Communicate for Success

Communication is an essential requirement in order to achieve team success in any endeavor.  This is especially true in the field of Project Management.  Communication sounds simple in premise, but presents numerous challenges in practice.  Below are three considerations when making decisions regarding communication with stakeholders.

Consider Purpose

All communication should serve a specific purpose.  Are you seeking to inform the recipients or to illicit feedback?  Are you attempting to manage tasks or manage people? The purpose of communication bares heavily on the methods, tone, and language to be used.  A project manager in a position of authority over an employee may be able to assign tasks and provide feedback on deliverables directly, whereas in other situations it may be necessary to communicate through appropriate channels to have tasks completed.  The purpose of the communication will effect both the delivery and the choice of delivery vehicle.

Consider Interest

The interest level of each project stakeholder may vary drastically from person to person. Be careful not to confuse level of interest with amplitude of effect.  A stakeholder may be in a position to experience enormous change based on a specific project and still show little interest in the daily operations.  As a general rule, stakeholder interest should have some bearing on frequency of communication from the project manager as well as communication method.  A balance must be reached between spending too much time communicating with high-interest parties will small stake in the project and communicating too little with low-interest parties with high stakes in the project.  A good rule of thumb is to err on the side of too-frequent communication initially and then seek feedback from stakeholders regarding frequency of communication.

Consider Personality

Each stakeholder on a project will have a unique personality that must be considered. While not every individual will require communicative differentiation, specific individuals may require different approaches – depending on the purpose of communication.  Any efforts to persuade or resolve conflict are especially susceptible to failings in communications due to personality.  A project manager may discover that the words that are being read or heard are being perceived very differently than the words that are being written or spoken.


An excellent tip is to include results of communication methods with various personality types in the Lessons Learned documents.  Over time, a project manager may develop a decent tool kit of go-to communication techniques when working with specific personality types.

While communication is simple – good communication is not.  Always be open to feedback and remember that your opinion about how you communicate is not as important as the opinion of those with who you are communicating.

 

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Communicate with Consideration

Proper communication is essential to successful customer service.  Unfortunately, sometimes our attempts to communicate appropriately with customers yield unintended consequences.  For example, certain words and/or phrases may seem ideal for use with customer interactions, but may actually convey the wrong message.

Take the word “can’t,” for example.  You will most likely find this word used by customer services agents when stating they ‘can’t’ fulfill a customer’s request or provide the service the customer is seeking.  The problem with “can’t” is that customers have been trained not to believe it.  When an agent states they can’t provide a service, there may in fact be a very good reason.  Many customers hear this word, however, and immediately think, “Well, if you can’t provide what I want – please connect me with someone who can.”  Customers can never be sure if you are stating that you can not perform a task because you are truly not capable, or simply not allowed.  Without good reason to think otherwise, customers will natural default to believing the latter.

This can be a tricky circumstance to avoid depending on the type of services your company provides.  When a customer is specifically asking for money in some form – refunds, discounts, free products or services – it is not always in your best interest to honor the customers request.  Your company may have completely fulfilled any obligations to the customer in good faith and yet they are still upset.  As I discuss in “Meeting the Demand – Do We Support the Culture of Complaining,” conceding to customer requests in these situations may do more long-term harm than good by training customers to complain their way to success.

Sometimes “can’t” sounds like “won’t” and since customers usually assume their needs are reasonable, “won’t” may elicit a highly emotional response from the customer.  When a customer perceives your response to their concerns as unfair or inequitable, they can quickly turn from calm and collected to angry and emotional.

More often than not, customers do not know or understand that reasons behind  our decisions, nor should we expect them to.  Logical discourse is unlikely to change their perception.  We can, however, develop guidelines around our customer service communication to help improve outcomes.


Be Honest with Customers

Instead of telling them you can’t grant their request when in reality you could, be honest and let them know that you do not consider the request reasonable.  Be prepared to site the rational behind this decision.  You may not placate the customer in this way, but at least you will be clear regarding and potentially earn respect for being forthcoming.

Focus on the Positive

Whenever possible, draw the customers attention to what you can do for them and away from what you cannot.  Approach each interaction under the assumption that the customer wants the best possible outcome for themselves, but is also a reasonable individual who recognizes and respects potential business limitations.

Escalate with Caution

Escalation of customers to a supervisor or manager is certainly necessary at times, however, it has the unfortunate side effect of enforcing the perception that customer service representatives are simple middle men with no real power to act on behalf of the customer.  If possible, place the customer or hold or arrange to call them back, speak to the manager, and then deliver the message yourself.


