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Bringing you news, tips, and trends to help you deliver customer service at the next level.

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Next Level Customer Service Blog

News, tips, and trends to help you reach that next level of customer service.


Response to: In Defense of Customer Service Scripts

I regularly enjoy reading Adam Toporek’s Customers That Stick blog because it offers engaging customer service insight. One of his recent posts was slightly controversial because it promoted the value of using customer service scripts in certain situations where employees don't have enough skills. As an example, he described Julie, a new employee who has been given very little training and has limited customer service experience.

It's a well-reasoned argument. It is also one of the few cases where Toporek and I disagree. In my opinion, giving a new, poorly trained, and inexperienced employee like Julie a script will all but guarantee she’ll frequently provide poor service.


Our brains can only focus on one conscious thought at a time. Interacting with customers requires a lot of concentration for new and inexperienced employees like Julie who are still learning how to do their jobs. When you give them a script, they can easily sound like a robot because they end up focusing on the script instead of the customer.

This in turn makes it harder for employees like Julie to understand each individual customer’s needs and to tailor their service to the situation.

How can we help employees like Julie?

The first step is to stop taking short-cuts when it comes to hiring and training. Toporek correctly asserts that frontline employees like Julie often receive very little training. This short-sighted approach misses the fact that a lack of proper training is usually more costly in terms of lost sales, customer recovery, and the cost of high turnover (Julie won't stay long if she doesn't enjoy reading scripts).

The second step is to give Julie guidelines that should be easy to follow if you’ve hired the right person. For example, instead of a precisely worded script you can provide a guideline that Julie greet each customer in a warm and friendly manner. How she does it is up to her.

Does the thought of giving a new employee enough autonomy to choose how she will greet customers scare you? If so, you’ll never have employees empowered enough to make the really critical decisions when it comes to serving customers.

However, you can ensure that Julie greets customers in a way that’s consistent with the rest of the team, even if it’s with her own personal twist.

The starting point is training. Don’t confuse training with handing out a script. (“Here’s your script. Now you are trained!”)

Training involves working with Julie until she can demonstrate the ability to greet customers in a warm, friendly, and appropriate manner. You've probably made a poor hiring decision if Julie can’t figure out how to greet customers after being given a few simple guidelines and a little bit of training.

The next step is reinforcement. If you don’t reinforce good habits from the start you’ll never be quite sure if they'll stick. Julie might nail customer greetings in the new hire training phase of her employment, but abandon them all together when she learns that her co-workers do something different when the boss isn’t watching.

This brings us to the last and most critical point. Everybody has to be on board with doing things the right way.

Peer pressure is one of the most powerful forces driving employee performance, especially for a young and inexperienced employee like Julie. She could see her peers passionately committed to making customers feel welcome and she’ll quickly learn to do the same. Julie might even get a little gentle encouragement or nudging from her co-workers who are eager to help her fit in.

The opposite is true too. Julie might soon learn from her co-workers that nobody cares about greeting customers and the script, the guidelines, or whatever tools you’ve given her will go right out the window.

Yes, the sweet siren song of implementing a script is alluring. It's also likely to result in service failure.

Note: No matter who you agree with, I encourage you to check out Toporek’s outstanding Customers That Stick blog. 


Do you really care how your customer is today?

For many customer service professionals, “How are you today?” is really just another way of saying, “Hello.” It’s a rote question where the expected response is “I’m fine” and the person asking is totally unprepared for anything different.

You can miss out on some pretty big opportunities when you ask a question like this without caring whether or not you get an answer.

Last week, I saw firsthand how powerful it can be when someone actually listens to how their customer responds. I was checking in to the Westin Portland where Liza greeted me at the reception desk. She recognized me from many past visits and said, “Welcome back!” in her usual cheerful way.

She then asked the question as she started the check-in process. “How are you today?”

The truth is I wasn’t fine. The tragic bombings at the Boston Marathon earlier that day had left me feeling sad for the city and enraged at whoever did it. I spent several years living in Boston, including two years just a few blocks from where the bombings occurred, so the scene felt particularly vivid. I was also worried because I hadn’t yet heard from all my family members and friends who live in the area or were there for the marathon.

I deviated from the script and told Liza the truth. “I’m sad.”

