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Building Service with a Smile

To ensure good customer service, HR professionals are helping to define and establish the behaviors employees must model.

HR Magazine, November 2006

There are many ways in which organizations differ, but there’s one way in which every organization is the same: Whether for-profit or not-for-profit, providing a product or a service, or operating in the manufacturing, education, health care or retail sector, every organization has customers.

Data abounds on the impact of customer satisfaction on customer loyalty and retention, and most companies would intuitively agree that it makes sense to provide good customer service. Yet many don’t, or don’t consistently.

Certainly that’s a business problem, but it’s also fundamentally an HR problem. At its core, good customer service is about your people treating other people in the manner they prefer—with respect, courtesy, speed. And if you aren’t working with your managers to define the customer skills employees need, informing employees of the specific behaviors they must model, and screening job applicants for those skills and behaviors, you aren’t doing your job—and your business will suffer.

A Tall Order

While we all know what “bad service” looks like—rude waitresses, surly check-out clerks, inept telephone representatives—good service is harder to define, especially when attempting to quantify exactly what your employees must do to provide the kind of service you need.

The definition really stems from two sources—your organization’s mission and values, and the expectations of your customers. Connecting the dots from these starting points to a well-oiled customer satisfaction machine requires HR professionals to engage in an ongoing cycle of establishing and evaluating behaviors.

Translating values into behaviors that foster good customer service—and good customer satisfaction ratings—is an iterative process that can work like this:

  • values provide the organization’s framework or direction.
  • Through research, the organization determines customer expectations.
  • Policies and standards are developed to support the values and to meet customers’ expectations.
  • Policies and standards are communicated to staff and embedded into job descriptions and performance standards.
  • The organization reinforces the standards by rewarding employee behaviors that support the standards and sanctioning those that do not.
  • New staff are hired based in part on an assessment of their ability to meet customer service standards.

Defining Your Service Culture

When it comes to customer service, there is no “one size fits all” solution. Instead, all organizations, whether it is explicitly stated or not, have a unique brand and service culture.

According to James Hazen, a psychologist and founder of Applied Behavioral Insights in Wexford, Pa., good service comes down to creating a positive and memorable customer experience. For example, Starbucks can command a premium price for its coffee drinks not just because of the quality of the beans, but because of the overall experience. And employees are an integral part of that experience.

In defining or creating your own service culture, Hazen points out, the question that must be answered is: “How do we want our customers to recall the experience of working with us?” The answer stems directly from your organization’s stated mission, vision and values. What are the things that you truly value in your culture, and how do these values affect activities across the organization?

At HomeBanc, an Atlanta business that offers home mortgage loans, customer service starts with the corporate values. “The ethos statement of our company is that if we put others first, we’ll never be second—and we really believe that,” says Ike Reighard, chief people officer.

Reighard is proud of his company’s strong service culture, and points out that each of the organization’s customer service initiatives is intimately connected to HR practices.

Translating company values into behavior, he says, requires explicit expectations about which behaviors employees must model. It also requires support and rewards for those behaviors.

For example, HomeBanc’s values include integrity, delivering world-class service and delivering results. These values are translated into behaviors that are expected from employees, such as keeping promises made to customers and colleagues.

Employees who consistently demonstrate the desired behaviors are recognized and rewarded not only through individual evaluation, but also through more visible efforts like “wow cards” that are sent to employees by colleagues or managers to recognize extra efforts they expend relating to customer service. Wow cards are noted in employees’ files and performance evaluations.

An even more prominent mechanism for rewarding customer service behavior is the Ron Hicks Award, named for an employee who “epitomized what we’re all about in terms of going above and beyond and showing the spirit of who we are in serving people,” says Reighard. Past winners include an employee who helped a customer move into a new home when a change in the move date prevented the customer from renting a truck. Another winner was a mortgage banker who chased down a UPS truck to retrieve a file so a customer’s loan closing would not be delayed.

Defining Customer Expectations

While mission and values are an important starting point for defining an organization’s service culture, another critical input is customer expectations. To define these expectations, many organizations rely heavily on customer surveys.

