business news in context, analysis with attitude

By Kevin Coupe

In addition to writing MorningNewsBeat each day, Content Guy Kevin Coupe also contributes regular columns to a wide number of publications, including the now-defunct FMI Advantage. As a regular MorningNewsBeat feature, the folks at FMI have graciously agreed to let us reprint some of these columns.

One of the great things about this job is that people send you stuff. For free. And sometimes, it actually is stuff that you want and can use.

Just such a package arrived the other day when I got a copy of a new book, The Customer Service Intervention, by Bruce Tulgan and Carolyn A. Martin, both of the Rainmaker Thinking consultancy.

The book intrigued me for a couple of reasons.

First, the title. "Intervention" is an unusual term to use in this context, because it is more often used in cases where someone is addicted to booze or drugs, and the people around him or her gather to "intervene," or make that person face up to their addiction and deal with it. In this case, "intervention" seems to imply that retailing has become addicted to bad service, slipping into bad habits and procedures through neglect and lack of character; the suggestion is that it is time to make many in retailing confront this flaw and deal with it.

No argument there.

The second thing that intrigued me was that a customer service book was being co-authored by Tulgan, a guy who made a name for himself just a few years ago with his perspectives on "Generation X" - what it expected from the workplace, and how the workplace could respond to and cater to these young people with a "free agent" mentality. How did Tulgan find himself in the customer service business? Was it a question of a consultant looking for a new niche to fill, or something else?

I shot Tulgan an email and told him I’d like to get together to talk about these and other issues, and suggested that he pick a retailer near his New Haven, Ct., office where we could meet; I only asked that it be a retailer that he would identify as having exemplary customer service, and it didn’t have to necessarily be in the food business.

His choice intrigued me: Krispy Kreme.

Now, there are a lot of good reasons to get together at a Krispy Kreme, most of them having to do with coffee and some of the best doughnuts on the planet. But I never thought of the doughnut franchise as being an exceptional provider of customer service.

But, in fact, it is. At least according to Tulgan.

Clad in a black sweater, the youthful looking, thirtysomething Tulgan settled in with a large cup of black coffee and surveyed the scene. Unlike many customer service experts who focus on motivational techniques, he wanted to talk about something else, something unexpected.

"When you come to a place like Krispy Kreme, you see that all the right systems are in place, the standard operating procedures are vivid, and the execution is consistent. Why? How?

"This is an example of a place where the role of the supervisory manager is obvious to me, but probably isn’t to most customers. You can see that there is a very careful selection process in place, just based on who is behind the counter and how they're behaving. You can see that the basic training has been done, that people aren't behind them counter, fumbling, learning. There are standard operating procedures, and my guess is that nobody is allowed to stand behind that counter before they've learned those standard operating procedures."

Tulgan said that while a lot of self-styled customer service gurus will stress the personal connection that can be created between employees and shoppers as being critical to establishing a customer service culture, in fact this isn’t necessarily what consumers want. Gesturing at the young people behind the counter, he said, "These people aren't smiling and trying to engage you in conversation. In fact, they’re trying to keep every interaction brief, straight and simple. There are very few words exchanged." In essence, they are just doing their jobs - getting people through the line quickly and efficiently, making sure that the inventory is refreshed constantly, handing out samples, and keeping things clean as possible.

Something else you can see, Tulgan said, is that you can't see the supervisor - but that procedures and operations are so clear and so ingrained that they come off seemingly without a hitch. In this case, he said, the key is making sure that employees understand their responsibilities and how and where they are empowered.

"My view about discretion," Tulgan said, "is that 100 percent discretion is tantamount to zero discretion, that in fact it is unfair to employees to pretend to give them 100 percent discretion because most employees in a customer service environment are not prepared to make judgments at all levels. In fact, it is far more effective to create boundaries within which people have complete discretion, and that's what is at work in most good customer service environments."

"My take," he said, "is that the supervisory manager is the most important person in the workplace." It is this manager, he said, who has to take responsibility for selecting the right people, training them, knowing their limits and strengths, and creating an environment that feeds their souls as well as their bank accounts. This latter talent is an enormous advantage in a marketplace where many companies are looking for ways to cut labor costs; by really understanding employees, a good manager can figure out how to incentivize them even when there is no money involved.

"We come to customer service from two trajectories," Tulgan said. "The first was that we focus on young people in the workplace, and we work with a lot of retail organizations, and because of that, for a couple of years now, a lot of our retail clients have been saying to us, 'how do you teach customer service to teenagers?'" How do you get them to learn the skills, how do you get them to execute?

"Our focus has, over the past few years, shifted not away from the generational stuff - our research lens has continued to be the generational difference - (but) has found that the trends we identified in young people in the nineties has now spread across people of all ages. The 'free agent' attitude that was had by the young upstarts in the early nineties, well, now everybody is thinking that way. But what we've come to is the change in the workforce mindset has put so much pressure on supervisors…and so I've spent most of the past three years doing boot camps for managers, training managers in hands-on supervisory skills.

"Given that managing people has become a day-to-day negotiation, what kind of techniques do managers need to get people to perform?" Tulgan asked. "And we sort of brought them together in The Customer Service Intervention.”

But there's a difference, I pointed out, between a supermarket and a doughnut shop - one is a complex organism, the other comparatively simple. But Tulgan said that while this is true, some business keep simple operations simple, while others complicate simple business by not doing them right; other businesses are more complex, but management doesn’t figure out how to simplify them.

And simplification, he said, often is a matter of systems - creating a reporting structure that breaks down a complex organism into manageable pieces.

Tulgan left, and I stepped up to the counter to buy a dozen doughnuts to bring home for the kids. I watched the customer service imperative, even as I experienced it. Quick, efficient service. Civility without being either nauseating or obsequious. And doughnuts that ended up tasting great.

Brief, straight, and simple. Not to mention tasty.

Reprinted with permission from the Food Marketing Institute (4/2004).
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