Liza asked me why and I told her I was thinking about Boston. We proceeded to have a very nice conversation where Liza’s empathy and attentive listening were comforting. It’s amazing how simple human interaction can lift our spirits. 

I went up to my room and dropped my bags before heading right back out for dinner. When I got back from dinner later that night I was surprised to find this waiting in my room:

The card contained a handwritten note from Liza letting me know that she hoped all of my family and friends in Boston were okay. It was an amazingly thoughtful and kind gesture and yet another reason why the Westin Portland is my favorite hotel.

Liza’s warmth and caring provide a great reminder that we should care about the answer if we’re going to ask a question like, "How are you today?" 


How quickly should you respond to an email?

Nearly 75 percent of us expect co-workers to respond to emails within four hours or less, according to a recent email response time survey. This is a slight increase from 2012’s results, where 68 percent of respondents expected a response within the same time frame.

One surprise in this year’s survey was respondents belonging to Generation Y (born 1977 or later) didn’t skew the results with their high expectations for quick responses. In 2012, 43 percent of Generation Y respondents expected co-workers to respond to email within 1 hour, but that number was down to 29 percent in 2013.

People have a little more patience when it comes to receiving a response to emails sent to a business, but 90 percent of us still expect a response within one day.

The survey also asked how quickly we expect our friends to respond to email. Here, we are a bit more lenient with an average expected response time of 1.25 days.

What does all this mean?

Businesses should respond to customer emails within at least one day. A future target should be four hours since nearly 90 percent of customers expect a response within that time frame. The caveat is a quick response does nothing for a customer if it’s not a good response. Several months ago, I documented an email service failure where the company was responding in less than 20 minutes.

Co-workers must also be careful with their high expectations for response times. Constantly checking email can be unproductive and lead to more errors. In many cases, the rush to respond quickly generates more email than necessary to answer a question or provide the requested information.

You can find some additional resources from a few of my previous posts on managing customer service email and my top 10 ways to avoid email overload.


What I learned on my social media vacation

My wife, Sally, and I recently went on a road trip throughout California to pursue several of our passions: wine, Scotch, and California’s natural beauty. I wanted to make sure I really relaxed, so I decided to take a social media vacation too.

My self-imposed social media hiatus caused me to more fully engage with the people and the world around me rather than habitually pull out my smart phone to Tweet, Like, or Share. This ultimately led to better service, a better experience, and much high levels of satisfaction. 

The bar at the Albion River Inn

Social media allows you to connect with people who share similar interests, but real connections are often more rich and interesting.

We met Megan, a bartender at the Albion River Inn near Mendocino, who shares our passion for Scotch and knows much more about it than we do. The Inn has approximately 150 varieties in their restaurant and Megan helped us expand our knowledge. She even let us taste a few old and rare Scotches we’d never before seen.

A few days later we shared a communal table with some locals at the Bounty Hunter in Napa. One of our companions was Justin, who turned out to be the Bounty Hunter’s spirits manager. Not surprisingly, Justin is a huge fan of Scotch too, which made for a fun dinner conversation. Justin even told us he might be able to help us find some of those rare Scotches that Megan had introduced us to.

A secluded beach in Northern California, near MendocinoSocial media can help you make new discoveries, but the real-world is full of discoveries if you keep your eyes open.

We found a hidden trail that led to a secluded beach without reading any reviews on Trip Advisor or downloading a trail finder app. The only clues we had were a car parked on the side of the road and a small sign reminding people to keep their dogs on a leash. 

Sally spotted the trailhead while we were taking a leisurely drive along the coast near Mendocino in Northern California. I doubt she would have seen it if she was engrossed in Facebook updates.

We felt a sense of adventure as we pulled over near the other car and got out. The trail wound through a sparse grove of trees before meandering through a rolling pasture. After less than a mile we came to a small, secluded beach that offered gorgeous views of the California coast.

The view from my new favorite chair

Social media is an escape for many people, but really escaping can be so much more rewarding.

I spent nearly a full day sitting in an adirondack chair overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I read, solved sudoku puzzles, and took in the view. It also turned out to be the perfect place to enjoy a glass of wine while watching the late afternoon sun slowly start its descent.

