How to improve customer service? Hiring, says consultant, is just the start.

If you want to improve customer service to the point that it becomes a competitive advantage, you have to hire great employees.  Not the best-looking employees, not the most athletic employees, not even necessarily the most technically adept employees.  But the employees who are, by their intrinsic personal traits, best suited to working with customers.

A staff hired or acquired, in other words,  whose personality traits are in line my semi-famous WETCO criteria, which I’ll briefly recap here.  To remember these in the future, just visualize a big, wet, fragrant [!] dog at PETCO.

Warmth – simple human kindness
• Empathy – the ability to sense what another person is feeling
• Teamwork – the bias against “I can do it all myself” and toward “Let’s work make this happen together.”
• Conscientiousness – detail orientation; ability to use a follow-up system.
• Optimism – the ability to bounce back and not internalize challenges working with customers. [note 1]  

However, proper hiring isn’t enough.  The best-selected staff in the world won’t do you much good until those staff members contribute their elective efforts.

I’m a smart person. You’re clearly a smart person. [note 2]  And many people you hire will be smart people.  Here’s the problem: Smart employees, I’m sorry to let you know, can possess a knack for doing just enough work – or what looks like work – to avoid getting into disciplinary trouble or causing other obvious unpleasantness.

Presumably, this isn’t what you were hoping for when you hired them. You didn’t mean to end up with a waiter (or front desk agent, or government agency employee, or…) with a cultivated knack for avoiding the glances of guests who want his attention.  (In today’s world, between ignored glances, that guest may be live-blogging the nightmare of her service experience at your restaurant.)  You meant to hire the waiter with the knack for picking up on and responding to the subtle eye movements of your diners.  Believe me—this employee can start his career as exactly the same person, and how he ultimately performs depends on the direction received from you, his leader.

How do you get what you want out of employees?  You start by making sure they know what you want from them.

This is not the big duh that it sounds like.  In fact, it’s the key, or one of the keys, to unlocking the elective, optional efforts that your employees can either give you or keep to themselves.   If employees think what you want is only what’s written in their job description, you’re hosed.  Hosed.  If they understand what you really want – success with customers and  sustainable success for your business – it’s a whole different ball game. Most people, all things being equal, would rather please a leader than thwart one. [note 3]

Here’s a quick example from, in this case, the world of healthcare customer service:

The Mayo Clinic is an extraordinary institution that has transformed what would be the middle of nowhere (Rochester, Minnesota) into a Mecca of healing known worldwide. And a lot of what makes them extraordinary is their customer (patient) service.

Everyone who works at The Mayo Clinic knows, from orientation onward, a single, central sentence that originated with the clinic’s founding leaders.  The sentence? “The needs of the patient comes first.”

Whether you’re a surgeon or an orderly, you understand what this means, and what its implications for your work are.  For a surgeon, the implications are profound (and rather obvious, if you’ve ever had the misfortune of encountering a surgeon with other priorities): As a surgeon working at Mayo, you are obligated to confer with colleagues in “competing” disciplines to get the best care for this patient, rather than acting like a lone wolf intent only on outfitting your next speedboat. [note 4] 

For orderlies, the implications are similarly profound.  “The needs of the patient comes first” means that if a patient is distressed, or a loved one is confused, about something in the treatment scenario, or for any other reason, it’s o.k. to drop your job duties (changing sheets, cleaning up…) and attend to that patient or loved one.

Isn’t that true customer service?


[1] A reminder: Optimism is not what you hire for in every position. We all saw what overly optimistic accounting did at Enron, and more recently at Lehman Brothers. But you need optimism in customer-facing employees. Because customers will grind them down to a nub without it.
[2]  I can tell what a smart person you are because you’re not only reading my post, you’re reading the footnotes!
[3] At least this is true at the beginning.  You can quickly erode this desire to please by offering them nothing other than pointless, or seemingly pointless, work, work that they have no control over, no part in designing.  Involving your employees in their work, using them as a subject rather than an object, is a moral imperative as well as a business necessity.  Shoot me an email if you’d like to discuss this further; I seem to have run out of footnote.
[4] OK, OK, wolves (lone or otherwise), don’t actually have speedboats. 
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Micah Solomon is the business keynote speaker, author, and customer service consultant termed by the Financial Post ”a new guru of customer service excellence.” Solomon offers keynote speaking and consulting on customer service issues, the customer experience, and company culture — and how they fit into today’s marketing and technology landscape.  See Micah in action — including video and free resources — at Or, click here for your own free chapter  of Micah’s latest bestseller,  High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service (AMACOM Books).———————————————————–

“Micah Solomon conveys an up-to-the minute and deeply practical take on customer service, business success, and the twin importance of people and technology.” –Steve Wozniak, Apple co-founder

© 2013 Micah Solomon.  Portions of this post may also have appeared in Micah’s previously published work.