The church where I worship runs a neighborhood-based nonprofit. We recently hired a consultant to help with some strategic planning. The first thing she asked us to do is spend the summer talking to community members. We’re asking business owners, local residents, other service agencies, and the guys who spend time in the vacant lot down the street what they actually need.
The consultant said that very often, agencies assume they know what their clients need. When they actually talk to people and get them involved in decision-making, very different results can happen. For example, one organization wanted to set up a food shelf. After talking to potential clients, it turned out that there were already enough pantries in the neighborhood. What was missing was a source for perishable items, especially milk. Turning the project from creating another food pantry into a reliable source where families could get milk made a huge difference.
We in higher education are prone to the same mistake. We can assume we know what our “customers” need – whether it’s students, coworkers, peer institutions, or the whole system. By taking time to talk to each other and build real relationships we’re in a better position to create strategies and processes that address the real needs.
Dee Anne Bonebright
A critical step in customer service is to actually invite the customer to the table and include them in your problem-solving work. While this makes theoretical sense it can be challenging to do and takes leadership to ensure its success. Seth Godin, one of my favorite authors and bloggers, describes it as “dancing with customers in the act of co-creation” in a blog on customer service. It involves:
- clearly inviting customers to work with you
- focusing on engagement – not perfection
- over communicating
- speaking and listening to customers with respect
- not making assumptions
Most leaders and employees are not used to working together with their customers. When I was working in the health care industry we decided to include patients in our work meetings as we designed the electronic visit follow-up document and communication process. At first that was very threatening to the doctors, physician assistants, nurses and intake staff. They were worried about “unreasonable” demands that patients would make. Surprisingly, everyone discovered that they enjoyed working together, both sides learned more about each other and the ideas shared ended up being practical and doable.
If you choose to include customers it is important to make the invitation clear and describe the work you will be doing together. Customers are also not used to being asked to work with you! The project team for the design of our new Enterprise Resource Planning data system at Minnesota State has done that well (NextGen). They have invited all students, faculty and staff have to participate in envisioning the future NextGen experience. Through emails, in-person presentations and an intranet site they have clearly described the work to date and what opportunities we have, as customers, to work with the vendor to help design and build the system. In addition, given the geographic spread of our system and the variation in availability, they provided three different options to work together; an online review process, virtual Q & A sessions or onsite regional review sessions.
What opportunities can you find for you and your team to dance with your customers?
The stressed-out demanding coworker, the skeptical regulatory agent, the overwhelmed student, the sick and crabby patient, the distracted team member, or the busy boss – what do these people all have in common? They are someone’s customer!
When I worked in health care we always had to stop and remind ourselves that the reason our customers (patients and their families) were acting stressed, confused, and unhappy was because they were sick or their family members were sick! Customer service can be easy when everyone is on their best behavior and interacting in a highly professional manner, but that isn’t reality. Leaders need to be able to listen and respond with respect even when people are being “difficult.”
Author Paul Meshanko in his book, The Respect Effect, highlights 12 Rules of Respect that can help you establish respect with your customers even in difficult situations. These rules are based on behaviors that have been shown to neurologically enhance human interactions even in stressful situations.
- Be aware of your nonverbal cues – are your behaviors supporting your desired message?
- Develop a curiosity about the perspective of others – actively demonstrate that you are interested in what or why or how others are feeling or thinking.
- Assume that everyone is smart about something – give people the benefit of the doubt.
- Become a better listener by shaking your “but” – using the word but dismisses anything said previously even if that isn’t what you mean.
- Look for opportunities to connect and support others – identify areas of agreement while acknowledging areas of difference.
- When you disagree, explain why – provide information that clarifies how you made a decision.
- Look for opportunities to grow, stretch and change – remind yourself that nothing is static and each of us has something new to learn.
- Learn to be wrong on occasion – consider other points of view, even when your idea will work, and demonstrate to others that it is ok to make a mistake at times.
- Never hesitate to say you are sorry – acknowledge when you have not been respectful. It happens!
- Intentionally engage others in ways that build their self-esteem – intentionally interact in ways that recognize the value others have.
- Be respectful of time – remember that other people have time commitments that you are not aware of, and they are important to them.
- Smile! – last but definitely not least. Even in difficult situations look for opportunities to recognize connection or forward movement with a genuine smile.
Customer interactions can be messy. Demonstrating respect gives you the foundation to move forward.
This month we’ll be focusing on the leadership competency: customer service. In higher education, we tend to focus on the complexity of our relationships in supporting student success and don’t always define students as our customers.
