Customer service is a philosophy

If Singapore's customer service department has a poor reputation, part of the blame has to be attributed to the fact that the wrong type of people apply for these jobs, and desperate employers often hire them. By Anna Murphy

A person’s ability to offer good service cannot be accurately measured by skill sets or experience, which makes hiring people for these positions a real headache. Customer service is a way of thinking, a philosophy, if you like, and so employers need to look beyond the resume to find the right candidate, one whose emotional make-up includes, as a given, the concept of service to others above self.

Have you noticed that without exception any restaurant will have its good and bad waiters, regardless of the fact that they could all have undergone the same training? What makes one better than another? Sometimes you will get the best service from the least expected people, for example, after being rudely snubbed by a hotel concierge, you might get ushered into your taxi like royalty by the doorman. Why do some people offer good service naturally while others can try but fail?

Customers want to feel cared for

First, let’s look at what we want as customers. We want to feel that we received special treatment, or that somehow we got more than we paid for. Hence, service has to extend beyond a mere business transaction. Customers have to be allowed to talk about their needs so that the service provider can accurately assess how to fulfill them. There has to be mature and moderated relationship building as opposed to the syrupy or pushy methods we often encounter. We need someone who is interested enough in us to ask pertinent questions and tries to understand, who is knowledgeable and gives us good information and options. And keeps trying no matter how irate we become.

A basic personal value

Jobs in customer service positions often go begging, which leads to employers hiring weak candidates. These hires could be people looking for a job that pays the bills; they’re not specifi cally looking for a career in customer service. A business cannot afford to be so laissez faire. Managers have to be certain that they have the right man or woman for the job, not hire first and train later. This doesn’t work because the hire could be someone who is unsuitable for this type of job to begin with. A person who has no interest in people can be taught skills, but cannot be made to perform sincerely. The language of customer service speaks to the heart and not to the mind. There is no course available that can teach the concept of service to a person who doesn’t already embrace it as a basic personal value. This key opens all the other doors, igniting interest, fueling passion and lighting up a person’s personality to feed into the customer’s service experience.

The customer is king

We know that not all job positions directly involve customer service. However, it is important to remember that all businesses—whether it is to make potato chips or microchips—are about customer service. They all serve people’s needs. We treat the customer like an appendage to our job when the reality is that the customer is our job. We think that we work for the company and that the company pays us. The reality is that we work for the customer and it is the customer who pays us. Hence, all levels of an organisation’s staff should be ingrained with the philosophy that they work to serve the customer and not the organisation. This thinking puts a new face on the individual’s customer service philosophy.

Everybody counts

Back room staff, for example, technical staff and all those who deal with the organisation’s suppliers for raw materials or services, need to realise that they are all equally important links in the service chain. Excellent frontline sales people cannot deliver the goods if their support staff are not skilled enough to negotiate with suppliers to maintain necessary stocks. A company selling air-conditioning won’t stay in business for long if their after-sales technicians are surly and customers don’t feel that they are being well looked after. Organisations that focus on customer service are always on the lookout to identify their chain’s weakest link (yes, goodbye).

People tend to be good in particular areas, for example data, systems or people. We naturally use our strengths in one of these areas. There are individuals who are allrounders, but even they have prefered skills, as opposed to skills that they need to use.

Getting the right person

The obvious answer to the customer service conundrum then is to hire candidates who have strong people skills. This candidate is personable, knows how to interact with all types of people and not just customers. He or she sees everyone as a person first and a customer second, and hence is adept at building relationships naturally. The willingness to satisfy the needs of another human being is reflected in everything they do, whether they’re interacting with colleagues during the course of a day’s work, or hunting down a pair of shoes in the right size. They are empathetic and have an inherent interest in, and understanding of human nature. They like helping people and they do it unreservedly, going out of their way and job description to satisfy others. The right person, even if they have no prior experience or training, can take to service like fish to water.

Assessment

Employers interviewing candidates for these positions need to know how to assess them adequately to discern the depth of their service philosophy. This has to happen before the hire and is essential whether you’re hiring staff for a restaurant, high-end boutique, hardware store, or in fact any business. The assessment as to whether a candidate has the emotional intelligence to offer genuine and sincere service is central. As it happens in most organisations, the lack of a mechanism to do this keeps the revolving door busy. This can be an expensive exercise on many levels.

There are several ways to assess a promising candidate for a service position. One is to identify the candidate’s career interests. There are commercial profiling tools available in the market to facilitate this, for example, the O*Net Career Interests Inventory developed by the US Department of Labour. This worksheet gives a quick and fairly accurate snapshot of a candidate’s suitability for any job. Users tick off activities they like or dislike and derive a numerical score to indicate their level of interest under different categories. These scores are then applied to Dr John Holland’s RIASEC code. Each letter of RIASEC stands for a ‘type’ as follows: Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising and Conventional. Your three top scores make up your code, represented by three letters of RIASEC. For example, a strong candidate for a service position would have a code represented by SER, ERS or RES.

Going by Holland’s code-defi ned career possibilities, it is interesting to note that people who don’t have ‘S’ in their code have very few job options available to them; proof that no matter what job you’re aiming for, you have to be good with people first.

What do employers look for in a customer service staff

Employers will look for a history of social or volunteer service either in school or with an organisation, and ask why the candidate chose to volunteer and what he or she got out of it.

They look for evidence of activities that mark the candidate as an all rounder—academic, social work, sports and club memberships. They will ask the candidate to tell them WHO they are—values play an important role in customer service philosophy. What the candidate says about who they are can give vital clues about how they will perform on the job.

If the candidate has no career history or customer service experience, an interviewer will ask why they applied for the job and why they think they would be good at it. The reasons have to be real, and resonate with the service philosophy that the organisation demonstrates to its customers. If the answers to the other questions bear out the candidate’s reasons for wanting the job, we’ve got a winner.

Managers who prefer to handpick their candidate rather than use profiling tools pay attention to particular aspects, for example, the candidate’s values, interests and personality to assess their suitability. They look at job history and see how much of the day-today duties involved dealing with people and what tasks were involved. Here are some questions the interviewer could ask:

• What do you think the easiest and most difficult aspects of customer service are? • Give me an example of how you handled a difficult situation with a customer, supplier or colleague. • Describe the best/worst customer service experience you’ve had. • What aspects made it a good/bad experience? • Have some of your friends become your customers (or have customers become friends)? • The interviewer could describe a scenario with an irate, unreasonable and demanding customer and ask how the candidate would respond. • Which of your job activities would come under customer service and which do not? (Why?)

ANNA MURPHY has more than 20 years of writing experience. She is the editorial consultant for Worklife Asia Pte Ltd, leading career guidance practitioners in the region. The company champions corporate career coaching as a key strategy for sustainable organic growth for the organisation as well as the individual. Worklife’s client list includes government agencies, educational institutions and private companies. For more information, visit www.worklifeasia.com.

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