless the company structure is designed to require and reinforce good people skills, no one will need to get better. Good people will be fine (unless something else demoralizes them) and the bad ones will stay the same, handling your customers in less than caring and professional ways.

Here’s the deal. An ODD an Organizational Development Diva like me can’t be expected to “fix the people” unless management supports good customer skills through the way it adheres to lines of authority and processes for employee evaluation and development.

Many times I’ve been called in to “fix the people.” They don’t get along with one another, they are not helpful and loving enough of the customers and they don’t handle complaints and conflicts very well. I have been told to do anything I want with the employees and to basically leave management alone. I was happy for the work and really believed that good training would result in good behavior.

Unfortunately, I was mistaken. I still think that my programs were solid, but real improvement in an organization takes the appropriate structure and systems to instill and reinforce great customer relations skills.

The structure of your organization is key. I favor traditional structures, where there is an executive level determining strategy and ideology, a management level to guide the employees, and staff to do the work of the business in the ways so proscribed. I know there is a big push for the so-called team concept, but this only works when there is a mechanism for setting direction and having the clout to enforce desired behaviors.

It starts at the top. Management levels need to make customer service a priority and enforce it through all their personal and corporate actions. I can’t “fix” the staff if the top people are rude, dismissive, and unwilling to model appropriate behaviors.

Communication within the company needs to follow clear lines of authority so that everyone knows what’s going on. Communication needs to flow both downward from management to staff and upwards from staff to management without reprisals.

Systems are the next key. There need to be policies in place regarding how you want customers treated and these policies need to be made clear to everyone. People who violate these policies and act in ways that do not support your ideological approach to dealing with clients need to be disciplined in the most regular and legal ways available. They need what’s called progressive discipline in order to go through the necessary steps to help them improve their behaviors or they get axed.

People who don’t interact well with customers and co-workers are a drain on everyone and, if they can’t or won’t improve, need to be gone.

Now, this is where training comes into play. Once I know that there is a clear structure in the organization, that lines of authority and communication are being used effectively, that there is a system actually being used to help enforce your style of interactions, then and only then will I come in to train.

Training is the last action to take, not the first. I would rather have my clients invest a great deal to fortify their structure and systems, than to throw one dollar away on training that will not stick. (I am my father’s daughter to be sure). I love to conduct training on interpersonal communication skills, nonverbal communication, the joy of the complaining customer, and empathetic listening, but I’m in it for the long haul (21 more years?), not the short run. Aren’t you? That’s the bottom line for all of us.

Idora Silver is chief executive officer of the Reno-based I. Silver Management Group, Inc.