Monday, February 1, 2010

Can You Train Your Employees to Solve Problems?

Over the last week I have had some very interesting interactions in the B2B environment involving our company. It is a New Year and part of our company's strategy is to be BOLD. (See Barbara A. Hughes, Intellectual Capital Consulting's Co-Founder, first blog on the subject). So, we really are taking some of our own advice...imagine that.

So, with BOLDNESS in mind we decide to :

1) Buy email marketing lists
2) Buy new laptops
3) Buy a license for salesforce/email automation

We made all 3 purchases in one week. (is that BOLD or just CRAZY?)

So, I would like to contrast the customer experiences to see what I learned.

1). One vendor sent the email marketing list with duplicates and missing information not once but twice. Although quite apologetic, it took making an announcement on Twitter to get the issue resolved.

2) Another vendor told us he could not fulfill or laptop order for a particular color that we configured online because that was for "home" customers and not "business" customers. I then suggested that I had my credit card out ready to buy and that he needed to figure that out internally. After 24 hours and an announcement on Twitter, he did figure how to get me my Laptop with the green circles, after I was ready to switch vendors.

3) Another vendor worked with us on price as a small business, gave us a discount, and walked me through the ordering process to make sure I was comfortable with the order. He did all of this while at the airport leaving for his vacation. He sent follow up emails and gave me contact information for another employee while he is on vacation.

Which one of the three am I raving about to friends, family and anyone else that will listen?

So what could vendor 1 and 2 from above done differently?

Employees from those two vendors should have been able to solve the problem immediately. It's not that a problem occurred, we all make mistakes. It's all about the solution and resolution and the SPEED that that resolution occurs.

So, then I asked myself if it is all about problem solving, can you train your employees to be better problem solvers? Is it really training or is the authority to make this resolutions at the critical point in the customer experience? How to you incorporate speed into your customer service process?

I have my own thoughts, but I would like to hear yours....


Brent Churchwell, Strategist said...

So, I harken back to my adventures as a CSR. I was Employee of the Year for my sales-and-service record at two different stores ... so I am somewhat of a subject matter expert.

Regardless of your role, I think to be an excellent representative for your product or service requires the culmination of three things: (1) preparation/anticipation (I KNOW HOW) (2) the display of superior active listening skills, empathy and ownership in one transaction (I AUTHENTICALLY CARE ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE AND TAKE OWNERSHIP TO MEET YOUR NEEDS), and (3) enabled autonomy to go outside the lines of normal practice or policies (WHAT MATTERS TO YOU, MATTERS TO ME ... not vice versa).

For preparation/anticipation, I had effective managers that went beyond normal training to offer situational learning discussions on a wide range of scenarios. On-the-job experience also augmented additional learning. In our prep/anticipation exercises, this also helped us rethink and re-engineer some resolution strategies.

I think you can also teach skills on the second piece to a point, but if someone doesn't motivate to maintain an orientation or attitude to take ownership for the customer exchange a positive one, you are not employing the best advocate for your company.

The third piece is particularly climate oriented. Reps often feel boxed in by policies or guidelines, and to depart from these standards of practice might result in management retribution. Other times it truly is an inventory or internal controls issue. If something doesn't quite fit the customer's specs -- convince the customer to be satisfied. Since the 80's, I have seen an increase in establishing a 'constantly shifting of standards mentality' which in some ways have been targeted to make the organization more cost effective in inventory control and operational efficiencies ... the dark side is that it can freeze the spring bud of customer loyalty when you are basically told to "just deal with it." In all honesty, I think some organizations value more and perceive rewards by how quickly they can bring a new product or service to market to exploit the ROI only to cannibalize it in the near future. Forget that the customer may want a sustainable product or service. But to get back to the heart of the third piece, encourage your staff to do what it takes (within ethical and fiscally responsible limits) to customize or make right what a customer expects. We don't want to hear excuses, only possible courses of action. Reward those that catalyze the long-term relationship versus stay within the bounds for showing short-term gain.

Barbara A Hughes said...

I'd have to say that it starts with the company's strategy for delivering a good/great customer experience. Then, it's a matter of leadership creating the environment to deliver on the strategy including a culture of service (hello Zappos) and accountability for that delivery. As Dan Pink says in his new book, Drive, employees are motivated by Purpose (Strategy/Mission), Mastery (skill building to deliver great service) and Autonomy ("get out of my way so I can deliver what I know I can deliver to the customer").
So, it could be a lack of motivation a la Pink or the wrong person sitting in that chair and touching the client. Either way, the company can make it right but as it stands, I would not want to be that company.

Unknown said...

Barbara and Brentano:

Both excelelnt points and thanks for the comments. I am wondering if our expectations are lower because of poor customer service (we come to expect that). I believe Brentano that what you said is key....give the customer what he expects and do what it it takes to deliver. If you say you have a laptop with green circles and your customer wants that one not a green one, then just fulfill the order instead of trying to convince me a need a black one. I like your CSR perspective...excellent!

Debbie said...


I applaud the BOLDness you and Barbara are embracing for 2010! Congratulations. Someone has to be the first to get things moving.

My experience has been that employees can be taught problem-solving skills, but along with other skills we teach, if they are not in an environment that encourages them to use them and recognizes them for their out-of-the-box solutions, it will just become another "training" session with no return.

The culture of the organization is really where the roots of organizational performance are nurtured. It would be very interesting to contrast the cultures of the three companies you dealt with.

My guess would be company #3 which you are now raving about, recognizes and rewards employees who take pride in making the customer feel like they are the only priority in the entire world and so naturally that customer gets all my attention and caring. They understand the power and potential of repeat business, referrals and tweets from unhappy customers. They also have managers who are comfortable giving up some of the control and allowing employees closest to the issues to determine what's the right solution.

So, my answer would be yes, problem solving can be taught, but in order to be utilized for the best results it has to be applied in the right business culture.

Best of luck this year. You continue to encourage and inspire!

Debbie King, SPHR

Unknown said...


Thanks for the kind words and for crafting such a great response. I agree I do believe you can each problem solving skills as well, and to your very important pont, in the RIGHT environment. I kno0w you are such an expert in the area of culture and change and you ahve probably seen companies that do this well and some that are like my examples above!