 

Communication is one of the most difficult and yet crucial aspects of serving customers.  How are you communicating?  Leave a comment below!

 

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Persistence in Negotiation Leads to Improved Outcomes

Customer service is a give and take.  We want our customers to be extremely satisfied with our services, but we also need to be good stewards of our organizational resources.  We have a responsibility to those who provide us with employment, but also a responsibility to those people who make that employment possible in the first place.  We cannot always provide customers with everything they are requesting.  It stands to reason then, that negotiation is an essential skill for customer service professionals.

Not all customer requests are reasonable.  In my recent post The Entitlement Mentality – Customer Service in the Era of High Expectations,” I discuss, in part, the current culture of entitlement (whether real or perceived) and the effect that culture has on customer service.  Specifically, customers are expecting more from our organizations and we cannot always deliver.  On occasion, we must say ‘no’ to customers for a wide variety of reasons. Perhaps the customer is requesting free or reduced-cost services that are not warranted and would result in a significant loss for the company.  Perhaps a customer is requesting an exception from standard operating policy that could potentially lead to a slippery slope. Perhaps a customer is requesting actions that are blatantly illegal!  In any of these situations, the customer’s satisfaction depends on our ability to negotiate a successful compromise between what is best for the customer and what is best for the company.

There are many tips and tricks to successful negotiation, I would like to focus on one in particular – persistence.

When we are dealing with demanding customers, persistence is essential to jointly positive outcomes.  In these situations, persistence refers to the ability to firmly reiterate your capabilities with patience and through a variety of methods.  In my previous post, Meeting the Demand – Do We Support the Culture of Complaining?” I discuss how time is a key component to successful mediation.  Angry customers require more energy than passive ones.  The longer a customer is on the phone, the greater your ability to encourage calm, open communication.

It is nearly impossible to establish a mutually beneficial resolution to problems when one party is severely emotional.  The expectation for these situations must be that the requisite amount of time will be spent speaking with the customer until they are calm enough to speak rationally.  Depending on the customer, this could easily be 30 minutes to an hour before any meaningful attempt at resolution can be initiated.  For this reason, I encourage all organizations to hire a professional ‘customer anger advocate’ who is transferred all calls from angry customers to be yelled at until the customer grows weary with exhaustion.  (Okay, not really, but if you’re in customer service I bet some version of this thought has crossed your mind!)

Persistent is key for another reason as well.  The development of the customer service structure over the years has led to a place where customers know that the first person they speak to can rarely provide the maximum level of concessions.  The phrase, “I’d like to speak to your manager,” has become the go-to starting line for displeased customers in almost every situation.

I recently encountered a customer who was displeased with the services that we were able to provide.  This customer was under no obligation to use our business and could have easily gone elsewhere for the services he was seeking.  Instead, he yelled at the customer service representative, hung up, and then called back and asked to speak to the CEO. There was no progressive escalation and we were not granted the opportunity to address the customers concerns.

To be clear, we had not performed any services for this customer and he was not complaining about poor performance on our part.  He was upset that we did not offer the service he desired in the manner in which he desired it.  His reaction was akin to contacting the CEO of Baskin Robbins because they were not currently stocking your favorite flavor of ice cream.  Given the circumstances, most rational people would likely consider his reaction extreme.

This customer was in fact transferred to the CEO’s office.  I am not certain how much time was spent by senior management listening to this customer complain that we could not provide the service he desired.  The interesting fact is that there was a process in place to address and provide support for the customer’s specific concern and the customer service agent was attempting to initiate that process with the customer when he hung up.  In the end, the customer went through this process and received the service he was seeking.

Customer access to upper management is increasing, and from a purely financial standpoint, an hour of customer service rep time is not equivalent to an hour of Executive Vice President time.  Our customer service reps must be persistent with customer interactions to minimize and/or avoid escalation whenever possible. Otherwise, we support a system where upper management is unable to perform the tasks for which they have been hired. This brings us to the issue of employee empowerment – but that is a topic for another discussion!

Leave a comment below regarding your thoughts on customer negotiation – and thanks for reading!

 

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Is Honesty the Best Policy?

A recent conversation from the Bay Area Regional Transit (BART) Twitter feed has drawn national attention for its honesty and transparency.  Local service disruptions had caused many people to take to social media to express their frustration with the BART service. Surprisingly, BART answered back.

In an hours long back-and-forth conversation, a BART employee responded to a barrage of customer complaints with candid statements regarding capabilities, infrastructure, and the reality of BART’s operating situation.  Many CEOs would cringe at the thought of a single statement leaked to the public revealing internal weakness, yet this conversation was very open regarding BART’s current challenges.  Here is one interaction from the Twitter stream on March 16th:

BART1

The evening continued with many more upset tweets from patrons and calm, candid responses from BART.  It was an event of amazing honesty that has garnered much respect for BART and increased public awareness of both their challenges and efforts.

