An Advice Column Only for
Contact Center Managers
At a recent meeting with contact center execs, Dina Vance, Senior Vice President from Ulysses Learning, was asked what to do if you have a contact center staffed with plenty of reps who truly enjoy working with customers, but they’re just not delivering the type of customer experience the company needs. Dina’s answer, as one director exclaimed “was a real eye opener” and shed a bright light on a mission-critical issue to which most contact center managers can relate. You’ll want to take a few minutes now to read Dina’s response!
Q: We work hard to hire contact center reps who relate well with our customers. I’d say the majority are attracted to customer service because they really do like to work with people. But we seem to struggle with getting them to deliver the type of customer experience we want to target in our center. We feel like we talk about it until we’re blue in the face. What’s it going to take?
Senior Vice President, Managing Director North America
A: For the most part, customer service reps come to work each day wanting to and fully intending to do a good job. If you ask them why they chose their profession, they will often say “I love talking to people” or “I like helping people” or “service is part of who I am”. The tricky part is good customer service is more than being nice and friendly – it’s really about being able to demonstrate professionalism and helpfulness effectively.
Research shows time and time again that customers want to receive three things, 1) the right answer, 2) the first time, and 3) with professionalism. When we ask our customer service representatives to “take care of our customers” or “establish rapport,” sometimes our well-intended representatives interpret that to mean “talk about the weather” or “ask about the customer’s day” or “be chatty”. Left to their own understanding, representatives may miss the point of what we really mean by “take care of our customers.” When this happens, while our rep’s intent is good, they fail to deliver what customers really want. And we know how that can harm our contact center businesses, in terms of lost time, money, and valued customer relationships.
Recently, I was on the receiving end of a customer service representative who had good intentions; however, she lacked understanding about the true definition of good customer service.
I was in line at my favorite coffee shop to pick up a quick beverage. The drive thru was backed up to the point that my car was actually in the street. Typically, the line moves pretty fast, but on this day, I had to wait over 20 minutes just to place my order. When I finally got my beverage, I knew in an instant what had happened when the customer service rep casually hung her head out the window and said “Well, hi there, how’s your day going? Mine has been crazy. Everybody must be thinking the same thing today – I need a coffee. Can you believe this line? I love your pick today. Good choice by the way. So how are you doing?”
What I wanted to say to the rep was “It would be better if I had a coffee in hand and was already on the road to my appointment,” but I just took my coffee and left.
Why didn’t I speak up? After all, if this rep was delivering a good customer experience I would have received three things--1) the right answer (coffee in hand), 2) the first time (efficiently), and 3) with professionalism (“thank you for waiting, I know that line was long” would have been a professional response).
But this particular rep was what behavioral psychologists in corporate learning call “unconsciously incompetent.” She wasn’t in a position to see or understand that her behavior was causing an issue…no matter what I would have told her.
And that brings me to my first point.
Point #1: Beware “unconsciously incompetent” reps because they can greatly impair your contact center and prevent you from achieving your business objectives…and, even with all their good intent, they simply are not delivering the experience you want.
The term “unconsciously incompetent” describes the first of four stages of becoming competent in acquiring a skill. Being chatty does not equal good customer service. But I’ll bet that my coffee rep does not know that nugget of wisdom. Someone probably told her to be friendly to customers. Her interpretation of that advice was to chat with customers to show friendliness. And I’m pretty sure she thinks she’s doing an amazing job, too. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have the whole picture.
As Vicki, one of my wonderful clients says, “You can be friendly and nice, but if you’re not helpful, I don’t care how friendly you are.”
Many reps, including some seasoned ones, are unconsciously incompetent, until they learn another, more effective way to do their job. Then, if they’re open to learning and they begin to learn or acquire new skills, they advance from being unconsciously incompetent through the four stages of learning. Ultimately, the goal is to become “unconsciously competent.” This means they do their jobs so well they don’t even have to think much about what they’re doing.
Point #2: If your contact center is focused on creating consistently superior customer experiences, you probably have a clear picture of what constitutes customer experience excellence. You have outlined the skills your reps must master to deliver a superior customer experience. NOW you must be able to assess and guide the learning progression of each of your reps as they go from being unconsciously incompetent to unconsciously competent in demonstrating these identified skills.
Let me give you a few tips to consider as you guide your reps through each of the four stages of learning. How quickly and effectively your reps make it through these stages directly relates to your contact center’s ability to achieve your targeted performance measures. The stakes are high!
Stage One—Unconsciously Incompetent. Think back on when you introduced a new training initiative in your contact center. When your reps start on their journey to learn something new, remember where their minds are. Most already think they’re doing a good job. They may have even received perfect scores from your Quality department a number of times. (See point #3 for more on this.) But when we, as leaders, listen to their calls we’re saying “well that was not a perfect experience either for the customer, the company, or both.” The change curve can be steep for our reps and we have to help them understand why we’re changing all or any part of the process for them.
