How to Talk to Customers: An Interview with Diane Berenbaum
Posted by Becky Carroll on July 3, 2007
I recently had the opportunity to interview Diane Berenbaum, Senior VP of Communico, Ltd. and one of the authors of the book How to Talk to Customers (reviewed here). We talked about Diane and her company, measuring customer service, and how to hire customer service reps among other things. The first half of the interview is being shared today. In our second half, we will discuss customer listening, moving from Tragic to Magic, the worst mistakes made by call centers, and success stories.
About Diane and Communico
Becky: Diane, thank you for joining me and being willing to answer my questions about customer service. Let’s start with your background, how long you have been with Communico, as well as where you were before that.
Diane: Sure! I have been with Communico 21 years, so it’s been a long time. Through that time, I have been responsible for a wide variety of functions and roles. I am responsible for the marketing of the company, I’ve been involved with many client relationships and have managed many client relationships, and I even deliver most of our programs as well. I also look forward for the company and do the strategic planning as well as thinking about where we are heading in the future.
Becky: Wow, 21 years is a long time with one organization; you must really enjoy it there!
Diane: I do, I love it here, and it’s mostly about the people. Everybody here has the mindset of MAGIC, so it is great to come to work and know that people care about what you do and care about the others in the organization. I do believe in what we do, and we know and see that it makes such a big difference out there. It makes you feel good when you are working with an organization and having that kind of impact.
The Concept of MAGIC
B: How long has the concept of MAGIC been around at Communico; is it something that is recent, or has it been around for a long time?
D: We first came up with the concept of MAGIC back in about 1989, that was our very first inklin. And then, we came up with the acronym and made it stand for Make A Good Impression on the Customer. We realized a little later that “Good” wasn’t really good enough, and even before the book came out, we made it Make A Great Impression on the Customer. Since then, we have taken the core concepts and created a whole range of services that help companies have not just one interaction that is MAGIC but build a whole culture of exceptional service.
B: Tell me more about what Communico does and how you do it?
D: Okay. Our goal is to partner with an organization to really build that exceptional service culture. That means we offer a range of services. We start with assessment to get a feel for where your organization is today. Based on some of our research, we have come up with a way to identify what we call “pillars” that are elements found in organizations that are able to really sustain great service. We also work with some organizations, particularly with the leadership teams up-front to explore alignment. Is there a shared vision for service that engages a whole organization? It is not just about the customer experience, which is important, but it is also about the employee experience. We deliver training in a variety of areas, not just customer service but also coaching and written communications, everything that makes an impression. We also help organizations to sustain MAGIC, look at their own systems to embed MAGIC in the culture, and reinforce MAGIC in various ways such as recognition and reward and even performance management. Is it aligned with MAGIC, or is it rewarding something different such as quantity of calls rather than quality?
Measuring Customer Service
B: Exactly. It seems that quite a few call centers are measured on trying to get through as many calls as they can in a short period of time? How does a company measure customer service?
D: There are a lot of different measures call centers use. In terms of the key measures I see today, some organizations measure service levels, and they use outside organizations to do so, such as a JD Power-type organization. You also have the next level, where many organizations are doing research and surveys around customer satisfaction, though I don’t think satisfaction is quite enough.
I would say the most important measures now, as time has gone by and more research has been done, the first would be retention. How likely is it that customers will keep buying from you? The most recent McKinsey research says that repeat customers generate over 2 times as much gross revenues as a new customer. So retention is vital. The latest thinking is on referrals. How likely are customers going to refer you to others? They like you so much, but they’re not just going to keep buying from you; they’re going to tell the world about you.
B: Is that something you are working with customer service organizations on, getting the referral, or are you more focused on customer satisfaction and making sure customer issues are resolved?
D: Our focus is primarily on the service levels, but if an organization wants to partner with us in a full way, we will work with them and help them achieve those goals. If the goal is retention, we will explore all the different elements in their organization, including processes and interactions, and certainly ask customers what they are looking for. We can help them with customer surveys, for example, and help them reach those kinds of measures, improve retention and referral measures.
Is the Customer Always Right? What about Customer Value?
