Apt to serve Featured

7:00pm EDT February 24, 2008

What is the secret to how companies like Disney, Nordstrom and Ritz-Carlton get thousands of employees to consistently execute world-class customer service while most companies struggle with teams of 15 to 50 people?

The answer is simple — employees. You count on your team of people to deliver service, and often, there is a lack of service aptitude.

So what constitutes superior service? The answer depends on who you ask. Without proper soft-skill training, superior service is relative to one’s life experience. Where has he or she traveled? What has he or she experienced? What manners and code of behavior was this person taught at home?

Most likely, there will be a discrepancy between your vision of customer service and any new employee’s vision.

The good news is that service aptitude can be learned and improved.

At The DiJulius Group, we define service aptitude as “a person’s ability to recognize opportunities to exceed a customer’s expectations regardless of the circumstances.”

The key to that definition is the last four words — “regardless of the circumstances.” High service aptitude is not as critical on your slowest day of the week or on a day when everything is running smoothly, but true service aptitude is revealed in a difficult situation, such as when you are short-staffed or in a crisis or when service recovery is needed.

Think about it this way.

For months, you have been promising your spouse a getaway for just the two of you.

Finally, you are spending three days in the Bahamas. The two of you are sitting by the pool, ordering piƱa coladas and reading gossip tabloids. Life couldn’t be better.

Meanwhile, back at home, your company just dropped the ball on your platinum-VIP customer. The only person on the scene to handle the situation is your most recently hired employee.

Still having fun? Still relaxed? Unfortunately, the simple truth is that our most recently hired, least-trained and lowest-paid employee deals with our customers the most.

Although most people enter the business world with a very low service aptitude, it can increase dramatically with the proper training program in soft skills and with continuous training in customer service. However, most companies spend the vast majority of their training on the technical side of the job, usually because they are hiring reactively, filling an empty position with a warm body.

One of the best tools for measuring if an employee’s service aptitude is high enough to start interacting with a company’s customer is some sort of employee service aptitude test. We created our own called the E-SAT. It is composed of 50 to 75 multiple choice questions about the most common situations that may arise between the employee and their customer, ranging from non-negotiable standards, service recovery, and above and beyond opportunities to uncomfortable and awkward situations that he or she may encounter.

At our company, we administer the test before and after any new employee goes through his or her initial training. This way, it monitors how service aptitude has increased. We do not allow any new employees to start working in their actual position or interact with our guests without scoring a perfect 100 percent on the test.

The actual questions on this type of test will differ based on your company, its services and the position for which you’re testing or hiring. The important thing is that an E-SAT will help you ensure that your employees deliver the type of service you expect them to every time they interact with a client or potential customer.

But it’s not just the front-line employees who need to increase their service aptitude and require more soft/people-skill training. I have worked with hundreds of businesses as well as professionals, such as accountants, financial advisers, consultants, lawyers, programmers and doctors, all of whom are extremely skilled and trained technically but are not strong at customer/client services and knowing how to build relationships. Every employee — front line, administrative, professionals and, yes, your management team —needs some customer experience training.

So what is the service aptitude of your organization? Do you assume it is high enough or are you taking steps to ensure it is top notch by measuring it and training your team?

Look at your employees and you’ll know for sure.

JOHN R. DIJULIUS III is the author of “Secret Service: Hidden Systems That Deliver Unforgettable Customer Service” and “What’s The Secret” (due out April 2008). He is also president of The DiJulius Group, a firm specializing in giving companies a superior competitive advantage by helping them differentiate on delivering an experience and making price irrelevant. Reach him at john@thedijuliusgroup.com.