The soft skill of customer service is often misunderstood. Serious Soft Skills Cohost Bob Graham interviews Neal Woodson, a customer service expert, in the first part of a two-part interview on the topic.

Neal’s view is that customer service is the most important aspect of what organizations provide, and it ultimately is what is necessary to find any success.

Introduction

Dr. Tobin Porterfield (‘0:21’): Welcome to Episode 12 of Serious Soft Skills. I am your host, Dr. Tobin Porterfield. Today we will have the first of a two-part interview, where my cohost, the sultan of soft skills, Bob Graham, talks to Neal Woodson about how he develops soft skills related to customer service. Neal has 35 years of experience across a range of environments, including 19 years in the event technology industry. Neal currently serves as director of service excellence for PSAV, where he helps management and line-level team members collaborate in driving service excellence by analyzing customer experience, coaching the development of actionable strategies, and creating education and training techniques that ensure consistent delivery.

Soft Skills at Core of Customer Service

Bob Graham (‘1:11’): It’s great to be here with Neal Woodson. I am really looking forward to the discussion….I hope for our listeners and our viewers that the weather is good for them. Let’s get right to it.

Graham (‘1:29’): You are an expert on customer service. Beyond being a great golfer and great friend, and I want to talk today with you about soft skills and how they apply to customer service because believe it or not customer or client focus is one of the soft skills we uncovered in our research. You’re someone who really spends your days working on it. Give us an overview of what it means.

 

Neal Woodson (‘2:01’): As far as customer service, I don’t know if I am an expert, but it is something I work with all day every day. It’s always on my mind. I don’t like that term “soft skills.” I know that is a popular phrase. I prefer to say they are any number of things: social skills, collaborative skills. That doesn’t even cover it all, obviously.

Soft skills have gotten shunted to a second-class citizenship. They have been pushed to the back of the bus.

Importance of Customer Service

Woodson (‘2:57’}: I don’t think people realize how important they are. I deal with business and how business works with customers. Everybody thinks that soft skills are what customer service people do. it’s not really necessary for what anyone else does in the business. So when it comes to like a soft skills training, they will send all of their customer service people or call center people to soft skills training. one of the things we forget about in business is that everybody in business deals with somebody. You deal with people no matter what. In my role, you would think that all I deal with is customer-facing folks. That’s not true. I’m a big believer that what we do all throughout a business affects the customer. In other words, the way the CEO operates and the manager treat the workers — all of that affects how the company treats the customer. The best way I can put that is that if you are a parent and you come home every day and you scream and yell at your kids. Would it be any surprise to you at all to see your kids screaming and yelling at other kids?

What we do with others inside the house impacts what we do outside the house.

Need to Keep Improving Soft Skills

Woodson {‘4:26’}: To me, it’s crucial that everybody in an organization works on continuously improves their soft skills. How does my job role connect to the end user customer. Say you’re in accounts payable. You say that your job doesn’t connect with customers. You just pay bills. Well, wait a second. If you don’t pay the bills, what happens to the customer. How does that impact the customer? if I don’t pay the bills for the company, then a vendor doesn’t get paid and he cuts us off. It’s harder to do our jobs for that customer to make us successful. So what you do does impact the customer.

Woodson (‘5:27’): So once everybody in the organization begins to understand that everything they do relates back to the customer, now we can start talking about or getting more granular about skills. We can start to talk about empathy, one of the key skills people need. When I talk about empathy, it’s that we can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. But when we talk about empathy one of the things that scares people or one thing that people think is that I don’t care what that person cares about. It doesn’t matter if you care about what they care about. It matters that you care that they are upset. Or that they are happy. That’s what matters. It’s not the fact that you feel it. For example, when my kids were younger, they’d hear about some pop star doing something and they would get all upset about it. I couldn’t care less to be quite honest. Who cares? But what matters is I care that they do care. I care how they feel. That’s a critical element.

