Edward Fields decided to create a company in 2004 because he wanted one very simple thing: to make sure he was never again surprised at any of the parent-teacher conferences he attended for one of his four kids. “It’s probably silly to spend $14 million and five years of your life to get that capability,” he recalls now. “But that was the core driver for me.”
Today, the company he created, Bethesda, Md.–based HotChalk, has become far more than his personal early-warning system. It’s a comprehensive learning environment for K–12 teachers, students, and parents, including a learning management system; a library of teacher-contributed lesson plans; digital content such as video from NBC News; and professional development for teachers—all available through any Internet browser. With more than 410,000 registered teachers and 80,000 schools in 188 countries utilizing HotChalk, it’s fair to say that Fields, who is now the chairman and chief executive officer, has exceeded his initial goals.
And yet, as successful as HotChalk has become, Fields says that one concern still bothers him: finding customer-centric employees. “[That’s] one that keeps me up at night,” he says, “because the most important thing at HotChalk is the people we manage to attract, hire, and train.” Three-quarters of his roughly 50 employees are customer-facing—and it’s critical for them to forge one-to-one relationships with HotChalk’s users: teachers and school districts trying to determine how they can improve the quality of the education they give to children. In fact, Fields says, the relationships are so critical that he’d rather be short-staffed than have the wrong people.
“Our philosophy is that it’s better to have an empty seat than the wrong butt in it,” he says.
The importance of having the right people isn’t limited to the education market. In just about any modern organization, the commoditization among competitors’ products and prices has led many observers to believe that customer service may be the last great differentiator.
“There is tremendous parity in the marketplace today, in terms of quality of products and basic service,” says Linda Shea, global managing director and senior vice president of customer strategies at Opinion Research Corp., a global market-research firm headquartered in Princeton, N.J. “How do you create those sticking points so someone will remember, speak highly about [your organization], and will give you more of a chance than somebody else? That’s really hard to do today.”
To make things more complicated, the very definition of satisfaction may be changing. According to recent research from industry analyst firm Aberdeen Group, there is a new equation for customer satisfaction, and it includes “unmet need”—which is to say that if agents are not cross-selling or upselling, they are failing. In the survey of contact center managers, 62 percent said differentiation was the top driver for agents to add selling to their repertoire. However, 57 percent reported an ongoing problem: how to incentivize agents to sell while at the same time making sure customer issues are resolved.
With many consumer-facing employees’ jobs evolving in real time, many company executives say they’re trying to identify those who are truly customer-centric, and how to train them properly so they can deliver a high-quality experience with every interaction. Others, however, believe not enough emphasis has been placed on finding the right people in the first place. “It’s an area that I think has been very underserved,” says Patrick Sweeney, executive vice president of Princeton, N.J.–based Caliper, a firm focused on hiring and training employees. “I really think it’s an essential business driver.”
With competition intensifying and an unstable economy growing worse, the hiring-versus-training argument may become your most important customer service issue.
A SIMPLER TIME
“Many people just bemoan the idea that often we don’t get the customer service that we used to [receive],” Sweeney laments. “It’s like the old TV show Cheers, when Norm would walk in and everyone would call [out his name]. [Good service] is just the fact that people know your name, or the notion of treating you as if you’re really special.”
He says that most companies’ senior management pay lip service to the importance of hiring quality employees to foster this experience, but the talk amounts to little more than words lingering in the air.
Technology, he argues, has too easily and pervasively replaced human interaction. “How often, when you go to call a company, do you end up having to dial so many numbers and be put on hold?” he asks. “You have to listen to the options because they were just updated, and there are at least 12 of them. There’s a real disconnect in terms of what we say we believe as business executives and what we’re really doing.”
Shea believes the problem has developed over the last decade. “I don’t think there’s been as much awareness and acknowledgment in the marketplace in the last 10 years or so,” she says. “Many companies don’t understand [the] connection between the brand and experience, or the need to measure the gap between what you promise and deliver.”
