Customer Service Mistake #4

This is the fourth in a series of five posts in response to a client's question; "From your observations and consulting work, what do you think are the top customer service mistakes companies make?"

Customer Service Mistake #4 - Not making customer service a significant part of new-hire orientation as well as a part of ongoing training.

George Miliotis was the General Manager of the California Grill restaurant from the time it opened in 1995 until he left in 2002.  The California Grill is an upscale restaurant located at Walt Disney World.  George was (and still is) a big believer in training and education. Every new cast member attends the Disney "Traditions" orientation. George recognized, however, that it was his responsibility to support and supplement the education his cast members received. George spent 15-minutes every day educating all California Grill cast members (front-of-house and back-of-house). If he wasn't there, the Assistant Manager conducted the training session.

Three topics were covered in these short sessions; wine, food, and service. George trained servers from all walks of life to be world-class food and wine experts. Every cast member on every shift knew how to describe all menu items in a way that highlighted the reason that it was special (menu items varied depending on season). George's servers knew the perfect wine to accompany the meal a guest had ordered. Servers could describe the freshness of the tomatoes used in a way that would literally make your mouth water. George also discussed guest service issues, which included recognizing performance, providing showmanship tips (how to describe the wine list is truly an art), or anything else he felt deserved attention. The impact of these daily educational moments was impressive:

  •  Wine revenue represented 30%+ of total sales at the California Grill. Beverage sales in similar restaurants average only 10-15% of sales.
  • In 1999, the USA Today food critic wrote that the single best meal he had that year in the United States was at the California Grill.
  • 65% of the original staff (7-years at the time George left) were still with the restaurant. This is in an industry that averages nearly 200% turnover per year.

In 2002, George was asked to be the General Manager of new Darden Restaurants concept, Seasons 52, located in Orlando, Florida. He brought with him his approach to service and training, and Seasons 52 quickly became one of the hottest restaurants in Orlando, with outstanding food and customer service. They've since expanded to seven locations. A commitment to training has certainly paid off for them.

World-class service organizations like Seasons 52 look at training as an investment, not an expense. They see training as an ongoing opportunity to reinforce and perpetuate the organization's values. Customer service is part of every training experience an employee goes through. I'm often asked how long Disney World's cast member training program is. The answer is that it begins during the interview process and doesn't end until you leave the company.

One of the key points in my last post was to ensure that the interview process models the organization's values, since the applicant picks up clues about the true culture throughout the process. In this post, I'd like to discuss three areas of training that should include significant content relating to customer service.

New-Hire Orientation

Many organizations see new-hire training as a chore; something to get through so the new employee can get out there and start being productive. The new-hire orientations for these organizations usually include three topics:

  • Here's what you get fired for.
  • Here's who your bosses are.
  • Here are a bunch of confusing forms for you to sign (when you are least prepared to understand what they're all about).

Then the new-hire is sent out to learn under fire and admonished to "come to me with any questions because my door is always open." Training is completed; put a checkmark on the list.

If service excellence is to be a competitive differentiator, all new employees must understand what is expected of them from a service perspective. Review your new hire orientation. How much time is dedicated to customer service issues? 5-minutes? 15-minutes? If customer service is supposed to be a critical component of the culture, doesn't it deserve more attention than a 5-15 minute overview? Effective new-hire orientation ensures:

  • The new-hire is proud of the organization - A new-hire should understand the organization's legacy. He or she should understand the company's history and the blood, sweat and tears that went into building it. They should know that the legacy is on the line with each and every interaction the employee has with a customer. When employees are proud of what they do and the organization they work for, they will usually go the extra mile when opportunities present themselves. Tell the stories of what made the company what it is.
  • he new-hire understands the "true product" - In order to get the highest level of performance, employees need to understand the value of what they do beyond the mechanics of the job. Most people want to know their work is meaningful to others. This is why Walt Disney World's true product is not rides; it is "happiness." First Citizens Bank's true product is not financial services; it is "life-enhancing relationships." BMW Canada's true product is not a car; it is the "ultimate driving experience." These companies use their training programs to communicate the true product.Imagine, for instance, being hired as a mechanic with a BMW Canada auto dealership. It is one thing to be told, "you fix cars." It is something else to understand that you are part of creating the "ultimate driving experience." In the latter, you are encouraged to help customers get the most from these very special cars.
  • The new-hire understands what is expected - One of the reasons for poor employee performance is a lack of clarity regarding expectations. When people don't know what it takes to be successful, they do their best to simply stay out of trouble, or they just make it up as they go along. World-class service organizations communicate clear, consistent and non-negotiable service standards. In these organizations, the new employee has no doubt what is expected in regard to the delivery of service and they know exactly what excellence looks like.

On-The-Job Training

Who conducts the on-the-job training in your organization? Are those employees selected to train others simply because they are working the same shift or are they truly role models of your service culture? Being selected as a trainer should be an honor. It should signify that, not only is the employee technically expert, he/she embodies the values of the organization.

Organizations that create and sustain a culture of service excellence carefully select their trainers using specific criteria that includes modeling excellent service. These trainers are, in fact, trained on training others. They are taught how to put together a training plan, how to adapt training to different learning styles, and how to incorporate the organization's values in the training.

What about your organization's training materials? Do instructor guides, training manuals, participant materials, etc, include specific content relating to customer service? Organizations that simply leave the content "up to the trainer" are taking the chance of the service message eroding over time. Make sure the service message is reflected (and up to date) in all media used in on-the-job training.

Ongoing Training

Formalized refresher training on customer service should occur yearly at a minimum. Such training can take place in a variety of formats such as best practice forums, e-learning, or simply straightforward training that continues to build on your organization's service approach. Committing to ongoing formal training demonstrates that service is not a flavor of the month initiative, but an ongoing organizational strategy. If it has been a year or more since specific, formal customer service training occurred in your organization, it is time to bring the troops back together.

Service content should be included in every training opportunity an employee experiences. If you're training employees on a new piece of equipment, connect it to your service standards and describe how the new equipment impacts service. If you're training employees on a new product offering, use your service standards as a foundation for the discussion. The important thing is to constantly reinforce the organization's commitment to excellent customer service.

Concluding comments

If you want to build a service culture, service training plays a vital role. Of course, technical training is, and will continue to be, an important part of any training program. Most companies, however, focus strictly on the technical skills and ignore the service culture skills, thinking that employees will simply catch on. The poor state of customer service in many companies demonstrates that many employees don't catch on. World class companies, on the other hand, ensure that employees:

  1. Are proud of the organization
  2. Understand the true product
  3. Understand what is expected

To avoid Customer Service Mistake #4, make customer service a significant part of new-hire orientation as well as a part of ongoing training.