Rural telephone companies across the country are experiencing a new challenge as many longtime employees reach retirement age. They are now forced to hire younger staff to fill the positions of those who have moved on to the next phase of their lives.
This passing of the baton, so to speak, is creating a generational issue for telcos, particularly when it comes to customer service representatives selling technologically advanced services. Many of the new hires grew up using computers, video games, MP3 players and cell phones. They use e-mail and the Internet to communicate. The challenge for the telco is to teach their new hires, who are probably comfortable with technology, to relate to customers who have no or very limited knowledge about anything high-tech.
These CSRs will interact with a wide variety of people, so let’s look briefly at four different generations’ values:
Veterans were born between 1922 and 1943. They like consistency and uniformity. Veterans get as frustrated as anyone else with poor service but they are more willing to put up with it and will suffer silently. Veterans’ spending style is conservative. They are the most brand loyal consumer in the marketplace today.
Boomers were born between 1943 and 1960. They believe in growth and expansion. They tend to be optimistic and look at the world in terms of infinite possibilities. Many boomers have learned how to use technology through work and personal experience.
GenXers were born between 1960 and 1980. They grew up with technology. They have learned to be very careful where they place their loyalty. They are self-reliant. They want balance between work and play.
Nexters were born between 1980 and 2000. They grew up with Nintendo, Palm Pilots and cell phones. The Internet, e-mail and instant messaging are tools they use every day. They can process colossal amounts of information quickly.
Rural telcos are making huge investments to bring technology to their customers. At the same time, they must make their customers comfortable with the technology so they see the value for themselves, their children, their grandchildren and their businesses. But many customers have a real fear of technology simply because they lack knowledge and understanding. Picture the following situation:
A customer from the Veterans generation, who knows very little about all that high-tech “stuff,” calls his rural phone company in response to a promotion for high-speed Internet service. The telco employee handling the call grew up with technology – she is a GenXer and she uses a variety of technology every day. The CSR must now create a bridge between what she knows and what the customer doesn’t.
The steps that your employees take from the start of this type of call will be critical to whether the customer decides to purchase the service or hang up in frustration. Or worse yet, the customer chooses to call a competing telco to see if they can do a better job of explaining things.
Some telcos have customers complete a self-install of their DSL service. While this may be efficient for the company, what about those customers who have never used a computer? Even customers familiar with computers can hit a brick wall during a self-install. How many of your customers attempt to complete the install and end up calling your help desk because they can’t get their DSL to work? Do they encounter one of your staff who “eats and sleeps” computers? Does your help desk staff have the skills to effectively relate to the customers and walk them through this situation? Or do they function only in a techno world and speak in terms your customers cannot understand?
Here are some ideas to consider when selling to different generations and helping them with problems:
Mirror and Match to Build Rapport. A skill known as mirroring and matching is one of the simplest to use in communicating with customers. Mirror and matching means simply to talk at the pitch and speed of the person you are interacting with.
CSRs may be very comfortable explaining technology services and because they provide that information a number of times in a given week, they can have a tendency to speak faster than the customer can comprehend the information. The key is to listen to the customer’s speed and pitch of their voice and to mirror that speed and pitch in your conversation with them. If the customer feels comfortable in the conversation, they will be more likely to talk about their situation and probably will remain calmer should they become frustrated with technology.
Create a Dialogue With the Customer. In order to be effective, CSRs need to identify a customer’s level of knowledge of the product or service they are inquiring about. If they are inquiring about Internet service, identify what the customer knows about DSL or dialup and how they are going to use that service. The same applies to any product or service you offer.
One of the most effective ways to understand the customer is to create a list of open-ended questions to use in conversations. Open-ended questions require the customer to provide more than a one-word answer. CSRs should ask questions such as “What do you know about DSL or dialup?” or “How are you going to use the service?”
By gathering additional information from the customer, your CSR then knows the customer’s knowledge level and can provide additional information accordingly. If the customer has limited knowledge, the CSR should invest additional time to educate the customer on the product or service and its benefits. This will increase your customer’s comfort level as well as the likelihood that they will make a purchase.
Identifying the customer’s need for the service is vital in order to explain its benefits.
