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Customer service boot camp

Updated on December 29, 2009

Customer Service for Managers

I worked in customer service for 20 years. This is an excerpt from my book on the subject.

1. Customer Service Training

Training isn’t some sort of raffle. It’s a process of education, and has to be approached that way.

In customer service, the result is what matters, but how it’s achieved has to be good business sense, from start to finish.

Take something simple, or relatively simple, like retail sales:

  1. Customer wants product.
  2. Customer selects from range of available products.
  3. Customer buys, if able to get the right product.
  4. Result, sale, profit.

Points 1-3 are all voluntary, right?


Retail is an active sales process, not passive.

A few productive words from sales staff generate business, and if done well, get return business. Good sales staff do know their range, can interpret what the customer wants/needs, and can add to the sales process by good customer service.

  • We have….
  • You want it, we can get it.
  • We also have…
  • Quality, price, and related information is also provided.

Training creates business. Lack of training loses business. Nobody wants to pay for sloppy service, bad information, or just pitiful customer relations. It’s a waste of time and money for everyone involved.

It’s also highly avoidable.

Let’s start with…

Standards of Service

In the 1960s, an American airline actually found itself paying bonuses to their staff just to be polite to the customers.

That’s an abysmal management result.

No customers = no airline.

In any business, the customers are the bottom line.

Staff can be replaced. Customers can’t.

Lousy customer service management, laissez-faire supervision, and not paying attention to customers has killed many businesses.

The following is a study of how not to train customer service staff:

Airlines are actually the classic customer service industry, along with tourism. The tourist trade generates more complaints than just about any other, apart from retail. Most of the complaints about airlines and tourism are about service.

That’s interesting, in a perverse way, because these are some of the biggest industries on the planet, cashflow driven, and utterly dependent on customers.

Yet the complaints come in like the tides, every day. An example from the archives:

A Soviet era Aeroflot flight from Singapore to Sydney had an incident in which a passenger threw up, mid flight. The vomit wasn’t cleaned up until landing in Sydney. Result, a stream of complaints, anywhere a complaint could be sent.

Maybe it was the food, the lack of a concept of hygiene, whatever, Aeroflot, at that time one of the biggest carriers in the world, thanks to its hideous standards of customer service, never became a big passenger carrier.

Ancient history? Typical Soviet ineptitude?

Nope. Just a day in the life of an airline. Replace the word “vomit” with any other noun, and there’s your issue. Something wasn’t done properly, customers don’t like it.

Here’s a comparison of two forms of customer service: Airline food, service, baggage handling, anything involving a human being, in fact, are perennial complaints. With good reason, too, because in-flight, everything matters, to people stuck in seats for a day at a time. It’s a picky clientele.

The airlines, generally, handle complaints as organizational packed lunches, in-house, a streamlined customer service system which has produced literally millions of dissatisfied customers.

There probably isn’t a passenger on Earth who hasn’t had some sort of problem with an airline, made a complaint, and got nowhere, resulting in going and looking for another airline on principle.

Bad customer service always costs money.

It’s really just a question of how.

Now, a contrast:

The big cruise lines, floating billion dollar businesses, with the highest standards of service on Earth, also attract complaints. This is an even fussier clientele, aggressive, and they pay big money. If they complain, they’ll back it up with whatever they can find.

The difference: People are specifically employed by the cruise lines to handle anything that happens, soothe frayed nerves, and try and retain business.

The real difference in customer service is cultural.

Consider this a rather self serving series of observations, from the viewpoint I’m expressing:

  • The cruise lines are booming, while the airlines are getting pilloried on everything from safety standards to service.
  • The cruise lines are expecting to create another 100,000 jobs in the next few years. The airlines are just trying to stay solvent. Cash flow is their Achilles heel, and losing customers is doing a lot to make it worse.

The cultures have created quite different perspectives, in the minds of their client bases. The market perception is that a cruise line sells good service, an airline is a synonym for problems. That’s costing the airlines a lot of money. A bad reputation for service is a potential killer, as many of the airlines which have gone broke can testify. Retail, service industries, you name it, the culture defines the problems.

So how you train your staff, and the customer service culture you create, is vitally important.

A few basic rules:

  • Don’t let anyone near a customer unless you’re sure they can handle it. (Trainee status only goes so far before someone asks why the hell a trainee is doing that job.)
  • Train staff thoroughly, in all aspects of customer service.
  • Appoint a supervisor as babysitter until you’re both sure of performance.
  • Make absolutely certain they’re shown what to do, how to do it, and get enough practice to become fluent in their work.
  • Make the training objective, result-oriented. If staff know what’s supposed to happen, they can see what’s wrong when it doesn’t.
  • Make sure they can recognize a problem when they see one.
  • Make sure supervisors are active, and keeping an eye on services. Fire or remove anyone that isn’t.
  • Make sure the complaints system comes straight to you before it goes anywhere. You can find your problems a lot more easily.
  • Keep track of who’s generating complaints. Get rid of them, if there’s a pattern of problems. One incident is inevitable, two is suspicious, three is time to get some new staff.
  • Find good trainers, in-house for on the job, and find someone outside who can give a strong grounding in customer service on whatever level you’re working with, as additional backup.

It will pay off.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a hamburger shop or a multinational global finance corporation, your staff are working directly with your clients.


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    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 8 years ago from London, UK

      I agree with every word you said. At the moment in England calesstaff couldn't care less. Yet nobody has the sense to stamp down on them