B: Great. Let’s switch gears a little bit. Early in the book, on page 26, you talk about “The customer is always right” as being misguided. You state that the critical issue is, “…one of treating everyone as valuable.” My background before Petra Consulting Group was being at Peppers and Rogers Group. Peppers and Rogers would say that not everyone is valuable to the same degree, there are different degrees of customer value (looking at customer value models). Do you think that should affect how customers are treated?
D: It depends on how you use the word “valuable”. Our philosophy is, in essence, that all customers have value, and we translate that to mean that you need to treat everyone with that in mind. This means you treat everyone with respect and accountability, regardless of the size of the organization or the dollar they generate. This is just a general philosophy of how you treat people, how you treat customers.
Speaking of the dollar value, certainly customers can have different sales, different profitability, all those customers are part of the mix. We also even believe you can grow a relationship. If you treat someone in your top tier “special”, then you decide you are not going to treat the “tier 4” people quite so special, a few things could happen. You could have the “tier 4” people just leave, but also, if you treat them with a sense of respect and value, they may ultimately become one of your top tier customers. Customers have different values: sales, profitability, even a PR value, if you have a big name client that has a certain value to the industry – that’s all part of the mix. We’re really speaking to the fact that if you treat everyone with value, you will see different relationships grow.
B: You never know what’s going to grow into a bigger relationship and what isn’t.
D: Exactly. A lot of big companies today started as small companies or even started in garages.
B: Yes! I came from Hewlett Packard, and they started in a garage!
D: It’s the first people that treat them well that they tend to stick with, and those companies benefit from the success, too.
B: Great. Thanks for your perspective on that, I appreciate it. As I was reading through the book, I had to stop and think, do I agree with this? And I decided I did agree, as you are not saying treat people badly nor treat everyone like kings, but treat everyone with respect.
D: I’m glad the book triggered some thoughts like that for you.
B: Absolutely! If you saw my book right now, you would see lots of highlighting, notes in the margins, question marks, and comments of my own. I really digest this stuff thoroughly.
D: It is nice to talk to another customer-service focused person!
Skills for Customer Service Reps
B: Let’s talk about customer service reps, as I feel like a lot of the book is geared to them. Although, like I said in my review, I think you have written the book in such a way that executives can take it and get what they need from it, distill it, and even pass it on to their reps to help the reps improve their performance. What do you think are some of the most important skills for a customer service rep to have?
D: Some of the most important skills are what I would call relationship skills. Most of the reps are good at the task stuff – they process orders, fulfill requests, and they learn that quickly. To really stand out and make a difference, they need to focus on relationship skills like listening. That is not just listening to hear the first thing the customer says, it is really listening to understand what the customer wants, what their issues are, and why it is significant to them. We call that the What and the Why. To really listen at that kind of level, you give customers security and confidence, and that will be memorable.
B: Would you recommend trying to put that into your hiring process, to find reps that already have this skill? Or do you think this is a skill that’s teachable?
D: I’d say yes to both! Whenever you are hiring a rep, in the process you should explore their ability to listen as well as other relationship skills like empathy. Are they able to acknowledge how others feel? This is not something that people are explicitly taught or modeled. However, it is vital. It shows you care and will set you apart, and it will help customers feel more comfortable. Calls will actually go faster if you empathize right up front!
In your hiring process, we recommend and many of our clients use MAGIC as one of their on-boarding tools and as one of their assessment tools right up front. Not to suggest that someone would really model all of them, but to get a sense of what their natural inclinations are and how they handle customers in difficult situations before they start.
B: When you say MAGIC, are you talking about the 33 points of MAGIC, or the five key pillars of MAGIC?
D: Well, some of our clients use the 33 points, and they will record a conversation. If MAGIC is embedded in their organization, and it is their standard, then they use it for hiring, the orientation process, as well as training once they are on board. Some of them, for example, have people role play or model a scenario. One client has a supervisor in a separate room who actually makes a mock call to the person being interviewed and pretends to be an upset customer. They make it as realistic as possible, they record it and play it back, then they listen! “Listen to the tone. See, she sounds like she really cares. She may not have the exact words to use, but we can train her on that, but the tone is right, the pace it right. Ooh, notice how she says “please” and “thank you” there.” This can definitely be part of the hiring process.
(Photo credit: guyerwood)