This article was originally featured by Arizona State University’s Center for Service Leadership on October 2nd, 2015.
Several years ago, I met a successful customer service director from a retail bank. She had led the charge to bring customer experience thinking into the bank’s branch operations and call centers, defining how the company’s brand promise should be reflected in customer interactions. In fact, they had developed a specific greeting that employees were supposed to use. Every time a customer entered a branch or called a call center, the bank employee greeted them with exactly the same phrase.
While there is good reason to set standards for customer experience delivery, this example raises an important question about the best approach to take. When customer experience standards become too rigid and scripted, interactions that should feel personal can lose their authenticity — leaving customers with an awkward feeling at best.
Too much rigidity can also get in the way of basic customer needs being met. Research from McKinsey & Company has found that over 50 percent of customer interactions occur as part of a multi-event, multi-channel journey. When customer experience standards try too hard to script how an individual interaction should play out, they leave less flexibility for employees to deal with the nuances associated with each customer’s unique situation. You can’t predict every customer’s needs — and often, customers won’t distinguish between an employee who is not allowed to adapt their approach and one is who is simply unwilling to help.
So how can companies deliver experiences that feel personal without adding harmful inconsistency?
Often, the most impactful strategy is to find small, systematic ways to demonstrate an understanding of each customer’s perspective. Accomplishing this starts with learning more about the underlying needs behind different customer interactions. Digging deeper into the customer’s perspective — often though a journey mapping process — can reveal the higher-order concerns customers bring to individual interactions. It’s also helpful to let employees follow up on relevant customer feedback, so they can learn to spot these concerns in the context of real conversations.
Armed with this knowledge and intuition, employees will be better able to anticipate common questions and sources of anxiety for customers. Being offered the right solution without having to ask can feel almost magical — and shows customers they’re dealing with someone who really understands them.
USAA offers an excellent example of this approach. The company is famous for its military-inspired employee training courses, but its insight into its servicemember customer base extends deeper than knowing the sound of an angry drill sergeant or the taste of an MRE. USAA is committed to learning about the professional and personal events that inspire even the simplest customer requests, so its employees always know how to respond. Wayne Peacock, USAA’s Head of Member Experience, said of this approach, “We’re serving our members from the time they’re teenagers and young adults all the way through the adult years and leaving a financial legacy, so we thought it would make a lot of sense to have them talk to us about what’s going on in their financial lives.”
Of course, even the most perceptive and well-informed employees need the flexibility to do something with their knowledge. This does not have to mean eliminating all customer service rules, or following Ritz-Carlton’s example in giving employees discretionary funds for creating customer delight. Rather, a good approach is to remove specific policies that your frontline knows are getting in the way.
Windstream Communications, a leading provider of voice and data networks, offers an example of this strategy. After noticing frequent miscommunication between customers and servicing technicians, the company decided to allow customers to contact technicians directly rather than going through a scheduler. Windstream found that this strategy helped individual technicians learn specific customers’ needs over time and use that understanding to provide more personalized service. And Windstream’s customers got a dedicated, familiar ally, rather than a sequence of different technicians.
Ultimately, moving away from the script can feel uncomfortable. It puts a heavier burden on front-line employees to know their work and their customers. But don’t underestimate the impact of investing in thoughtful policy changes and customer-oriented training. When you give your employees deeper insight into customer needs — and the freedom do something with that insight — they can move successfully beyond the script to deliver a personalized experience that is consistent with what your brand aspires to be.