So, is honesty the best policy?

The conversation between BART and its patrons brings up an important point to consider when addressing public transparency, specifically, the difference between an explanation and an excuse.  To many people, this difference does not exist.  Any attempt to provide information regarding the reasons for service difficulties will be viewed as excuses by some individuals.  What you must remember with transparency is that you can only control the presentation; you cannot control the response.

Customers will respond to your attempts to be transparent based on their individual personalities and perceptions.  Once you have made the choice to become transparent, many people will view these efforts as attempts to make excuses, gain sympathy or support, or avoid providing the services they expect or demand.  For these customers, the only cure is consistency.  Transparency for a single moment will be viewed with suspicion. An established culture of transparency built over time is the only tactic that will change their perception.

The modern corporate climate puts a great emphasis on transparency.  Customers frequently demand it.  Governments attempt to legislate it.  Businesses appear to be on board, but do not always follow through.  The issue is complicated, to be sure.  At what point does transparency create a disadvantage by revealing actionable information to competitors?  Do we potentially provide ammunition to dissatisfied customers or even encourage legal action against?

The key to honest communication with customers is a willingness to recognize and discuss the challenges faced by your organization that have a direct impact on the customer experience.  The approach in these interactions should be to provide information.  The  goal is to increase customer loyalty and understanding.  Sometimes we experience operational issues with out service capabilities that have a direct influence on customers. The worst choice we can make in these scenarios is to pretend that problems do not exist. This is the fastest way to lose customer respect.  An honest statement of our abilities garners greater customer appreciation than a fabrication followed by a failure to execute. Here is an excellent example of providing information and correcting misinformation from the BART twitter feed:

BART2

How does your organization view public transparency?  Leave a comment below and thanks for reading!

 

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Meeting the Demand – Do we Support the Culture of Complaining?

Customers can be demanding.  I am not referring to the typical customer interaction wherein the customer calmly expresses their needs and we do what we can to accommodate those needs.  I am thinking of the customers who outright demand an action or service.  These customers may threaten escalation or legal actions, or may angrily tell us – rather than asking – what we will do for them.

 

The question of how to handle these customers is a difficult one.  Should we deny their demands to prove a point or to discourage this type of attitude?  Should we acquiesce to their demands to avoid confrontation?  Some people may view this approach as “giving in.”  Others may consider it an unfortunate necessity of doing business.  There is not a definitively correct answer to this question.  There are many factors that must be considered when making this determination for your organization.

Customers have power, and the depth of that power is continuing to increase as technology and social media expand.  A single individual with a strong enough voice or a wide enough audience can do lasting harm to your business.  Comments, posts, tweets, and videos travel across the world instantly.  The 2013 Accenture Global Consumer Pulse Survey found that 48% of U.S. customers use official online review sites and 25% use social media to learn about a company’s products and services – and an even more significant 71% use word-of-mouth from friends and family for the same purpose.  This means 3 out of every 4 of your customers are making decisions about whether or not to do business with you based on the positive or negative perceptions of their acquaintances!  And technology has dramatically increased the ease and speed with which customers are able to gain this information.

“Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”

                                                                                                              – Bill Gates

With this in mind, it may seem that making all customers happy regardless of their attitude or approach to your employees may be the best idea.  After all, one negative review of your business can drive away a potential 80% of customers, and it takes 10 to 12 positive reviews to offset the damage caused by one negative.

Is this truly the best approach?  The world is full of people who choose to express themselves in horrible ways.  (Anger management is an actual thing, after all.)  Some people express themselves in ways that are worse than others – and some of these people are your customers!

The danger in granting customer demands (versus requests) is that you can quickly teach your customers that complaining is the path to success.  When a customer is demanding and/or threatening and is then rewarded with having their demands met, this reinforces the behavior.  The action supports a “culture of complaint” in which customers realize that the key to getting what they want is complaining hard enough.  This is in no way a novel concept.  It is, for example, the overwhelmingly predominant persuasive tactic of 2-year-olds.  When the habit is encouraged among adults, however, a life-long customer may become a life-long complainer – and is that the type of customer your business wants?

Unfortunately, the opposite hard-line approach presents its own challenges.  When a customer’s demands are denied they may very well take action on specified threats.  While your business may have little to fear from the direct financial fallout of customer actions, you are guaranteed to lose a significant amount of an equally valuable resource – time.  It takes significant time and effort to communicate with demanding customers, to escalate issues as needed, and to find and respond to negative comments online.  The time savings alone may be reason enough to grant customer demands and move on.

