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Friday, May 29, 2015

Language and Service Part 1 - Literally Speaking to Your Customers


I have had an epiphany when it comes to language fluency and the ability to serve customers. For most of my career, I believed that as long as an employee can execute the transaction itself, the language comprehension of customer and service professional could be minimal and all would be well.   This already has a hole in the theory if you have ever had contact with a non-US call center, but I digress.

The trend in customer service is to deliver exceptional  experiences, to create situations that are unexpected and ‘wow’ the customer.   Certainly, my clients are moving away from transactional to extraordinary service.   It is an admirable goal, and one worth aiming for.  But if your service professionals and customers do not conversationally speak the same language, this is difficult to do.  

Stranger in a Strange Land

I had the opportunity of a lifetime to work at Disneyland-Paris in the mid-90s on Main Street USA as a merchandise hostess.  It was my first job at Disney World in Orlando, so I felt confident my French experience would be a success.  Call it youthful arrogance, or optimistic adventurer, but it was especially something that I did not speak French.   I could say, “My name is Stacey,” “Where is…?”  But for anything nuanced, I was lost.  (J'├ętais perdu. :( )

The result: my work days were mostly uneventful and transactional.  I scanned merchandise, stated the amount in my stumbling highly American accented French. This was not an easy thing to do in French with what seemed sixteen syllable numbering system. Pleasantly, I would say my best, “Au revoir,” and be done.

Technically I did my job, but I can’t say I enjoyed it or was even good at it from a hospitality experience.  It was also a lonely day. I could not engage with guests to the same degree I could at home.   But if the guest spoke English, it was completely different for them and for me. The relief of being understood and connecting changed a short transaction to an experience.  

Do you speak…

On the flip side, as a customer, I have spent many nights on cruise ships.  100% of the time housekeeping staff is not from the US, and many times English is their second or even third language.   The steward is typically pleasant and professional, but the relationship is formal and sometimes strained when I ask for something or need assistance.  

But one time our cabin steward was from Asia, and his English was completely fluent.   We could share our stories and laugh with him and he with us.  It made the experience of service so much fuller.   In our mind, we believed he was a better steward.  In hindsight though, I bet his raw housekeeping skills weren’t among the best those many professionals who have served us in the past. 

The Take Aways for Your Organization

  • Sharing nuanced stories and detailed information is critical to delivering excellent customer service.  This requires beyond basic language proficiency.
  • Helping employees learn the main language of your organization or customers is in no way discriminatory.   It is helping them professionally develop.  In my experience, most companies completely ignore their non-native speakers for development for anything except compliance training.   That is sad, insulting, and certainly companies are not maximizing their talent.
  • There is a difference between comprehension and understanding.  Comprehension is the two parties get what the other needs.  Understanding is when the parties can hear what is been said, unsaid, and implied. 

This is an important topic as it relates to customer satisfaction, staffing strategies, and talent development.  There is also much more to say about this in regards to call center operations.  I will leave that for another blog, on another day.  Until then au revior et bonne chance!

Friday, May 1, 2015

How to Deal with the Psychology of Service Recovery

Our story begins on an unseasonably sunny hot spring day in the Port of Miami.  In the chaos that is embarkation, my family dumps two pieces of luggage to a porter to begin a welcomed gorgeous cruise on the Atlantic. Our porter physically writes our cabin number on the tags, attaches said paper tags to our bags, and places them in the cage with hundreds of other pieces that belong to our new best friends, aka fellow travelers.  We next queue with several thousands of passengers to begin the check-in process.  Moooooo!  

Normally, this is end of the check-in story, but of course it was not or there would be no blog. :)   Our one suitcase with ALL of our clothes for 2 weeks did not arrive.   By midnight the first evening, we are not sure it made it on the ship.   The next morning my husband and I analyze, strategize, theorize what to do about our missing bag.   I am almost frantic with worry.  So much for being the Customer Service Guru. 

Luckily, our bag was found by noon the next day after an extensive cabin by cabin search by the housekeeping team.  Our cabin number ended in 78, but the handwritten tag on the large piece looked like 18, which was unoccupied this cruise.  There was no passenger in the room to say it didn’t belong to them.

We were fortunate to have a happy ending.   What was more interesting was the psychological experience my husband and I had during the 24 hours we did not have our bag and the actions of the staff.   If you are in the customer service industry, read on for three tips for three easy service recovery tips.  

