Jeff Toister has been a customer service trainer for more than 25 years. He helps businesses build a strong service culture and researches the strategies of the most successful companies.
Read to the end of our interview to get Jeff’s recommendations for learning resources!
Q: Everyone says they value customer feedback, yet some companies do a better job at listening. What is the differentiating factor?
“It’s easy to say those words, isn’t it?” quipped Jeff.
He explained that the real difference is the reason why a company collects feedback. Some companies are only aiming to report an NPS score. On the other hand, savvy businesses genuinely try to improve based on feedback.
“It’s not about getting the best score on a survey, for example, or just getting customer accolades. It’s finding out what we are doing well, so we can keep doing that … and what we are perhaps not doing so well, so we can improve in those areas. So it all comes down to the why.”
Q: How can companies ensure valuable feedback makes it up the chain?
“A lot of organizations think about feedback just as a survey,” Jeff said.
He explained that businesses get feedback from every single customer, one way or another. Unfortunately, many contact center leaders aren’t trained to capture and organize this more subtle information. This can be done with the help of software tools, something as unassuming as a check sheet or having regular, open meetings with the agents.
Emphasizing this more comprehensive view of feedback helps businesses prioritize customer understanding beyond the contact center itself, up to the executive level.
Q: Can you give some examples of companies with an exemplary customer feedback program?
Jeff cited the example of Clio, a practice management platform for law firms. This company flags every negative survey, following up with unhappy customers to check whether any given problem is part of a larger trend.
“Following up with unhappy customers does two things for you: one, it allows you a second chance perhaps to resolve the issue. And sometimes people just need a bit of time to cool down and feel better … with some follow up, you can get additional information.”
Another example Jeff cited was Zendesk. This company asks people from different departments to listen to customer calls. This way, Zendesk promotes a company-wide understanding of exactly what customers say and how it feels to get that feedback firsthand.
Q: What are some ways to manage the emotions of agents as they face negative feedback?
For the agent, if the reason for the feedback is something they can’t control, it can be very infuriating. Agents need to feel support and trust from the company.
“If an employee is held accountable for survey scores, for example, then they could in a very real way, see a bad score as contributing to them getting a poor performance review or losing a part of their income.”
Jeff said that companies need to show agents that the point of feedback is not to blame or reprimand employees. Even though a criticism can feel personal, the best organizations work beyond that to consider what value the feedback might hold.
“In organizations that are customer-focused, they spend a lot of time looking at feedback as a mechanism to improve but not to blame.”
Q: Elaborate on the idea of empowering agents.
“When I’ve looked at organizations that are customer-focused, what I’ve been surprised to find is that they define empowerment much more differently than most organizations,” Jeff emphasized.
He said that stand-out organizations focus on enabling agents to provide great service. There are three distinct components to making this happen:
Authority – The authority for agents to make decisions in the moment. To say “you don’t need to return this” or “we’ll get you a refund” when customers’ loyalty may hang in the balance.
Procedure – Agents require simple procedures that account for what happens during each customer interaction. It should not be difficult for agents to record or file updates to an account.
Resources – All underlying company systems should be working in harmony. For example, if a customer wants an item listed on the website, but the item is actually not in stock, that agent doesn’t have the resources to be successful.
Jeff stressed the importance of this point: “I care about agents. It’s not an easy job.”
Q: Sometimes there’s a discrepancy between customers’ stated preferences and real feelings. How can companies correctly sift through feedback to get the truth?
“Start by NOT asking customers what they want, because the truth is, they don’t know,” Jeff stated. “Especially if you’re talking about product development, customers don’t know what products they want if they haven’t been developed yet.”
Instead, he advised companies to ask their customers two things. The first, “what problem are you trying to solve?” because then the company can design a product or service to address the issue.
The second question should be “did the company keep its promises?”. Sometimes companies don’t manage expectations correctly and this damages brand loyalty. For instance, maybe the company advertised one cost to customers, but the total bill was actually higher due to other fees.
Also, to get the truth, companies should pay close attention to customer behavior. Jeff encouraged businesses to pay attention to how customers interact with a physical space like a store, how they use the product or service and what specific language they use in online reviews.
Lastly, Jeff addressed the issue of outlier feedback. Perhaps only one customer mentions a specific issue. Of course, companies shouldn’t be too reactive based on limited data. Yet looking closely in such instances can pay off big.
Jeff told me the story of a case where an upset customer complained about a billing issue for several consecutive months. Instead of dismissing it as an isolated case or “outlier”, the contact center manager investigated and discovered a $50k billing problem. This is a prime example of uncovering the truth using both feedback and careful follow-up.
Q: Once a company has concrete feedback that something isn’t working, are there any barriers to change?
The big challenge to change that Jeff pointed out is the perception of “that’s not my metric.”
“So the reality is that other departments in an organization may not share the same goals,” he explained. “So customer satisfaction, customer experience, Net Promoter Scores or any other kind of survey metric and contact center metric may not impact the goals and objectives of people in other departments … As a contact center leader, I think you’ll get more traction if you translate what you’re working on into something that a person in the other department cares about.”
Jeff gave me the example of a contact center leader that needed more employees. Her company was trying to cut back on expenses, so her request was initially shot down. The solution was to re-frame the problem.
She told her bosses “when we don’t have enough people, we increase overtime and repeat contacts and we lose customers” and showed how much money the company could save by having the right number of people at the right time in the contact center. This approach proved successful.
Q: Can smaller companies compete with the likes of Amazon on customer experience?
Jeff had a hopeful take on this question:“You can’t necessarily out-Amazon Amazon, but you can do something different that they don’t do well.”
He told me about ordering pet supplies from Chewy.com. Of course, Jeff could also buy the same things from Amazon. However, he got a specialized phone consultation from a Chewy customer rep, recommending a different pet bed after his dog didn’t like the last one. In this case, the differentiator was the product knowledge and enthusiastic, personalized service.
Forward-thinking policy also helps companies stay competitive. For example, Chewy has a policy where pet owners can donate supplies instead of returning them if their pet dies. This type of thoughtfulness from the company allows agents to make a customer’s life easier.
One way to look at policies and procedures is to ask: “how is this impacting the customer and how is this impacting the agent?”. Plans that help both should be prioritized.
This mindset should be adopted with respect to automation and new tools in the contact center as well. Jeff explained that the work process for many agents is unnecessarily complicated.
“In the last ten or so years, the number of software programs, for example, that a contact center agent has to handle to take care of one customer has proliferated,” he said. “When I worked in contact centers about 20 years ago, you had one software program. That was it. Now the number is closer to seven.”
He looks at automation as an opportunity to positively impact both customers and agents by streamlining work in the contact center.