In our first scenario on the Never Work Alone Google group, we grappled with the following scenario:
A customer comes into a business and asks to buy a product and bill them in a certain way. The person at the counter didn't know how to bill the customer for the product in that way. The customer got frustrated and took their business elsewhere.
The person posing the question felt that the request was reasonable, but questioned whether or not the clerk saw the "big picture" in all this. On the surface, this seems like a staff training issue. However, when you dig deeper it's much more than than - and it can apply to virtually any organization. This issue boils down to how you answer a few specific questions:
- When a customer wants to transact with your business in a new and different way, how does your organization respond?
- Have you given your employees enough information and context to both determine whether that particular request is good for the business?
- Have you given your employees enough authority to take reasonable steps to satisfy the customer's needs?
- If the employee determines the request is beyond their authority or 'comfort zone' have you provided them with the means to escalate and/or document the request?
Evaluating and Responding To Customers' Requests
To effectively deal with unconventional customer requests, employees need context and rules. Above, I mention that the crux of this issue is deeper than training. Sure, training is important but it's more than process and procedure training. For employees to make appropriate decisions about handling unusual customer requests, they need to understand the rules, but the more they know about what makes the business 'tick' the better they'll be equipped to make the right call. This means training them on more "philosophical" aspects of the business, such as:
- Why are you in business, and how do you want to build the business long-term?
- What sort of authority do they have with regard to discounts?
- What is the organization's return policy, and when can they make exceptions.
Skip pointed out another aspect of this that can be trained: Answering the request with a "can do" attitude instead of a "no, you're out of luck" kind of attitude makes a huge difference. Create employees that are willing to explore options.
Here, I'd like to build on Rosa's solid advice on how to empower employees to do what's right without fear of retribution:
- Provide an environment where your staff is empowered to simply "get it done" - and build in good safety nets to mitigate risks to the business (like second level approvals, management review, escalation procedures, etc.)
- Keep a record of what's been requested and continually test every possible scenario a customer may face with you in the business. Not only does this provide the basis for learning and teaching, the testing enables you to better empathize with the customer because you develop shared perspective with them.
- When there's a glitch coach your staff on how to offer alternatives - escalation policies mentions, or simply asking the customers "what else can I do for you?" According to Rosa's experience, customers (amazingly) often offer easier/ cheaper/ better ideas.
Underpinning all of this, we need to understand these things only happen when our staff has high trust in us, feeling that we've provided a workplace where "fail safely, mistakes are cool when we learn from them, improve and adjust" is the walk of the talk.
Doing the Right Thing for the Right Reasons
With knowledge of the "why" of your business, the employee has a better idea what's good and bad for the business and is in a better position to do what Marc suggests by providing an informed response of "why not" when a customer's request just doesn't seem right for the business.
Then, by keeping track of all the requests, the business as a whole can learn from its customers over and over again. Success in business is all about relationships, which are all about communicating with - and especially listening to - your customers.
This is the first summary post of the Never Work Alone group, and thank you to everyone who helped promote this, participate in the lively discussion, and get this thing off the ground.
If you want to check out the raw materials that fed this post, head on over to the Never Work Alone Google group. And while you're there, pull up a chair around the conference table and join in the discussion!