Speak Your Customer’s Language. The telephone industry uses numerous acronyms to share information. A problem arises when those terms seep into communication with customers.
What is second nature to a CSR talking with someone in the company is probably a foreign language to a customer. If the CSR and your customer are not speaking the same language, your customer, lacking in understanding, may decide this technology is beyond their needs. For example, instead of describing high speed with a term like 512k, explain it as the difference between driving a Volkswagen and a high- performance race car. A simple analogy can oftentimes draw a clear picture.
Role Play. Every customer who calls has a different level of experience and knowledge when it comes to the technology you offer. Treating each caller as an individual requires practice and training.
Set a goal to have CSRs spend 30 to 60 minutes a month practicing skills such as building rapport with customers, listening to customers’ needs, identifying those needs, interacting with customers who are experiencing challenges in using technology and dealing with difficult customers.
Set up scenarios in which a customer is frustrated and have the CSR practice being patient and using a calming tone to reduce the customer’s frustration. Generations that did not grow up with technology sometimes find it difficult to converse with CSRs who may have started pecking at a computer keyboard at the age of five. The art of listening and patience is a learned skill that requires practice.
Show Empathy. This skill is critical to building a relationship with your customer. When high-tech services and gizmos are art of your daily life, it’s easy to lose sight of why it may be difficult for some customers to grasp even the basics of working with technology.
Your CSRs need to demonstrate empathy in their actions and the tone of their voice if a customer is frustrated. Customers hear the sincerity, or lack of it, when they call. Are your CSRs demonstrating through their actions and words a sincere desire to solve your customer’s problem?
Measure Customer Satisfaction. Hire a company (an independent third party) to call customers who have established service. Ask them what they thought of the experience with the CSR who explained the service, what they thought about the DSL self-install process or what they thought of the technician who installed the service or performed the repair.
Call customers who have interacted with your help desk to find out what their experience was like when they needed assistance. I recently talked with a telco that had contracted with another company to provide their Internet support. This telco was aggressive in its marketing efforts to attract new customers. Interviews revealed that customers were quite dissatisfied with the level of support for their Internet service. The obvious double-edged sword was that the telco’s image was being tarnished by the poor service provided by the Internet support company.
So if you have a younger generation of CSRs working to satisfy the technology needs of your customers, how do you keep them committed to exceed your customers’ needs and expectations? Following is some advice targeted to GenXers. In general, it also applies to Nexters.
GenXers need constructive feedback to become more effective. Some experts say they need it more than other employees. Feedback delivered in a positive and sincere manner can make a world of difference to the employee, your customer and your company. A little freedom can go a long way toward keeping these younger workers satisfied. Give them time to pursue other interests and to have fun at work. One software support company actually encourages their employees to play games at work for 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the afternoon.
Dealing with emotionally charged situations every day can take its toll on your CSRs. CSRs deal with customers who display a number of emotions when they call for support. Give your service reps an outlet to unplug from those situations.
Coach young employees to take responsibility for their own actions by asking them “How do you plan to solve this situation?” or “How do you think you might approach the problem next time?” Make them feel like they are part of the company as quickly as possible. GenXers like mentors. They like knowing that someone cares about them and supports them
Development is vital to GenXers. A recent study released by the Gallup Organization says that training and development are significant attractors and retainers for GenXers. This generation values on-the-job education even more than Boomers and Veterans. Eighty percent of Xers say the availability of training is a major factor in choosing a new job.
One of the wonderful benefits of GenXers is that they are self-developing. They may not learn about new products and services in the order you would like, but they will learn the material. Provide them with lots of resources they can use to learn how to be more effective in their work. A variety of media is appealing. Books, computer programs, video and face-to-face interactions are all inviting.
Technology is changing and so is the work force. Understanding and honoring the values of the changing work force will go a long way toward helping Veteran and Boomer customers embrace technology.
David Saxby is president of Measure-X, a Phoenix, Ariz.-based measurement, training and recognition company that specializes in customer service and sales skills training for utilities. He can be reached at 888-644-5499 or via e-mail at email@example.com. Visit the Measure-X Web site at www.measure-x.com.