Customer Experience News & Trends

4 ways to make one-on-one customer service as good as it can be

Could the best way to win over customers be the old-fashioned way? Here’s one company that proves personal, one-on-one customer service — not the high-tech, low-touch kind — is still the champ.

Suburban Propane has stood by traditional customer service practices for more than 85 years. Not that Suburban has shunned more modern service; it has just kept the emphasis on authentic service that includes people answering phones, taking questions and resolving issues around the clock.

“We don’t have scripts because we don’t want robots,” says Jim Iles, director of customer care at Suburban’s NY-based contact center. “We joke that we pay our customer service reps to talk, but they’re really listeners.”

Listening is at the heart of what Suburban does — and has helped the company maintain strong customer loyalty for decades.

“There’s a lot of focus on customer self-service in the contact center industry, and we have a portal that allows some of it,” Iles says. “But most of our customers are on the phone and we want to meet that need as best we can.”

That’s vital to any business these days. More than 80% of customers prefer the phone over other channels to communicate with a company, a Parature survey found.

How does the Suburban Propane service team stay authentic and keep customers highly satisfied? Training. Lots of training on the soft skills is essential to great experiences. In fact, Suburban Propane’s contact center has won several awards for its training program.

Here’s the plan:

1. Keep a bank

“We maintain standards for post-call work,” Iles says, “But never on-talk time.”

To prove that — plus continually train — Iles keeps a database of recorded calls for training. Some are long. Some are short. In the best calls, everything the customer needs is taken care of effectively. In the lesser quality calls, mistakes can be heard.

The point is: Front-line customer service reps need to use whatever time and resources they have to make sure customers’ needs are met.

They play those calls from the library — which is regularly updated to reflect new topics or the latest customer concerns — in new and continuing training. Reps talk about what worked and what didn’t in the calls.

2. Play it out

After listening to and critiquing calls, service reps pair up. One takes the role of caller, the other maintains the role of customer service rep.

The “caller” presents a question or issue in a staged call, making it as difficult, complex or confusing as he or she wants. The service reps use techniques demonstrated in the calls they’d just heard to navigate the conversation.

3. Switch it

The pair switches their position for another round that has new topics and challenges.

The role-playing calls are recorded, too. Some reps can volunteer to have their calls played back for the entire group as another round of learning.

“You get some ah-ha moments and some good laughs, too,” Iles says.

4. Move on to mentors

For new-hire training, there’s one more critical step in their success. Once their formal training is over, new hires buddy up with a seasoned rep.

Sitting side-by-side, new hires listen to their mentors’ calls for some time. The mentors walk them through what they’re doing and, when the call is over, share thoughts on what they felt went well and if there’s anything they felt could go better.

“When new hires are comfortable to take calls,” Iles says, “the mentor listens while they help customers.”

Then they should move on to create more great customer experiences.

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