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If you want to measure productivity in your customer-care providers, measure their bias toward action before you hire.

Taking action is a quality that says, “I must do something, so I’ll quickly assess the situation, decide on a path, and do something myself.”
Rather than wait for the customer to call back, a bias toward action says to reach out to the customer first. A bias toward action is the proactive ingredient in customer care.

Julie had been promoted from production to her customer-service job by being friendly, reliable and well-liked by staff. Her first week on the phones, her supervisor was quite sure he had made a good decision. Listening in on her calls, he could see that people took to her right away.

While covering lunch breaks, Julie got a call from Greg, a customer with a reputation as demanding and gruff.

“Where’s Bob?” Greg barked.

“Bob’s out sick today. This is Julie. Is there some way I can help you?”

“I need my usual Thursday order a day early, and I need it shipped by overnight courier today. Think you can handle that, Julie?” he asked sarcastically.

“Absolutely,” said Julie. “Thanks for the call.” Julie felt good that she could make Greg, such a difficult customer, happy.

After she hung up, however, Julie realized that she had been so intimidated by his attitude that she had not checked any of the things she should have: What was his usual order? Did the warehouse have the items in stock now? Could they pack it today? What time did the last courier do pickups? Could they even deliver overnight?

Julie knew by the feeling in her stomach that while she had made Greg happy for the moment, she had set herself up for problems by not asking those questions. If she went to Accounting to get copies of Greg’s Thursday order, she’d have to leave the phones unattended. She decided to wait and ask her supervisor when she returned from lunch in an hour. She didn’t want to call Greg back, risking his wrath, to confirm the information. He’d think she was an idiot for not knowing already.

When at last she tracked down someone to ask about procedures, she had missed her window of time to either process the order or to call Greg back and explain why they couldn’t deliver. Her supervisor was upset, the customer was upset and Julie felt like a failure—all because she didn’t go ahead and right the situation herself from the beginning.

There are a number of reasons why customer-service providers might not take action right away. Sometimes they’re afraid of someone being angry with them; sometimes they’re afraid of making a mistake. Perhaps they simply reason that waiting is a better option than making the wrong move. Whatever the reason, the customer sees it as neglect—they don’t really care about the why.

Had Julie gone ahead and called Greg back, she might have found him to be helpful or not helpful. But whatever his reaction, it would have been better than not warning him of the possibility of not getting his product on time. Julie chose inaction when she should have braved the consequences and picked up the phone. Having a bias toward doing something, no matter what the consequences, is always preferable to doing nothing and hoping things will work out. They seldom do.

In hiring Julie, HR put a premium on likeability rather than a bias toward action. It’s great to be liked, but it’s more important to be respected. Asking all the questions would likely have given Greg a more secure feeling that he would have the product as promised. If he couldn’t have it on time, he would have had more choices about what to do next.

Employees who can follow instructions are fine; they are certainly easy to manage. In customer service, however, it helps to have people who can see where problems might arise and stop them before they happen. You want employees who can do more than react to a situation.

If you don’t hire for a bias toward action, you may get an employee with a default setting that believes, “I did my best.” A candidate with a more entrepreneurial attitude would be unwilling to stop until the problem was acted upon and solved. That’s the attitude you want to try to spot during the interview process.

Excerpted from CUSTOMER SERVICE THE SANDLER WAY by Anne MacKeigan.


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