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Everyone can get service right—here's how. A Q&A with Jeff Toister

It seems fair to say that getting customer service right—every time, for every customer—is right up there with a number of other Sisyphean tasks. But getting service right most of the time, even considering the spectrum of expectations that customers bring to each interaction, is definitely achievable. Great customer experiences are the culmination of many people, processes, and tools working in concert, but it begins, as author Jeff Toister argues in his book, Getting Service Right: Overcoming the Hidden Obstacles to Outstanding Customer Service, with great leadership.

Customer service professionals may remember the first edition of Toister’s book, titled Service Failure. "The original title robbed the book of its potential," Toister explained. “You can’t expect people to hand the book to someone else and say, ‘Here, read this. Really, it’s good. This is not me sending you a message about your service.’”

Toister is candid about having learned a firsthand lesson in needing to put himself in the customer’s shoes. But between 2011, when he originally penned the book, and its April 2019 re-release, a lot has changed in the service landscape. Certainly the technology people use to provide service, but also—or subsequently—customer expectations. Even so, there remains an art to great customer service, and it’s all too easy to point a finger at the sales rep or support agent when things go wrong. But it’s not that simple. Here Toister answers a few questions about how leaders can lead with heart and set up employees to deliver great service, most of the time.

Your book outlines some reasons for why employees may not be delivering their best service, but how much can a great staff can make up for a poor leader? Is great service always about the culture a leader creates?

In my experience, it’s almost always about the leader and the organization—and to use a more collective term, the system. What I've observed is that you can take a pretty average set of employees and put them in the right system, where you have a strong leader, good products, you've given them the right tools, you've empowered them, and then those people rise to the occasion and deliver amazing service.

"What I've observed is that you can take a pretty average set of employees and put them in the right system, where you have a strong leader, good products, you've given them the right tools, you've empowered them, and then those people rise to the occasion and deliver amazing service." - Jeff Toister

On the other hand, you can take people who are naturally amazing at service and put them in a situation where they don't have great leadership, or the right tools, and have maybe a poor product or poor service that’s tough to get behind. All of those things really dampen that individual's ability to be great. Over time, it becomes so frustrating that it's normal for people to stop trying. One of the concepts I write about in the book is called “learned helplessness,” where it feels like every time you try to do good work, something stands in the way. Maybe the boss isn’t giving you the support you need. Maybe other departments have different goals. After awhile, it feels like, ‘well, why even try anymore?’ Why should you care if no one else seems to? That mentality becomes pervasive.

You define culture as action and explain why it’s important to clearly define your team or company’s culture. How then do you turn that definition into action?

Every organization or team already has a culture. Whether or not you're explicitly aware of it, culture is a collective way of thinking and acting.

Organizations and service leaders often will try to define the culture. But there's typically one of two ways that can go. One is what we see as a very aspirational culture that's not really grounded in what people are currently doing or thinking. A famous example is Enron, known for one of the biggest accounting scandals in history. One of their core values was integrity. That's an example of stated culture versus actual culture being completely misaligned.

A more healthy organization’s culture is partly aspirational, but also rooted in reality. They've really taken time to think about: “When we're at our best and things are performing well, what are we doing? What behaviors are we exhibiting? What beliefs are we sharing?” It’s being more deliberate about nurturing the positive aspects of culture and building from that.

"A more healthy organization's culture is partly aspirational, but also rooted in reality… It's being more deliberate about nurturing the positive aspects of culture and building from that." - Jeff Toister

It takes a lot of work because Where I think a lot of service leaders struggle is they might have this aspirational culture, but then their actions can immediately cancel it out. If you say, for example, "I want you to go above and beyond with your customers, and really treat them with respect and dignity and empathy," yet as a leader you're so busy that you don't treat your own employees that way, that's tough. The message you're truly sending is: "No, we're not going to treat people with respect and dignity. We don't really value that."

You suggest that service leaders shouldn’t be too complacent; if they aren’t hearing complaints, they aren’t looking hard enough for customer pain points. How often should a service leader dig into the details, without breaking morale, and what’s the role of technology in finding those gaps?

I always like to put technology to the side because it's kind of its own beast, and it comes last. Once we know what we're trying to do, then we find the right technology to help us do it.

The starting point is to be really clear about what's right. In other words, what does great service look like? What is our brand promise? What is our customer service vision? When we're doing things correctly and well, what does that look like? Then the next step is comparing performance to that definition and getting customers to share feedback.

So much of customer services is based on all the things you shouldn’t do. “Don’t do this… We got negative feedback about that…” But okay, great, what are the things that we should do? Let's define that and then always compare our work towards that.

