Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Counter Intuitive Talents

I recently applied for a visa to visit India, and made my 6th trip to the consulate offices in Birmingham.

At the office is a man, I don't really know his role and I don't know his name. He seems to be a combined receptionist, security guard and document checker, and he is remarkable.

Every day, he faces hundreds of people with the same questions and I have never seen him lose patience, even when answering the exact same question individually to three people who were standing next to each other at the desk.

On my 5th visit, I waited my turn at the counter. As he looked at me, he seemed to pause for a moment, then his face exploded into a smile. "Hello mate!", he exclaimed, as if greeting a long lost friend, "Is it that time of year again?"

I said, "I can't believe you remember me", and he replied, "I remember everyone, mate".

He treats everyone who comes into the centre with the same infectious positivity, the same bouncy, upbeat, welcoming, uplifting attitude. He's the kind of person who you feel good just to be near to.

And as you might know, the question I wanted to ask was, how does he do it? So I asked him.

"Well, mate, I don't know, it's just the way I am, it's just my personality, you know?"

Yes, I know very well. This is the first hallmark of a talented person; when you ask them how they do it, they don't know. It's just the way they are. Isn't everyone like it?

"I suppose it could be because my Dad was a Pastor, and he loved helping people, and you know, everyone loved him."

The second thing that talented people say. They attribute a cause to their skill which sounds plausible but which is actually misleading. It's like a football player attributing their goal to putting their left boot on first.

Everyone loved him.

"So it doesn't matter what someone's race or colour is, I just treat everyone the same. I treat everyone how I would want to be treated."

I didn't mention race. And I would estimate that maybe 1% or 2% of the people I've ever seen in the centre were not Indian.

That's it. That's all we need to know to extract the essence of this wonderful talent. We can now teach the program to customer service people all over the world.

And most importantly, it demonstrates another key criteria of a talent - it is counter intuitive.

I've seen plenty of customer service training, and one of the things that happens in almost every case is that the customer staff are told they have to value each customer, to treat them as individuals.

And there's the counter intuitive nugget of gold. This lovely man doesn't treat his customers as individuals. He treats them all the same. The same.

More than that, he isn't even interacting with his customers at all! He is interacting with an internal simulation of his customers.

But how can great customer service be delivered by someone who isn't actually interacting with his customers? Because it is not his responsibility, nor is it in his control, to make his customers feel valued or well serviced.

It is the customer's responsibility.

If someone is in a really bad mood, they can ignore him. They can grunt and take their number and join the queue. Maybe someone is travelling for sad reasons. They can ignore him. They can smile politely and take their number. How they feel is their responsibility. He cannot make them enjoy the interaction with him, he can only behave in a certain way towards them. How he would like to be treated.

What we can learn from this is that, when we train customer service staff, we have to remember that they are not responsible for the customer experience, they are only responsible for their behaviour. The customer experience therefore comprises two parts; the agent's behaviour and the customer's perception and reaction to that behaviour.

Poor customer service staff will move the goalposts; their behaviour towards the customer will change depending on the last call, depending on their mood, depending on the time of day. The guy at the visa centre keeps his behaviour constant, and the only variable is the customer's mood.

He doesn't have to individualise his behaviour to the customer because it's the customer who does that through their subjective perception.

You don't have to individualise service - your customers will do that!

What you have to do is treat all customers as equals, and let them take whatever they need from that.

An upbeat attitude, when it's fake and forced and loaded with advertising for upsells, will drag a customer's mood down, because the customer knows that the agent is lying.

An upbeat attitude, when it's genuine, and motivated by something that is personally valuable (everyone loved him) will tend to lift everyone's mood.

So the final message is this: Stop treating your customers as individuals. Outside of the interaction, they're individuals, but inside the interaction, they are not. They are all simply customers.