Stage Two—Consciously Incompetent. Let’s continue with our example to improve customer experience through learning a new process, in this case a new call strategy. In this stage your rep still does not understand all the details in how to effectively implement the call strategy, BUT they recognize they have the deficit. They also see the value in the call strategy or new learning opportunity in addressing the deficit. This step is all about allowing your reps to make plenty of mistakes and that’s why a simulation-based e-learning component is so attractive to reps and leaders. Reps can make mistakes in a safe environment without harming customer relationships.
In this stage you really go out of your way to demonstrate what customer service excellence looks, sounds, and feels like to reps. And you have to be exceedingly prescriptive. Break down each of the skills into bite-sized steps, focusing on the correct application of each of those steps. For example, it’s not enough to tell reps to “show customers you care.” This can be broadly interpreted by reps.
When we’re prescriptive, we tell and demonstrate for our reps exactly how they can show care for customers by the tone of their voice, their word choices, body language, among other ways. If you can’t tell and show reps exactly what they need to do to bring about your desire customer experience, they will fall short of your expectations.
In this stage your reps know what to do and how you want them to perform the new tasks. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge consistently requires real concentration on their part. But what’s most important here is that they’re consciously putting forth the effort and they are focused on the impact their behaviors have on the customer experience. Key to helping your reps in this stage is to encourage them to make the experience personable while remembering what customer’s really want. Reps are really thinking about the finer details now. And they see, quite clearly, that how they execute all the steps determines the customer’s experience.
Stage Four—Unconsciously Competent.
Here your reps have had so much practice with a skill that it has become "second nature" and can be performed easily. They will be able to multi-task again and feel completely comfortable with what they have learned. Many will want to teach what they learned to others and will gain great satisfaction from doing so.
One Last Point.
Point #3: Your QA team must know how to support your reps learning progression through all four steps from being unconsciously incompetent to unconsciously competent.
Your contact center supervisors and performance coaches, as well as your QA team members must be in sync. Everyone needs to be able to listen and look for the same clues to determine where a rep is in their learning progression and then help them or connect them to the resources to help them move from one stage to the next using the notes provided in my earlier points.
Here are some additional rep behaviors to listen and/or look for…
The unconsciously incompetent rep will be resistant to learning new skills. They will tell you “it doesn’t feel right” or “it doesn’t sound natural”. They will most likely struggle with coaching feedback.
The consciously incompetent rep will be less resistant and more open to coaching. They most likely will see how they could have done better. They are also starting to become less literal in applying what they’ve learned because they begin to see the intent behind the prescriptive steps of a given process or strategy. They are starting to make the learning “their own.”
The consciously competent rep will be able to apply their own personal judgment and emotional intelligence in using their new skills. They have ownership over the skills they learned and start to consistently meet targeted expectations on customer experience assessments.
The unconsciously competent rep easily and consistently applies judgement and emotional intelligence on every call. They are able to demonstrate the steps they learned in training effortlessly and naturally. They are your top performers on customer experience assessments. If they show an interest in coaching or training others, seriously consider expanding their responsibilities to accommodate this interest. Their enthusiasm will be infectious and can do much to lift your contact center to even higher levels of excellence!
As leaders, we want consciously competent and unconsciously competent reps. The more the better. But it’s up to us to pave the way for their learning progression.
This month’s featured expert is…
Senior Vice President, Managing Director, North America
In her current capacity with Ulysses Learning, Dina is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the company and also serves as the chief client relationship executive, working with Fortune 100 clients and other progressive organizations to redefine the way customers are cared for. Under her leadership, Ulysses has become well known for its work in transforming customer service, sales and coaching cultures through the development of emotional intelligence or “EQ” so that Judgment@WorkTM can be confidently, consistently and expertly applied on every call. The company has special expertise in serving the insurance, utilities and financial services industries.
Before joining Ulysses in 1999, Dina was responsible for the ground-level startup of two contact centers which led to her accepting a role as call center lead consultant and division manager for an international bank training organization.
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UlyssesLearningwas founded in 1995 as a joint venture with Northwestern University’s Learning Sciences department and continues to bring clients new, innovative enhancements to its industry-leading training. Contact centers achieve profound business results, ahead of schedule, with Ulysses Learnings’ artful blend of patented simulation-based e-learning, facilitated exercises, coaching and tools, that redefine the way customers are cared for and transform customer service, sales, and coaching cultures. Ulysses has the only training proven to build emotional intelligence or “EQ” so that Judgment@WorkTM can be confidently, consistently, and expertly applied on every call.
Ulysses Learning is a recent recipient of the Gold Stevie© Award for best contact center customer service training.