Every interaction with a customer produces some sort of data that tells you how things are going. It might be very unstructured—it might be a conversation where the customer says, "Great, I'm so happy" or "I'm really frustrated right now”—and the tough part is capturing that in a meaningful way. But that’s data and one of the first steps is just asking employees what's going well. What do they think are the biggest challenges standing in the way of delivering the type of service you say you’re trying to deliver?

"So much of customer services is based on all the things you shouldn't do… But okay, great, what are the things that we should do?" - Jeff Toister

Often, right there, you'll hear all kinds of actionable information. Surveys are certainly another part of that, but if you’re just reporting survey data as numbers, it’s a useless exercise. The survey should be giving you information that allows you to fix issues and pain points and make things better.

The role of technology is to make all of that easier. I worked with one client to configure the rules to trigger when someone received a survey, to get a high response rate but also to avoid inundating customers. Then we worked with the leadership team to learn how to use that data to improve service and created an operational step where, anytime someone expressed dissatisfaction, a leader would follow up and contact that customer. It’s a best practice, but it also gave the customer a chance to vent and the leader

Empathy and trust are underlying themes in the book, but you turn these concepts on their head. In the industry, we often hear, “Hire for empathy,” but you state that empathy is hard. And we overrate our own abilities. And humans are not actually good at customer service. These truths resonate, but they’re also hard to swallow.

There are many empty platitudes in the customer service world, like hiring for empathy, or the other one I tackled in the book: The customer is always right. But empathy comes from having a shared or relatable experience, and that means hiring people who really know what your customers are going through. In some industries, that’s easy. But in others, it’s really difficult. If you take technical support, the agent is skilled but the customers are going through a range of emotions and maybe feel incapable or at someone else’s mercy. That’s a hard situation for empathy, because if the agent was in the customer’s position, they’d fix the problem. So then a leader has to help that agent tap into empathy. Maybe the agent could fix a computer, but could they fix a car? Then you walk through it: Have you had car trouble? Have you been stranded on the side of the road and your car won’t start? How did it feel? And were you worried about the cost or how long it would take the tow truck to arrive? That’s how your customer feels, and you have to tap into that.

Even though customer service is hard, you don’t advocate for incentivizing employees.

The research is pretty clear on incentives. They can be harmful in any role where you need to use your brain and creativity, which brings us squarely into the world of customer service. Customer service employees don’t need to be motivated; it’s a false assumption. What leaders have to do is to prevent de-motivation. Whenever you hire well, someone’s going to come into the job excited, but after a couple months reality sets in and the vision they had of making a difference and helping customers is overshadowed by how dreary the work is. But if you can figure out the obstacles that stand in the way of customer service employees being helpful,

"If you can figure out the obstacles that stand in the way of customer service employees being helpful, the motivation returns to its natural state." - Jeff Toister

One thing I really try to address in the book is that we’re human beings, and for human beings, customer service is hard. So a good leader will try to prevent de-motivation by making it as easy as possible for employees to provide great service.

You make a clear distinction between incentives and recognition, though.

Recognition is unexpected and comes after the fact. When a leader or colleague delivers recognition, an employee feels appreciated. It kind of anchors positive behaviors and actions. The key is that it can’t be something you anticipate, otherwise you begin working towards recognition as an incentive. And we see all kinds of bad behavior come from that. For example, people may try to incentivize survey scores, but there are 10 different ways to get a great survey score without improving service. That’s not really the point of the survey. Better service is the goal.

"Recognition is unexpected and comes after the fact. When a leader or colleague delivers recognition, an employee feels appreciated. It kind of anchors positive behaviors and actions." - Jeff Toister

I’m wondering about your take on bots and AI and automation. Are you excited about where the future’s heading, or are you cautionary?

People like to predict that technology is going to take over the world and rapidly change everything, but historically that isn’t the reality. If we look at banking when automated teller machines started coming into play, people thought it would change banking forever. And it did. But what happened is that we still have bank branches and bank tellers and banks found that they were able to do less transactional work. The tellers were able to do more jobs, and in actuality they were able to open more banks and hire more tellers. I think it’s more like a slow burn. You have to think about what jobs automation does really well, and which jobs it doesn’t.

If we take a look back, do you think we’re getting better at service?

That’s an interesting proposition. I can tell you that the American Customer Satisfaction Index is more or less static, which to me is an indication of how people perceive service. Good service is just service that matches our expectations, but we perceive and remember things that are different than the norm. No one’s going to write a review about a very average encounter. You’re not going to pull someone aside and say, “You were polite and friendly, well done.” That’s not a blip on your radar. The things we notice are different than what we expect—the real positives or negatives. You get the most pull by being consistently good and occasionally wowing people, but also sometimes missing the mark.

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