She explains further that the disconnect began to develop due to a lack of cohesion among internal company divisions. “In most organizations, brand, marketing, and communications were in one area of the company,” she recalls. “The customer experience—whether [it involved a] product, service, or support—was typically in another area. Also, employees typically managing [human resources] were also separate.” This, she argues, created silos that quickly fell victim to reduced budgets. Now departments are trying to demonstrate a return on investment to the executives holding the power of the purse, and only recently have companies started to realize all these pieces are truly connected.
Another issue holding companies back has been the very notion of customer centricity itself: What kind of employee is really focused primarily on the consumer? “It’s an interesting term,” admits Ron Hildebrandt, founder of Enkata, a provider of performance management software. “When I hear [that term]—or ‘customer experience’—it usually means having a much stronger rapport with consumers when they call in. [It also means] having a much more personalized dialogue to give the agents not just a greater satisfaction score but to really get the opportunity to sell something.” He says that others in the industry are still holding on to the conventional meaning that “centricity” solely revolves around ensuring high-quality scores.
This can pose a problem for both current and prospective agents, Hildebrandt says. “It’s sometimes confusing to agents because many see customer centricity having nothing to do with sales—possibly even [running] counter to it,” he says. “Culturally, those reps joined because they like to answer phone calls and help with problems—not because they want to twist the call into a sales situation.”
CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK
Cloning may not be part of mainstream science just yet, but many experts suggest that when it comes to looking for new hires in customer-facing positions, it’s best to identify individuals with the same qualities as your top performers. “The way to get there in terms of hiring and developing customer-centric employees is to start by understanding the qualities that distinguish the very best that you have right now,” Sweeney says. “They then become your ideal profile, and your model. What is the special sauce that they have?”
Besides observing what works and what doesn’t in your company’s customer-centric strategies, referrals from valued employees already at your organization can be a large step up, according to Kim Murphy, vice president of employee benefits for Akron, Ohio–based contact center solution provider InfoCision. “At least 55 [percent] to 60 percent of applicants are referrals from both existing and former employees, and even relatives,” she says. “It’s a really strong recruiting base for us, because you have a better idea of what the job entails hearing it from the horse’s mouth…as opposed to [from] human resource coordinators.”
HotChalk’s Fields also says that referrals, while offering no explicit guarantee of a job offer, definitely make his organization’s ears perk up a bit during the typical eight-to-12-week hiring process. “One of the criteria that can make an impact—but not necessarily an accelerator—is a prospective employee being referred in by one of our existing team members,” he explains. “That’s one of the things we look for: ‘Does somebody in the organization know this person, and can they vouch for him or her?’ ”
For applicants not referred by existing staffers, it’s important to examine the traits that make these people tick—especially the traits that can make an impact on an applicant’s ability to truly focus on the customer. “Lately, more companies have been going back to more traditional kinds of hiring methods and various types of testing to try and get underneath the personality of an individual,” Shea says. “You have to be rather careful there, but at the same time people are talking once again about personality, attitude, and behavior more so than skill.”
Shea says that it’s important for companies to find that happy medium of behavioral traits and learned skill. “It’s a balance that a lot of organizations have realized,” she says. “They really do need to make certain that [customer-facing employees] have the right personality and attitude. In some instances, you can train to get to the skill level you want, but you can’t always train to get the attitude and personality that you need.”
Caliper’s Sweeney says that his organization has an in-depth personality profile just for that purpose. “We need to get at the heart of what drives and motivates individuals, as well as their key qualities,” he explains. “You can get better at certain [skills], but you must be self-aware and know [the] qualities that drive you. As managers, it’s really not our job to try and change somebody to make them other than they are—[but] rather to help identify their potential and help them develop it.”
Sweeney rattles off a cursory list of some of the attributes and traits particularly important for customer-centric employees, including empathy, outgoingness, the ability to handle rejection well, intelligence, and a combination of aggressiveness and level-headedness in approaching the customer issue. Lastly, people best suited for customer-centric jobs like to be told two words: Thank you. (See “United Rentals Ships Customer Centricity,” below, for a look at Caliper’s success at equipment-rental firm United Rentals.)