MetLife is one such organization. Grace Cowan, senior vice president of MetLife Customer Service, says surveys have shown that the company’s customers want employees who care, who are engaged and who have a positive, can-do attitude.

In terms of specific behaviors employees are expected to model, Cowan says the company looks for employees who are “being proactive, following through on commitments”—even if that requires employees to step outside their specific areas of expertise.

In general, MetLife focuses on the service attributes of caring, comfort, competence and confidence, says Cowan. “Our customers have confidence in what we do. Our employees are competent and have the skills and tools to know they’re delivering the right solution for the customer. Employees are comfortable in making tough decisions and doing the right things. And they’re caring, both about us [the company] and our customers.”

Customer expectations also are a key driver at Clearwater, Fla.-based MarineMax, the nation’s largest boat and yacht retailer, which sells and services premium pleasure craft at 100 locations in 20 states. The company culture is based on the premise that sales sell the first boat—and service the next four. Thus, the organization’s leaders know they need the right employees at every level who are committed to delivering legendary service that meets their customers’ needs.

The company goes “through great lengths to ascertain what the customer is looking for,” says Jay Avelino, vice president of team development. This is done through a variety of means including both qualitative and quantitative assessments that range from one-on-one interactions between customers and MarineMax’s service advisers to surveys of customers and critical analysis of results.

Hiring for Fit

The hiring process is “absolutely crucial” in ensuring that you have on hand employees who can deliver what your organization defines as good customer service, according to HomeBanc’s Reighard. “You need to make sure that you have people who possess the DNA that will allow you to have great customer satisfaction,” he says.

Yet, identifying applicants with the right attitude can be challenging. Almost universally, says Hazen, applicants will tell you they like working with people. But, he adds, “virtually anybody can walk in, smile at you, shake your hand, act friendly, look you in the eye, be dressed appropriately and have a successful interview.”

To find what employees are really like, organizations are increasingly turning to predictive hiring tools based on quantitative assessments that help identify candidates who meet the organization’s specific service competency needs.

Hazen’s firm conducts several thousand such assessments each year. “If you use interviews [alone] as your selection process,” he cautions, “the odds are that only 14 percent of your hires will ultimately be judged to be a ‘fit.’ That means that sitting on a park bench and hiring every seventh person would be as effective as traditional hiring processes.” Your odds of making a good hire can be increased, says Hazen—up to as high as 75 percent—“with the use of assessments and job matching.”

Hazen supports focusing on the specific requirements of a particular job, in a particular industry and at a particular organization. “State-of-the-art assessments allow you to ‘norm’ against proven success in a given company, rather than universal generic norms that would consider all salespeople to be alike, for instance.”

Norming against top employees is exactly what HomeBanc does. The organization uses a tool to assess candidates’ work-style preferences and compare them to HomeBanc’s best employees to see if applicants would be a good fit in the HomeBanc customer service environment.

The tool was developed by profiling existing employees who were considered the “best of the best,” says Reighard. These employees were rated on a variety of criteria, including:

  • Tenure with HomeBanc.
  • Positive performance reviews.
  • Successful leadership. (Formal leadership positions at the company and informal or community leadership were considered.)
  • Customer service award nominations.

The analysis of these associates—about 150 in the initial sample—revealed various work-style preferences, levels of dedication, commitment to others around them, desire to serve others, compassion for others, and a belief in ability to meet goals and objectives (e.g., positive attitude).

Once these attributes were isolated and determined to be neutral across all protected classes of potential employees (in other words, there were no age, race or sex biases), the test was designed to identify these desired qualities in potential hires.

Of course, while assessment tools are an important part of the hiring process, they should not constitute the entire process. These tools should be used in conjunction with interviews that include probing or behavioral questions in which applicants are asked to give examples of how they have performed in service situations in the past. Their responses can help to further hone in on some of the “softer” issues of fit related to your organization’s unique culture, mission, vision and values.

Putting It All Together

One organization that illustrates the life cycle of defining customer service standards, establishing specific standards for employee behavior and then hiring against those standards is Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, which focuses on meeting the needs of children through patient care, research and education.

Linda Matzigkeit, senior vice president of human resources, was directly involved in the organization’s initiative to reassess its customer service vision and define required service behaviors to be delivered by all employees. The initiative relied on a cross-functional team representing operations, HR and facility services to take a broad look at the issues. “We did a current state assessment and found a lot of inconsistencies depending on where the patient entered our organization,” says Matzigkeit.

Then, based on customer needs identified through surveys and patient interactions, the team worked together to answer the question: “What do we need to change to provide the ideal patient experience?”

In addition, Matzigkeit says, the team members realized they had to “keep it simple” to make it easier for employees to carry out the customer service mission.

While Children’s Healthcare had always been focused on service, Matzigkeit says it hadn’t taken the time to translate that focus into observable, quantifiable behavioral expectations that could be communicated to staff. Today, she says, employees are required to demonstrate four simple behaviors at all times—smile, greet, own and thank.

The organization instructs employees to model these behaviors in the following ways:

Smile and greet. Examples of expected behaviors include:

  • Look patients, families, other guests and other employees in the eye and smile.
  • Always say “good morning,” “good afternoon” or “good evening,” as appropriate.
  • Use this chance to assess customers’ status. Do they look lost or angry?
  • Smile when on the phone.

Own. Once employees address an issue or problem, they are expected to stay with the family or customer until the issue is resolved, or until an appropriate handoff can be made. In responding, employees are instructed to:

  • Introduce themselves.
  • Anticipate customers’ needs.
  • Listen to what customers have to say.
  • Answer customers’ questions.

Thank. Employees are instructed to always say “thank you” during or after detailed interactions with patients/families and customers. Examples include:

  • “Thank you for entrusting us with the care of your child.”
  • “Thank you for taking the time to listen to my explanation of this procedure.”
  • “Thank you for letting me help you. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

Employees also are instructed that if a customer should say “thank you” at any point during an interaction, the employee should respond with “my pleasure.”

These are the behaviors that Children’s Healthcare has determined are required to provide a “positive patient experience.” It seems simple but, as Matzigkeit points out, “I think everybody fundamentally knows that yes, you’re supposed to smile, but we had never told them specifically that these were our expectations.”

Children’s Healthcare monitors how well it’s delivering on service expectations through surveys of patients conducted by Press Ganey, a national vendor specializing in health care service. “We get scores every day, but report on a weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual basis, so we’re always monitoring where we’re at from a score standpoint,” says Matzigkeit.

To ensure that future workers can meet the organization’s customer service standard, Children’s Healthcare has started working with a vendor to implement a selection tool that it will use before interviews are ever conducted. For now, says Matzigkeit, interviews are focused on looking for new hires that can best deliver the four key behaviors of smile, greet, own and thank.

“We went back and looked at our interview questions and asked whether we were really assessing for these types of service behaviors. In some cases we were, but in some cases we weren’t. So we updated all of our interview guides to make sure we were assessing for the competency of service excellence.”

Assessing for service behaviors, says Matzigkeit, is critical. “We can teach employees how to be proactive in service and how to do service recovery [fix a problem caused by a service misstep], but it really has to come from within. You’ve got to genuinely be the kind of person who wants to work in a service-oriented environment.”

The tools that Children’s Healthcare is developing will help the organization quantitatively screen for these qualities. Matzigkeit is convinced that this approach is making a difference and the new focus on service is working. And she has the numbers to back it up.

For example, in July and August, the Children’s Immediate Care Centers exceeded customer service targets in all five priority questions on the survey. (These are the questions that staff can address through the behaviors of smiling, greeting, owning and thanking.)

Scores were particularly good for one question that focuses on the staff’s response to patient concerns and complaints—a factor that relates directly to the behaviors associated with owning. The target score for this question is 87.9; in July and August, the Immediate Care Centers exceeded that goal with ratings of 90.8 and 88.9, respectively.

But the proof of Children’s Healthcare’s efforts also is evident in more visible, tangible ways. Says Matzigkeit, “We have more people smiling in this place than you’ve ever seen.”

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues. She is the author of Human Resource Essentials: Your Guide to Starting and Running the HR Function (SHRM, 2002).


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