The Iceberg of People

Woodson (‘6:38′): Along with that, I regularly talk about something called the iceberg. That is that what you see in people is 10% of what’s real. For example, you see a customer and they are all upset and they blow up at you for something. Nine times out of 10 it’s not because of something you did or said. It’s one of a hundred thousand other things that you know nothing about. One of the first steps about empathy is to recognize that in an individual. It’s to say, I know you have a lot going on in your world. And it’s going to affect how I treat you and interact with you. I do, too. We are both in the same place. You have to be able to say to them, I know how you feel.

Woodson (7:40’): When we say, take a few seconds and let me figure this out. And I am going to be here until we get this thing solved. That goes a long way. Now I am partnering with you. I have become your partner. I want you to be successful. Nine times out of 10 that’s what people want. They want someone who is here with you for customer success, whatever that is. Even if it’s something little. They just want to know someone is here that is willing to help them become successful.

Customer Service and the Customer

Graham (‘8:19’): Is there a way to turn this around to the customer focus so that if I am the customer, I can facilitate that partnership that we just talked about. It occurs to me that if I am the ideal customer, that customer service person trying to work with me is going ot have an easier job. I can fight or I can swim in the same direction. Can you sort of spin this around for us and look at it the other way? What are the things we can do as a customer to make it easier for everyone?

Woodson (‘8:49’): You are absolutely right. Now we’re just getting to the human element, beyond business. I will give you an example. Yesterday, I had a problem with my cellphone, and I called my provider and this wonderful young lady, Brandy, picked up the phone. We talked. I explained what was going on. I was very frustrated. It had to do with my volcemail. It was an automated situation, and none of the options fit my situation. I couldn’t figure out how to get in touch with a human being. That was the most frustrating thing. When I finally got in touch with her. She was nice and understanding. She told me she fully understood how I feel. She had problems with her phone. Now we were on an even keel. It was like I had somebody who had been here before so she knew how frustrating it was. Okay, I realized she is a person who deals with this all day long everyday. All she hears is people complaining. What’s the best thing I can do to make this better. I started talking to her about how long she had been working there. She had just graduated from college. My daughter just graduated from college. We connected on that. It was as fantastic experience. I left that experience feeling like not only did I get my problems solved, but I got a new friend.

From Company to People

Graham (’10;20′): That’s one of the things I find. Often my customer experience has more to do with the way the person handles me than the product. I also find that my loyalty becomes to the person who services me in these situations best. I told you how I had to go to the Apple store. I could have bought this cable I needed at three or four other places. But what love about the Apple store is I can walk in there and I can say, “I need a cable to do this.” They ask me a few questions. They asked how I am doing, do I like my computer. One, two, three, I have the right piece. The guy tells me his name and tells me he has the same computer. We have some common ground and I ask when he typically works. I now know to come in there when he’s working. He represents that company now. He represents everything I wan in that company. He values me so the company values me. We don’t think of companies as people. We don’t think of Starbucks, Apple and IBM as people. They are companies, not people. Some of this really is taking that brand of the company and isolating it to a person so that we have that one-on-connection.

Woodson (’11:59′): It’s interesting that you say that. The word corporation is from the word “corpus,” which means body. When you think of a company, it’s a living thing. It’s the people that make it up. It’s not the spreadsheets. It’s not the contracts. It’s none of that. It’s people that make a company or corporation. We really need to get companies back to understanding that everybody who works for you is a billboard for you not just for your brand, but your culture and what’s it’s all about and what you stand for. We get a feeling about your business by your people.

Closing

Graham (’12:50′): I can’t thank you enough for your time, for your insights and for just really saying some things in ways that people need to hear. When you talk customer service affecting everyone at all aspects of a company, that’s really a message we need to wrestle with and think about and apply to apply to any kind of business that we are trying to endeavor to create or build.

Porterfield (’13:10′): Thanks, Bob. Neal, thanks for joining us. If you want to learn more about Neal Woodson, visit his blog, where he offers some great insights on customer service, at NealWoodson.wordpress.com.

Next Week’s Episode

Next week, we will listen to the second part of the Bob’s interview with Neal, where they look on the impact of customer service on individuals and organizations.