Is it possible to meet customer demands without contributing to the customer’s belief that complaining works?  Perhaps not, but for those seeking a potential middle ground here are some techniques to consider.

When a customer has made specific demands and you have decided to grant those demands, make it clear to the customer that their statements or attitude had no impact on the eventual outcome.  Perhaps the customer made a demand that you would have been both willing and able to readily grant had it been presented as a request.  Let the customer know that their specific request is common and that you would be more than happy to grant their wishes.

One of my customer service representatives recently had a customer who fell into this category.  The customer demanded a service that we routinely provide and threatened litigation should the representative deny her demands.  Not only did the representative grant her demands, she made sure to emphasize that this service was a significant focus of our team and the majority of our time was spent addressing her exact request as received from other customers.  The customer’s needs were met and the belief that success was due to aggressive complaint was mitigated.

When you have decided not to grant the customer’s demands, treat any threats seriously. Let the customer know that, unfortunately, you will not be able to grant their requests. Provide basic reasons for denial as appropriate, but attempt to avoid unnecessary detail unless the customer specifically requests it.

Once a customer has presented with an angry disposition, it is very difficult for them to alter that presentation to a calm, reasonable disposition without appearing weak – especially in the face of denial.  When they hear ‘no,’ they are essentially forced to double down on any previously issued statements.  Make sure your customer service representatives are prepared to address standard threatening approaches in a non-confrontational manner.

Respond to threats of lost business with understanding.  You may go so far as to prepare your representatives to propose potential alternate solutions outside your own organization – though this is still frowned upon by many senior leaders.  Prepare to respond to threats of litigation by referring the customer to the appropriate party in your organization who handles these issues or asking the customer if they would like this individual to reach out to them.

In these situations, it is important to refer to the customers’ demands as ‘requests’.  The purpose of making demands from the customer’s perspective is not to be seen as demanding, but to support the strongest possible chance that their needs will be met.

The topic of customer demands and threats is not easy to address and does not have a simple remedy. Many business will decide that the path of least resistance is the best option available to them out of a bucket of bad options.  For those who determine otherwise, however, I wish you the best of luck in your endeavors.

How do you handle customer demands at work?  Should we all as members of society make a more concerted effort to change the ‘culture of complaint’?  Leave a comment below with your thoughts!

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Rising to the Challenge – Develop Employees through Responsibility and Motivation

Pressure

As a sophomore in college, I was in the position of lead oboist for every major performing ensemble at my university.  My performance quickly progressed from that of a mediocre background player to a capable and confident solo musician who still perform to this day.

In both of these situations, the influencing factor was pressure.  I was placed into a position in which other people were relying on me, not only as part of a team, but as a leader as well.  I was able to rise to these challenges through dedicated effort, concentrated focus, and intrinsic motivation.  Intrinsic motivation is the idea that we chose our behaviors based on internal rather than external rewards – rewards such as feelings of accomplishment.  In the above examples, I felt a strong sense of responsibility for my contribution to the team and was able to channel this feeling into superior commitment yielding significant positive results.

This is a concept that we may utilize when seeking to develop our employees.  Employee development should be an ongoing consideration for leaders at all levels of an organization.  We may use pressure as a tool to move employees out of their comfort zones and into a position where rapid growth is possible.  Provide employees with opportunities to perform work or functions outside their typical scope of practice.  These opportunities should be tailored to the individual and may range from individual projects to cross-training for additional skills.  No one assignment will be right for every employee.


“Accept the Challenges so That You Can Feel the Exhilaration of Victory”

George S. Patton

The key factor to consider when increasing employee responsibility is personality.  For those employees that exhibit a strong drive to constantly improve themselves, little extra effort may be required on your part beyond assigning additional tasks and providing guidance and access to resources.  These employees are likely intrinsically motivated and require minimal incentive to increase their contribution to the team.  It is your responsibility as a leader to provide these employees with challenges and guidance to meet these challenges.

For those employees who lack this motivation, it is something that can be developed.  The trick is to provide external motivation that encourages the feelings associated with intrinsic motivation.  These employees will require smaller tasks – most likely assigned in stages.  While each person is different, here are some general guidelines to develop these employees and help them rise to meet new challenges:

1. Praise Early and Often

These employees will likely require more recognition than their intrinsically motivated peers.  Be sure to recognize them for small progress toward the eventually goal.  Do not wait until the end of the task.  When reasonable, make this praise public as this will create a cascading effect that is far more powerful than recognition from a single source.