“It makes them feel better and complete when someone says, ‘Hey, thanks—that was excellent,’ ” Sweeney says. “Customer-centric people are more interested in coming through and being recognized for that.”
Shea adds that, beyond personality, an applicant with prior experience in customer service can be a good place to start. InfoCision’s Murphy, however, warns employers to be careful about hiring those with the wrong kind of prior experience—something that can be difficult for her organization, where the average age of applicants is currently 42 years old. “Sometimes we may not want such strong skills [from prior jobs] because it’s harder to break bad habits,” she admits.
Given the ever-shifting roles that customer-facing employees—particularly contact center agents—are asked to undertake, training with an eye toward evolution is crucial. “Everybody needs to understand the reasons around why purposes are changing,” Hildebrandt says. “Whether [that] means selling different products…or reinforcing some [offerings], training is critical in that whole role change.”
HotChalk’s Fields explains that his new hires go through a one-week boot camp, paired with a particular person in the company. “It helps them to understand the HotChalk way, why we do things…and [to] make sure they’re proficient on our system,” he explains, adding that consistency and repetition are very important. “We have weekly team meetings in which new members can hear others who have [been with the company longer] talk about current issues. It’s very rigid…. We meet at the same time every week and have the same kind of roll call.”
To Hildebrandt, there are two more areas in which contact center agents must be trained in order to keep up with today’s changing job definition: product knowledge and best practices. “We have to make sure the agent is very confident in discussing the different offers and opportunities for customers to expand their relationship with the company [by utilizing] a lot more product training,” he says. “Since most agents aren’t very good salespeople to start—this is a learned skill—you have to give people a field guide in how you execute during certain call situations. [You want them] to deliver great customer experience but also have the confidence to ask for—and close—that sale.”
Training is commonly thought of as only occurring at the beginning of employees’ tenure, before they hit the floor—or headset. Some solutions, however, work with representatives on an ongoing basis. Companies including Cupertino, Calif.–based customer experience provider Chordiant Software and Boston-based marketing suite solution provider Portrait Software have offerings that can take customer insights and recommend next steps for an agent to take, for both issue resolution and sales opportunities.
Jeff Nicholson, vice president of product marketing at Portrait, says that today’s software can finally help provide your customer-centric employees with customer-centric technology, a goal he says has long been out of reach for CRM solutions. “Existing systems do a very good job at collecting and presenting information, and sometimes it’s assembled using statistics and analytics in terms of a dashboard,” he says. “What’s missing is the guidance for that rep on what to do that’s best for that customer at that moment. It infuses an existing CRM environment with intelligence to drive that interaction contextually.”
This way, Nicholson explains, agents can glean additional pieces of information throughout the call, and can enter those new pieces into the existing desktop screen. Using that expanded data record, the system can give the agent the best recommendations instead of simply triggering automatic actions. That leaves the agent responsible for assessing the recommendations, and choosing the right one for the case at hand.
In Chordiant’s Recommendation Advisor 6.1, agents are given options based on historical and current customer information—or they can simply make their own decision. The mix of human thought and technology is vital, according to Nicholson. “Really it’s that dual-prong strategy that’s going to give you the best chance for success,” he says.
Enkata’s Hildebrandt believes that, in four or five years, when we talk about hiring and training customer-centric employees, more companies will understand—and have the budget for—what’s necessary. “It’s still relatively new, so there are lots of fits, starts, and half attempts. Coaching and training will be more [suited] to better solving customer engagement,” he says. “It takes money to change the way you approach handling calls,” he notes, and that change will remain “hard to come by until there are more success stories from leading-edge companies.”
For now, the ability to focus on customer-centric workers may depend largely on the way the unstable economy works itself out, according to Shea. “In most economic downturns, usually the first place [companies] cut is service,” she recalls. “So, it’s going to be very interesting to see how organizations start to respond to this and the extent to which they start pulling back on the level of talent provided first-hand to customers.”
