Thu | Feb 2, 2023

Francis Wade | Customer Service Must Be More than Personal Service, Part Two

Published:Friday | June 17, 2016 | 12:00 AMFrancis Wade

In my last column two weeks ago, I argued that customer-facing employees in the Caribbean habitually place their personal feelings ahead of professional service.
The result is a wide and disturbing variation in customer experience that confounds executives, who end up fighting perpetual fires. How can a company create an ethos that overcomes the fearful vulnerability felt by front-line workers?
In the article, I asserted that the prevailing local service experience is driven by a dark, persistent pessimism. Front-line employees develop an advanced, defensive mindset against possible feelings of abuse, victimisation, and disrespect. The culprit? The unaware, incoming customer who is fully expected to look down on them. The end result is a collection of four experiences: ‘VIP’, ‘Tourist’ and ‘Friend’ service for the favoured few, and ‘Res a Dem’ service for the majority.
What can a company do to reverse this situation? Here are three solutions.
1. Hire for resilience
Disney, SouthWest, and other companies have shown that the best attribute to seek when hiring unskilled workers is their attitude. The best ways to uncover this trait is to do psychometric testing and to submit an applicant to realistic but challenging scenarios. It gives prospects a chance to demonstrate emotional resilience under pressure. If they can remain mission-driven in a test situation, even when their ego is being threatened, they may have what it takes to stick to a new service ethic if they get the job. In HR circles, the approach is part of what is called an assessment centre.
2. Make a ‘strong identity appeal’
Psychologists have defined an ‘identity appeal’ as a way of convincing someone to act in accordance with a group to which they belong. For example, we might say to a KC old boy: ‘I thought you guys never missed a single Champs?’ It might entice him to buy a ticket.
On the other side of Heroes Circle, I remember when, as an 11-year-old first-former on the first day of school, my Wolmers headmaster referred to us as gentlemen, not boys. He explained that: “We now expect you to behave as such” ­ indicating that our days of wearing short pants and playing marbles were over.
This is not just related to high schools. There’s a reason we discover our nationalism when we visit or live in foreign countries. Case in point: The Penn Relays was a boring track meet before Jamaicans turned it into an international face-off.
Companies can tap into this cultural tendency. One was forced to change its uniforms when employees, after a while, refused to wear them in public ­ ‘people dem out a road sey we favya helper!’
This is what happens when companies ignore the fact that employees want to feel pride in their group of choice. When managers use this power wisely, they surround employees with elements like uniforms to send a powerful signal: You are a member of an elite group, and are therefore expected to act accordingly.
When employees are encouraged to affiliate, they willingly step into a new identity. Cloaked with a new persona upon orientation, they are able to deliver consistent customer service that hits high standards. It becomes the only option available.
Unfortunately, many companies fritter away this connection, wasting social capital. Powerful symbols fall into disrepair, earning the frustration of employees who become disillusioned. At that point, only a personal transformation can help.
3. Transformation as a choice
Just as powerful as an affiliation, but harder to bring about, is a transformation of the individual. For example, when an employee is made aware of the four default service experiences mentioned before, it can be a revelation. A few respond immediately by changing their attitude, trying to avoid the worst case.
Most, however, need more than a simple explanation.
In corporate transformation exercises, I have seen employees distinguish the root causes of poor service delivery and defensive attitudes. Using the tools of inquiry, self-reflection, and open sharing, they are able to discover their unique personal weaknesses. Once they see where they falter, they have a choice to act differently when they learn the habits of mind that lead them to deliver ‘Res a Dem’ service.
However, it takes a great deal of courage to take this path.
Personal transformations on a corporate scale are expensive to procure and take a long time, but they are sometimes the only choice for a company with a front line embedded in a defensive culture.
The truth is that none of these three steps are short or easy to take. But they are well worth the effort, even though they may not resemble traditional customer service training imported from overseas. Only interventions that account for deeply held defensive feelings can help employees deliver professional service that produces a consistent experience.
- Francis Wade is a management consultant and author of ‘Perfect Time-Based Productivity’. To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or to give feedback, email: