Designing learning for great customer service

If customer service is what makes you stand out, you better be sure your customer service learning programmes are outstanding too...

Ask yourself, what’s really the difference between your company and your competitors?  For some organisations there is a genuine product differentiation. Some have a secret sauce that others can’t replicate. Some win on cost - and you will get what you pay for. 

But for most, the real difference is how well they serve their customers.  If a customer could buy an identical or very close equivalent product or service from another firm, then customer service is the game you are in. 

How do you win that game? The management consultants will happily charge you but here’s the answer for free: You have to set a culture of obsession with service and reinforce it every day. 

Great customer service companies have people at the top who led with a customer service obsession. They found people like them and inspired them to do the same. Easy when there’s ten of you all pulling together. Harder when there’s 10,000. How do you keep that culture alive on scale? 

Learning (in a broad sense) is a key weapon in the war against poor service.  Here are some points to think about when you’re designing a customer service learning solution:

1.       Focus: know what problem you’re trying to solve 

Always true, of course. But specifically in customer service, you really do need to focus. Everyone wants to improve the customer experience – but how? When’re you targeting a specific area for improvement? What will it look like when it’s improved?  Is it customer service, or sales, or product knowledge? In our experience, they’re tightly connected, and there’s advantage to addressing them together in a learning programme. 

When we worked with M&S on customer service elearning for Cafés, we identified three areas where mystery diner scores were below the target for customer service: managing queue length, confident suggestive selling that didn’t sound forced, and getting the ‘aces in places’ – most experienced staff in more demanding customer facing roles at peak times.  

We designed learning that focused on these issues. When M&S measured against these issues, they saw 20% improvement. Focus is good. Better 10 minutes focused on one thing you want to do better, than an hour on general principles. This is especially true if you’re responding to a specific issue and you need a rapid response. 

2.       Know what terrible looks like  - and show it 

The cliché is true. If you provide terrible customer service, word will spread further and wider than if you provide great service. So set the standard, by showing clearly what’s below the bar. We regularly design review modes where learners watch a customer interaction unfold with a critical eye.  You don’t have to exaggerate wildly here.  In our experience, people have a very good service radar, because we all have high standards for the service we want to receive from others too. 

Sales teams can watch a nuanced consultative conversation, and give a lot of feedback on where it was good, but not quite right. Product knowledge experts can review a conversation and point to the exact moment where the customer’s implied need wasn’t listened to and the experience started to slip away. 

Let your learners show just how good they are at critiquing poor service. It raises everyone’s antennae, and creates self-awareness on how we can all improve.  In our work with one organisation, we used hidden camera footage to show a range of customer service interactions  - and not all great ones either. They provided great source material for discussion on what good should look like in contrast. 

3.       Model excellence, make it real

If you can say what bad looks like, of course you need to be able to model what great looks like. A common way of building this in elearning is through a scenario. There are many ways to design them. Sometimes they branch, and you can have different outcomes. Some use video and audio, some are simpler (and not necessarily any less effective). Some include complex scoring, considering a range of metrics (e.g. accuracy of product knowledge, tone, pace, empathy etc). 

The right model will depend on the problem you’re solving, the audience, and time, budget of course. But you need that hands on practice to make it real.  We’ve written extensively about scenario design elsewhere in our top tips, and designed scenarios with all of the above for customer service. 

As always you want to make sure the scenarios are authentic, the choices plausible, the reactions realistic, and the tone of voice aligned with your brand.  This doesn’t mean it needs to be a full blown game – interestingly the current market research (see our recent market update) shows that gamification, despite the hype, is fairly low on the priorities list. 

4.        Share your stories – and ask for more

Every organisation has its own mythologies. Many of them centre around customer service experiences.  These should be at the core of your learning. For one organisation’s onboarding elearning, we shared their story about the $5million muffin – a deal they think they lost because their competitor brought muffins to a meeting, and they didn’t. They probably didn’t lose because of that. But forever after, you can be sure that nobody forgot to take that extra step next time. 

Everyone doing customer service (which of course should be everyone) will have a story to share about the simple mistake that lost the customer, or the simple extra step that won the customer over. It can be a great way to build  engagement early in the development of your learning programme to ask people to share their stories. It provides great raw material and personality if you can get people to stand up and share. Community tools like discussion forums are great for this.  Our Total Customer Experience programme for HP had a strong story element.

5.       Keep it going – little and often will make the difference

Customer service isn’t something you do, then you’re done. Like all critical business skills, it’s something you need your whole team to engage with every day, in every interaction. So the learning programme cannot be a one off event that ends with an assessment, and then everyone drifts back to business as usual. You have to keep it alive. Some ideas that we’ve seen work well in customer service designs: 

  • Build a community: Don’t let a lonely module on customer service fester within a long list on your LMS. Create a tactical portal or customer service zone – either within your LMS, or create a separate one to give customer service its own brand and identity. Encourage people to share what’s working, and ask for help from experts. You may find that rewarding for participation will help to gain traction. That could be through championing great stories of customer service, and suggestions for improvement. For some clients we’re adding badges that reward learning completion and contributions to the community, which shows the value the organisation puts on learning M&S used a ‘golden bean’ badge to show that people had reached the expected customer service levels – nobody wanted to be left behind.

  • Space it out: send reminders about small actions that can make a difference. Many of our learning programmes have episodic elements or an overall campaign theme. Rather than deliver all of the learning and communication in one hit, why not try to encourage people to take 5 minutes a day or 20 minutes a week to focus on a specific behaviour to change? By spacing the impact and doing little and often, you are more likely to get results.  Think about the full range of channels available to you – they might be poster or banner-driven, podcasts discussing the customer service story of the week, short elearning modules, emails (still the most used and effective coaching channel for sales audiences),  webinars to let people bring their experience and feedback, and reminders through SMS or other channels. A portal can act as a great wrapper for the overall learning and communications programme. 

  • Make it competitive and reward great performance: Sometimes a little direct motivation to be the best can make the difference. In our work with Nikon we’ve used competitions, prizes and leaderboards to help motivate people to outdo each other in learning scores and performance in their Dealer Portal. Of course the real difference is actual on the job performance, but a little competition on the way is no harm.  You can take this further and develop accreditation and qualifications around customer service, which we have done for many customers. That can help by recognising that customer service is a true skill that has external value and recognition.  
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