She believes that financially stable companies running their businesses from a longer-term perspective will be able to keep a customer-centric focus intact. She doesn’t have the same outlook for companies driven by monthly or quarterly figures. “I don’t believe that [those organizations] know how to do anything else,” she says. “The concern is, when we’ve been through years of tremendous cost-cutting and driving production and efficiency, there aren’t a whole lot of other places to look. So the challenge becomes really trying to quantify the tradeoff—and, unfortunately, I think those forced to run their businesses more short term won’t have a choice.”
Economics aside, those who don’t focus on hiring the right employees risk losing not only customers, but prospects, too. “Clients [treated well] become advocates and ambassadors that end up loving what you’re doing so much that they want their family and friends to know about it,” Caliper’s Sweeney says.
In other words, customer-centric employees drive customer satisfaction, and satisfied customers drive more business.“One of the biggest sources of prospects for any company [is] referrals, which can only come from customers who are pleased, not just satisfied,” Sweeney says. “That’s when a company becomes electric.” And a customer-centric staff is what provides the current.
SIDEBAR: United Rentals Ships Customer Centricity
Attracting, hiring, and training customer-centric employees doesn’t just involve the consumer front lines. United Rentals, an equipment-rental company headquartered in Greenwich, Conn., differentiates on customer service because customer service is virtually the only place it can.
“You may think it’s a pretty simple business, or [that] it doesn’t have much of a customer relationship to it,” says Craig Pintoff, vice president of human resources at the company. “Actually, it’s intensely a service [organization]. All of our competitors rent out similar types of equipment, but what differentiates us is our employees and how they relate to our customers.”
Pintoff says United Rentals utilizes Princeton, N.J.–based Caliper’s services for its management-track employees—40 percent of employee hires, ranging from inside sales positions all the way to senior-level executives and vice presidents.
The company takes advantage of Caliper’s assessment tools in order to match up prospective employees with the types of metrics they would need to hit in order to be deemed successful. For sales, this could be revenue and budget. Management, on the other hand, would be assessed by operational metrics and profitability. This gets combined with an employee-engagement survey created to determine just how well supervisors are influencing their charges. “That’s very important for us because an engaged workforce should be more customer-centric,” Pintoff says. “We try and make sure our managers have certain characteristics leading to engaged workforces.”
United Rentals also aims to have its interviewers be more informed and ask better questions while speaking with prospective hires—providing yet another point of research the company will consider. “We constantly train [to foster] these skills, so their insight is just as valuable,” Pintoff explains. “Caliper is just a tool in the process, not a veto. It helps our managers be better at interviewing with their own skill set along with what Caliper can provide. It’s a very important point for us.”
SIDEBAR: Customer Experience: A Global Endeavor
The notion of customer centricity is hardly exclusive to the United States; many organizations today are handling touch points worldwide, and their employees have to adjust accordingly.
Linda Shea, global managing director and senior vice president of customer strategies at Opinion Research Corp., a global market-research firm headquartered in Princeton, N.J., recently returned from a whirlwind international tour speaking with companies about integrated customer service strategies. The ideal, she says, brings together typically siloed areas of a business—including sales, marketing, and customer service.
After conversations in such places as Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the United Kingdom, Shea says her findings both surprised and pleased her. “We wanted to see people nodding heads in agreement and talking about it,” she recalls. “It was really wonderful to see everyone shaking their heads saying, ‘Yes, this is exactly what’s happening in our organization—we cannot come to the table with one perspective.’ ”
Shea is hesitant to speculate as to whether the United States or the rest of the world is leading the charge. “I wouldn’t say that I think [international companies] seem
to get it more than [American ones do],” she says. “In most instances, a lot of those markets look [to the U.S.] for trends. What was refreshing to me was that while things tend to lag in terms of adoption of some of these [customer-facing] practices around the globe, I didn’t get a sense there was that kind of lag in this kind of thought.”
To Shea, the fact that employees in locations across the globe are starting to strive for a high-quality experience is the key. “It’s taking this worldwide perspective and actually boiling it down to an experience with a customer,” she says. “It doesn’t matter where that happens.”
Contact Editorial Assistant Christopher Musico at cmusico@destinationCRM.com.
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