2. Provide High-Profile Tasks

Give these employees assignments with wide organizational effects whenever possible.  The additional visibility will have the dual benefit of creating positive peer pressure and increasing the potential possibilities for recognition.  Just make sure the tasks are assigned in small increments so as not to be overwhelming.

3. Be Hands-On

These are not the employees to assign a task and then check back in a week.  You must monitor progress on a frequent basis – preferably in the guise of offering assistance.  If it seems the task is potentially overwhelming – they break it into even smaller pieces with predetermined progress milestones.

For both types of employees, the goal is to provide flexibility in the tasks that allow for independent decision-making.  These should not be data-entry, cut-and-paste style activities.  The opportunity for creativity and autonomy on some level is necessary for optimal development.

Employee development is crucial to creating a satisfied and engaged workforce.  Leaders who embrace this responsibility will find that the effort pays rich rewards.

What are your tips for developing employees through their current positions?  Leave a comment below!

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The Anomaly – When Customers Have a Lot to Complain About

The majority of customer interactions fall into the same general categories.  The categories may differ depending on the industry, but anyone in direct communication with customers for an extended period of time will notice recurring themes in customer needs. We listen to the same basic complaints, we address the same essential problems, and we participate in the same basic conversations.  This consistency in customer interactions is truly a wonderful thing.  It allows us to anticipate the needs of our customers and develop processes around our customer service.  Without these processes, we would have no ability to empower our customer service representations to act on behalf of the customer.

Just like any data set, however, not all customer interactions fall nicely into established categories.  While we may spend the majority of our time addressing single issues as they arise, once in a while we encounter the customer on the extremes – the outlier – the anomaly.  This is the customer who has had the extreme bad fortune to experience a series of negative events that would normally occur on a singular basis to most customers.  Perhaps a package was deliver to the wrong address, with the wrong product, and that product was broken.  Perhaps a customer’s credit card was charged twice for an incorrect purchase twice in a row.  Maybe all of this happened to the same customer.

Whatever the specific circumstances, these customers are like a coin flip that lands on heads 100 times in a row; it’s bound to happen to someone eventually, but thankfully (or perhaps hopefully) not that often.  In these situations, it is certainly difficult to salvage the customer relationship – but not impossible.  Here are three tips to turn the situation around and help repair the relationship.


Be Honest

Fess up.  Acknowledging the depth of the screw-up on the part of your organization is crucial.  Do not hesitate to tell the customer the truth about the problems they are experiencing, specifically addressing how infrequently you encounter problems of the current quantity or magnitude.  If it is the worst failure story you’ve ever heard from a customer – let them know that.  If you fail to address the severity or quantity (or both) of the failures then it will appear to the customer as though that level of failure is a standard event at your organization.  Make sure they know exactly how bad it really is.

This can be handled in a tactful, or damaging way – so it is important to be cautious with phrasing.  Statements such as, “I’m sorry to hear that and I’d be glad to assist with that problem” may seem helpful, but fail to communicate to the customer that you grasp the scope of the problems at hand.  A better choice is to express genuine surprise at the size of the customers concerns without being dismissive.

Dedicate the Time

Plan a time to call the customer when you can be assured uninterrupted time for at least an hour.  If you are receiving an incoming call that seems to be beyond the limits of what may be reasonably addressed, make arrangements to call the customer at a later time.  During the call, do not initiate an end to the conversation if at all possible.  Customers often like to repeat their complaints or main points multiple times.  This is one way in which they feel heard.  It is far better that they vent to you than to their friends and family.

Have you ever told a story so many times that you grew tired of telling it?  That is the principal behind this suggestion.  By continually recognizing the immensity or the failures on the part of your organization, the customer will have multiple opportunities to respond – potentially provided ever-increasing depth to their concerns in the process.  Being actively angry for an extended period of time is physically tiring.  Allowing the customer to work out their anger with you as the recipient is optimal.  Over time, anger may subside and a more rational and less emotional conversation may be possible.

Focus on the Positive

With such an abundance of negative being discussed it can be difficult to find positive elements to the conversation.  Start by thanking the customer for being willing to discuss their problems.  Let the customer know that, while you were sorry that these problems were occurring for the customer, you are glad that you had the opportunity to help solve them.  Also, by hearing of these issues now other customers may be spared the same fate.  Request permission from the customer to use their story in future employee training.  There is always a positive to be found in the sea of negative, it just may take some searching to locate.


What tricks do you have for responding to customers who have a lot to complain about?  Please leave a comment below!

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