I’ll admit there were times throughout the trip when I had to fight the urge to check online. For example, one day Sally posted a funny picture on Facebook that I wanted to see. Then I remembered that I had taken the picture and had seen the real thing.

I really hope I can remember these lessons now that I'm back to work.


Using the Employee Engagement Cycle

This post originally appeared on the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) website as part of their Expert's Angle series.

Call centers with customer-focused cultures achieve their success by getting a high level of agent buy-in. One way to do this is to ensure that your culture is aligned with the five steps in the Employee Engagement Cycle. This is a framework that identifies critical points where a call center can influence employee engagement.

Read on to learn about each step in the cycle. At the end you’ll find a questionnaire you can use to evaluate your own call center’s alignment.


Recruiting new employees represents an opportunity to find people who are passionate about our products or services. Even more important than previous job experience or call center skills, we want people who will love to do what we want them to do. These employees will serve our customers better, work harder, and are less likely to leave the company than someone who is just here for a paycheck.

Call centers can hire for passion by identifying a set of specific traits that the ideal employee should possess. For example, a company that connects people with music teachers hires people who love music. A software manufacturer hires people who work with computers in their spare time. A company that sells accessories for boats and RVs hires people who love boating or camping.


The on-boarding process is more than just new employee orientation or that pile of new hire paperwork. On-boarding really refers to the period that begins when the employee accepts the job offer and ends when the employee is fully trained. This is a critical time when the employee decides whether they made a good decision to join your company. This is also when they learn about your call center culture and the behaviors that are expected to go along with it.

One medical device manufacturer used the on-boarding period to help their new employees unlearn habits they picked up in other call centers. For example, in their previous job a new employee may have referred to an out of stock product as being “on backorder” and simply quoted an expected time when the item would be back in stock. Here, an unavailable product wasn’t acceptable since a patient might need it for an upcoming surgical procedure. Finding the right product was the top priority, and employees were expected to go to great lengths to find a solution, even if it meant contacting another client to see if they had one that could be borrowed. Most new employees were never expected to do all that in their previous call center jobs, so the on-boarding period was an important step towards creating new habits.


Companies that spend time hiring right and instilling cultural values in new employees can still lose their way if those values aren’t consistently reinforced. In many cases, the cultural norms taught during the on-boarding period don’t match the reality of the new employee’s day-to-day working environment. One way to avoid this problem is to ensure that all employee development includes a culture component as a way of consistently reminding employees about culture.

A software company successfully reinforced its culture throughout their call centers by insisting that all employee development programs be connected in some way to their company values. For example, when they instituted a customer service training program, a module was included that showed call center agents how to serve their customers in a way that was consistent with the organizational values. After the training, call center supervisors reinforced the values when providing an agent with feedback about their performance or coaching them on how to handle a particular call.


Annual performance evaluations don’t have a lot of fans these days. They are often treated as little more than a stack of annoying paperwork designed to give employees seemingly arbitrary ratings on a set of generic qualities such as “teamwork” or “dependability.” Annual performance reviews can become much more impactful when they are used to reinforce company culture

In one example, a company’s values were incorporated into performance evaluations and employees were evaluated in part on how aligned they were with the culture. The evaluation form contained a set of behavioral descriptions for each value to help differentiate between positive (or “aligned”) performance and negative (or “misaligned”) performance. This turned the evaluation into an opportunity to discuss culture, set goals for future performance, and align employee performance with desired norms.


We’ve all seen the impact of employees who actively work against the company’s best interests. These employees’ behavior becomes so toxic that it impacts other employees’ performance, and they may even attempt to recruit others to join them in their state of discontent. If left unchecked, toxic employees can lower morale, reduce call center performance, and cause increased turnover.

The best solution to dealing with toxic employees is to make it clear their behavior won’t be tolerated. Give them the choice of aligning their behavior with cultural expectations or leaving the team. Employees who refuse to be a positive part of your culture should be removed from the team as quickly as legally possible. It’s never an easy step to take, but I’ve observed countless managers who immediately saw improvements in morale and productivity after letting a toxic employee go.


Here’s a quick quiz if you’d like to evaluate your call center’s cultural alignment. It can be used to foster internal dialogue around better aligning the steps in the Employee Engagement Cycle.