In reality, if you are working in higher education, no matter what your role, students ARE our customers. And depending on the situation, internal and external stakeholders such as peers, direct reports, bosses, community members, business leaders, legislators, and all tax payers in Minnesota can be our customers too.
For example, I’m currently working on a master contract that will provide a valuable service to our HR offices in each of our colleges and universities. While I often work with my HR colleagues as business partners or peers, in this instance they are also my customers.
In Minnesota State, here are the behaviors we focus on to provide excellent customer service:
- Demonstrates a positive attitude
- Listens attentively and respectfully
- Responds effectively to internal and external customer needs, requests, and concerns
- Exercises creative problem solving
We’ll be exploring these topics and more during the month of June. In the meantime, I challenge you to think about each of your relationships in your leadership role and ask: who is my customer? You might be surprised how many you actually have.
During June we shared some thoughts and ideas about customer service. For July we’ll be looking at the next leadership competency – Building Organizational Talent.
I see a strong connection between these two competencies. As leaders, the employees that we supervise can be viewed as customers, in the sense that they are looking to us for guidance, work direction, and help with professional development. We are also in a unique position to serve the organization itself by hiring strong team members, helping them to succeed, and in some cases, helping them to move through the pipeline and become leaders themselves.
Many years ago I talked to a leader who managed quite a few entry-level positions. She had high turnover in her unit, and she told me that she viewed it as success rather than a source of frustration. Her goal was to introduce people to the workplace, give them foundational skills, and then help them move on to other positions within the organization. Over time, she built a large network of professional colleagues who got their start in her unit.
Here are some other behaviors that are identified with building organizational talent. I hope you’ll join us in a conversation about how to implement them.
- Makes sound hiring decisions.
- Provides a strong orientation.
- Sets clear expectations.
- Provides ongoing feedback; effectively coaches both good and bad performance.
- Partners with each employee in conducting meaningful performance evaluations.
- Helps each individual develop professionally.
- Holds each individual accountable for performance.
- Takes responsibility for their own professional development.
Dee Anne Bonebright
I was so excited to be taking a friend to a new neighborhood restaurant that I had discovered. We had a great cocktail, some good appetizers and then the entree arrived – and it was terrible! What to do? Often, as a native Minnesotan, I would have just said nothing and only left a 15% tip but I decided to ask for the manager. Nervously I told him how much I enjoyed the restaurant but the seafood creole dish we had ordered was bad. And, he listened! He didn’t argue or question my taste or understanding of how seafood should taste. He apologized and said he would ask the chef to pull the dish for the night. Then he told us how much he appreciated our business and hoped we would give them another chance. He also comped our meal and gave us a gift certificate.
Despite our best intentions we can’t always provide the customer service we want and our customers expect. How we, and our people, respond determines if we can recover. In my story I have gone back many times to the restaurant and encourage friends to visit when they are in St. Paul. At our colleges and universities how we respond to our students and their families when we don’t meet their expectations will influence how engaged they feel while on campus, how welcomed they feel and how connected to us they feel after they leave.
Forbes posted an article that highlights three key actions that my restaurant manager took and that we need to help our people take when we don’t provide the service our students expect.
- Apologize and Ask for Forgiveness: be clear that you are taking their issue seriously and that you genuinely understand their concerns. Don’t try and explain or defend and don’t feel like you have to agree – just understand.
- Go Over the Complaint with Your Customer: explore and listen. Remember that you may have a lot of information that customers don’t have – and don’t care about. Your goal is to understand their point of view.
- Fix the Problem and Then Follow Up: take action and confirm the next steps happen. Ask what the customer hoped would happen and how you can do something now. People don’t expect miracles; they want to be listened to.
Let me know if you are in St. Paul and want to try a new restaurant. I know a place that cares.
Last week while I was facilitating a retreat, one of my colleagues mentioned how our blog theme for the month complemented the customer service training she was using with staff at her college. The training program is called, “At Your Service: Working with Multicultural Customers.” While we usually don’t promote training programs on this blog, I thought that this one was worth a mention.
Created by the University of Minnesota’s Extension Service, the program helps participants understand the significant role that culture plays in any service encounter. For example, did you know that customers’ wants, needs, thoughts, and feelings are shaped by their culture? If you accept this premise, it naturally follows that in order to truly serve your customer (i.e., student, parent, community member, colleague, boss), you need to look at the following questions through the lens of their culture.
- What does my customer want?
- What does my customer need?
- What does my customer think?
- What does my customer feel?
Taking this one step further, you can also ask:
- What is important to my customer?
- What are they trying to accomplish?
- What are their goals?
Understanding the answers to each of these questions and then helping your customer reach their goals or accomplish what they want, can go a long way to providing stellar customer service no matter what culture they are from.