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The Alternative Board Blog

The Best Customer Service Skill?

Sep. 4, 2013 | Posted by The Alternative Board Worldwide
happy worker holding sandwiches at the backery

Panera Bread Company has gotten some bad press recently because of their throughput. They have a great product. But who has the time to wait 15 minutes to get a salad at lunch? The root cause seems to be the size of their menu. Choice is good but not if it's too much choice to efficiently deliver.

While throughput may be a challenge for them, they do seem to have customer service figured out. When I was last at Panera, I ordered a salad to go. After waiting in a long line, they gave me my salad on a plate to eat in.
When I explained that it was to go, what would you expect the response to be?

My experience would have been that it's my fault of course. Clearly I didn't specify this when I placed the order. Or, the person who captured the order took it incorrectly. Someone else other than the person assembling it was to blame. The refreshing thing about the experience is that the Panera folks did not place blame - on me or the order taker. They took responsibility. They offered to make another complete salad (which I declined), packed it up and off I went.

I'd have to say that I receive more positive than negative customer service experiences these days. The days of the truly horrendous service experiences are mostly gone - along with many of the businesses that offered the poor service. Successful businesses tend to be more aware of the Service Profit Chain these days. True, I express my frustration with about one recorded customer service voice menu per week. It doesn't help but it makes me feel a little better. But the Panera experience stuck out. If you are packing lunches for a continuous line of hungry people all day, it takes a rare skill to not express frustration when something goes wrong.

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Customer Service Skills

This got me thinking about the most important customer service skills. What would you say they are?

  • A great attitude
  • Good listening skills
  • Great communicator
  • Exceptional product knowledge
  • Patience
  • Resourcefulness

These are all great skills to have. In my experience the number 1 service skill is not taking issues personally. If the service rep is willing to adopt the perspective that they are not being personally attacked and instead just focus on the customer's issue, they will provide a much better service experience. This involves a great deal of empathy with the customer. But it also requires a level of maturity from the rep to continue to listen to customer complaints and issues - and instead of personalizing the criticism, the rep is able to remain objective and concentrate on productively resolving the issue.

If we were working on a mathematical proof, we'd have to ask whether not taking issues personally, having empathy and maturity, are necessary and sufficient to provide good service. Not quite. Let's go back to the Panera employee. She not only empathized with me but also was empowered to do something about it. She was empowered to toss out my old salad and give me a brand new one just because it was delivered on a plate and not in a plastic container. She didn't have to ask anyone. Panera management gave her the authority to make a customer oriented service decision that costs the company an entire meal. That's good service.

So, good service comes down to not only being able to recognize service oriented talent but also having the management practices in place where service employees are able to make front line decisions to make it right.

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Written by The Alternative Board Worldwide

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