Number 1:  Rarely is the Issue Presented the Real Issue

As hours passed and it seemed more realistic the bag will not be found,  I became increasingly upset.   It wasn’t mad at the cruise line, per se, it was the unsure feeling of “What are we going to do?” 

Yes, clothes can be purchased and yes, there are bigger problems in the world.   The question that stressed me the most, “Can I purchase in 2 days on a floating vessel all the items I had accumulated over years, to enjoy this cruise experience?”   The answer was a flat out no.   Could I have got by? Sure.   But this was not a situation I created!  I followed the company’s luggage policies.  This was highly stressful and made our first 24 hours onboard semi-miserable.  

It is not the lost bag truly bothering me.  I am scared what is in the bag is simply gone and how that will affect my vacation.    Instead of focusing on this once in a lifetime experience, I am thinking insurance claims, arguing with front office managers, and laundering the same underwear for 12 days.  None of this is appealing.  

TIP 1:  To any employee attempting to help me, understand the underlying fear I have about the situation.  I don’t need empathy, I need understanding.   The customer is usually upset about something deeper than the situation presented.  When solving, first define the problem presented and second define the core issue bothering the customer.  
 
Number 2: Pumped Up for a Fight

Since I am in the customer service consulting business, my mind was instantly racing how difficult it would be to get the cruise line make this right if the bag was gone.   It seems companies are trying to wiggle away from responsibility when issues arrive, so I was preparing to present my case like I was arguing before the Supreme Court.  Does this sound like a great vacation?  What do you think I would tell my friends and family about this trip?

I prepped for my interrogation and cross examination.    Did I use a luggage transfer company?  No.   Did I ride in a cab or taxi to the port?  No.   Did I put the bag in the porter’s possession?   Yes.  My husband was asked these questions when he first approached  guest services about the bag.  

TIP 2:  Customers train for a fight when trying to resolve service issues.  Perhaps it is our cultural, perhaps it is their history with the company, or perhaps it is the tone of the employees.   When solving, first employees or managers must assure the customer you want to help and blame is secondary to the solution. 
 
When asking questions use a tone that communicates you are solutions oriented.  Do not sound like the police or look for holes in the customer’s story.   The best approach is question the guest with a positive 50/50 mindset.   Fifty percent could be their fault, because people do all sorts of silly things or simply make mistakes.   But critically, 50 percent could be the organization’s fault due to poor procedures or employee mistakes.   Until you know, do not place blame, and whoever is at fault it doesn’t matter, it is in the organization’s best interest to fix it.

Number 3:  At a Loss for Words

I felt bad for the employees we asked what should be a simple question, “What is the likelihood you will find our luggage?” Or “What happens if it wasn’t found and left in Miami?”  This must happen all the time, so I was surprised there wasn’t a concrete answer or procedure.  Employees truly felt bad for us, and we never raised our voice, but they had no skills how to respond.

TIP 3:  For your top 5 service issues, put procedures in place and communicate it to all employees.    Have them practice saying the proper response in the most common language of your customers. 

It would have made all the difference to our anxiety level if anyone, including the housemen had said something similar to this:

 “We have a procedure.  Please check with guest services for unclaimed bags.  Sometimes tags accidently are pulled off the luggage with so many bags coming on board.   If it is not there, and another guest does not put it out of their stateroom by tomorrow, we will have the housekeeping staff do a cabin by cabin search.  95% of the time, the luggage is found this way if it made it on the ship.  If it is not found, then you will talk to our guest services manager and they will do everything we can to help you still have a great cruise.  We have some clothing and toiletries available for you to sleep tonight, …”

Relief is Underrated

After an hour alone watching a cooking demonstration, mostly to distract me, I returned to the cabin.    Our clothes were on the couch!  I was in such disbelieve and complete relief, I started crying.  Seriously, balling like a baby. 

Companies underestimate the negative affect on customers when something goes wrong.   Yes, there is the loss of business, company loyalty, all the formal impacts addressed in other blogs.   My theme is the psychology your customers go through during any service recovery situation.  It is deflating, bothersome, and emotionally draining.  It will affect your long-term relationship with this customer.

If your customers could articulate what they are really trying to say when a problem occurs it would be this, “This situation is temporarily ruining my life.  Simply help me.  Use your skills, resources, and talents to do your best and make this better.”

If that can become your service recovery philosophy, you will have calm seas in the storm of any service issue.