Being Your Customer’s Hero: Interview with Adam Toporek.

cts_toporek-adam_headshot_main_300Your new book, Be Your Customer’s Hero, is launching next week. Tell us, what inspired you to write this book?

My desire to write this book came from the old business axiom of “find a need and fill it.” However, the need I was filling was first and foremost my own. Be Your Customer’s Hero is the book I always wished I’d had during my years of owning and running retail service businesses.

I’d always wanted a single book I could hand to frontline employees that would give them a comprehensive set of tools and techniques for becoming great at customer service. A book that spoke to them in an easy-to-read conversational way about the realities they face day to day. Despite all the amazing books on customer service and customer experience on the market, that book didn’t exist. So I wrote it.

In your opinion, what prevents most frontline service professionals from delivering superior service?

External factors are a big part. Store policies, lack of empowerment, and ineffective systems are just a few of the challenges frontline service professionals face. Organizational leaders need to always be looking at the structural impediments which prevent frontline professionals from delivering great service.

Internal factors are just as important and often more difficult to overcome. Most of the time, these boil down to mentality – how frontline reps view customers, how they handle their own emotions, and how confident they are.

Competence and confidence are particularly important to delivering superior service. Oftentimes with frontline employees, it may be their first job or it may be their first time working in that specific environment. By using culture and training to instill a customer-centric mindset and bolster service skill sets, organizational leaders can give frontline workers both the confidence and competence they need.

You mentioned organizations’ policies as possible obstacles to delivering great customer service. What can organizations do to make policies more customer-friendly? Can you share a couple of examples to illustrate that?

The first step is to identify the touch points that create the biggest hassles from the customer’s perspective. Study your feedback and survey data. Ask your customers directly. Also, ask your teams what policies, in their opinion, create the biggest challenges for customers. Look at both customer-facing policies and internal policies. Evaluate why you have them and how you could make them more customer-friendly.

Two quick examples:
Southwest Airlines has a customer-facing policy of not upcharging for checked bags. Now, admittedly, those fees might be passed on another way, but the policy still makes customers feel that they are not being nickel and dimed.

An example of an internal policy that is not customer-friendly is needing approvals for comps or refunds. Many years ago in a retail service business of mine, we empowered all frontline reps to comp services without supervisor approval. This internal policy change gave the reps the ability to resolve most minor customer issues in real time at very little cost to the company.

You mentioned employee empowerment, can you elaborate on that? What do companies that get it right do differently?

Empowerment is incredibly important to not only delivering great experiences but to proactively resolving issues before they have the chance to escalate. Now, empowerment is not a panacea, but it is a powerful tool that many organizations do not utilize enough.

Companies need to begin with actual empowerment, loosening the reigns in strategically focused areas and granting more authority and responsibility to frontline employees so that they can facilitate experiences and resolve issues. Organizations need to balance the risk of empowerment with the rewards; it’s an idea we call “smart empowerment.”

Whenever you expand authority or responsibility, you generally increase the risk that those expanded powers can be used in a way that hurts the organization. However, the risks must be evaluated because they are different in every situation. By way of extreme example, authorizing each frontline employee to issue refunds up to $100 is not as risky to the organization as authorizing each frontline employee to make wire transfers from the company account. Empowerment will always have limits. When you compare the risks of an empowerment initiative with the potential rewards, both to the customer and to the team, you can make an informed decision about the types of employee empowerment that are right for your organization.

Additionally, organizations should understand the difference between actual empowerment, which gives authority or responsibility, and psychological empowerment, which means the employee feels empowered. The employees have to know that they can make decisions without fear of repercussions, and they need a customer-centric mindset to want to use the authority they’ve been given to improve the customer’s experience.

What can organizational leaders do to better prepare their customer-facing teams?

We talked about competence leading to confidence earlier, but that rarely happens automatically. The expectations placed on frontline reps are often unrealistic. We expect them to be put under great pressure, sometimes being yelled at or bullied, and to not only manage that stress but to behave exactly the way we expect them to. It’s not easy to do, and I’ll admit right now, equipping front-line employees with more than only the most basic “here’s where the paper clips are” type of training is somewhere I’ve missed the mark myself before.

Think about how they train astronauts; it’s amazing. Astronauts in training are consistently confronted with a variety of adverse scenarios that they must learn to deal with. That way, when facing a critical situation, they can manage their natural reactions and respond calmly by working through the problem.

Now obviously, space flight is an extreme analogy—we don’t have the luxury of training our staff for a few years—but the takeaway is the following principle: The more you drill in practice, the more you can depend on your reaction in the real world.

So, training is key. Bring in a consultant, work through a book, or create your own trainings. Invest in the education of your leaders as well. Send them to seminars or invest in programs like the W. P. Carey Certificate in Customer Experience that gives the opportunity to work on frontline skills like service recovery or top-level CX skills like service blueprinting.

Finally, what does it mean to be your customer’s hero?

To be the customer’s hero means one thing above all else: It means being there when the customer needs you and making your personal interaction with the customer as memorably positive as possible. It’s not about over-the-top acts; it’s about consistent execution.

In the end, great customer experiences, or Hero-ClassTM customer experiences as we like to call them, create competitive advantage and lead to a better bottom line. Deliver them consistently, and your organization will reap the rewards.

_______________

Adam Toporek is the author of Be Your Customer’s Hero: Real-World Tips & Techniques for the Service Front Lines (2015), as well as the founder of the popular Customers That StickTM blog and co-host of the Crack the Customer Code podcast. He is the owner of CTS Service Solutions, a consultancy specializing in high-energy customer service workshops that teach organizations and frontline teams how to deliver Hero-ClassTM customer service. Adam has an MBA from UNC Charlotte and the W.P. Carey Certificate in Customer Experience from the Center for Services Leadership at Arizona State University. Connect with him on Twitter.

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