Taiwanese customer service consultant Elaine Li (pictured) explains why frontline retail staff need risk management training

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Retail businesses around the world have felt the effects of the recent global economic downturn. Against this backdrop, the role of retail associates, especially those in customer service positions, is even more vital in ensuring the survival of many retail outlets. In this article, we examine what lies beyond providing a basic level of customer service and the approaches to this are consistent with many aspects of risk management principles and processes.

In any customer service delivery process, the first and foremost risk is the inability to understand customers’ needs. This could result in the customer being reluctant to make a purchase with the retailer.

As an example, many years ago a middle-aged customer came into my store to look for some walking shoes. I can still recall vividly the moment he came into the store and began yelling and shouting about how difficult it was to purchase a pair of shoes. His emotional distress was obvious to all who were present that day.

In order to defuse the situation, I applied the principle of trying to understand the needs of the customer. I quickly realized that he had visited more than 10 stores looking for a pair of shoes, only to be told by other customer service associates that due to the bone structure of his feet that his shoe size was not available.

Indeed, it took me a while before I was able to find him a pair of shoes that were suitable. He was impressed and appeased at the end of the day and apologized to me and all my staff for creating a commotion earlier and told us that he would patronize our store again. We closed a deal and, most importantly, the needs of that customer were met.

In a situation like this where the customer displays their discontent through an emotional outburst, the steps to take is:

1. Listen and understand the customer’s needs;

2. Address those needs and attempt to solve them.

The risk here is the inability to understand the needs of the customer and the biggest challenge to this lies in the people involved; in other words, your customers and your staff.

Emotional management of customers and staff is never easy. But an inability to overcome this challenge makes building a trusting relationship with the customer almost impossible.

There are three key factors to consider here.

Firstly, the service staff must never be affected by the emotions of the customers. Otherwise, his or her professionalism and judgment could also be affected. One simple way is to initiate the problem-solving process from the customer’s perspective. This empathetic approach helps to build trust and helps avoid unnecessary conflicts or misunderstandings.

Secondly, the professionalism of the service is important as it is a representation of the image of the company to customers. For frontline staff, the focus is not limited to simply understanding the needs of customers, but also in the ability to explain how a company’s products and services can address those needs.

Thirdly, the crisis management capabilities of the service staff cannot be over-emphasised. In the event that an unexpected situation is not dealt with by the customer-facing employee in an effective and timely manner, the likelihood of losing a customer is high. A good attitude does not necessarily mean a good service. A good attitude is a prerequisite for all staff in the service industry; good service goes beyond that. It is about the ability to handle issues and situations in a timely and appropriate manner and, ultimately, the empathetic stance that any service staff is displaying while executing the delivery process.

The service delivery by corporate entities can be grouped into three main areas in terms of the products offered, its processes and the services that come with them. Most of the time, it is at the starting point of each of these areas which could result in the wrong perception and loss of confidence by customers. A service excellence manager who is also playing the role of a risk manager should therefore identify the service failure issues that occur most frequently and implement appropriate control measures to mitigate future occurrences. These plans should be intermittently reviewed with the aim of improving the overall customer service experience and reducing cases of customer complaints.

Education and training is essential in mitigating the ‘people’ risk element of a business and a robust customer service training programme should be developed that focuses on several important factors. These include:

(i) Enhancing the quality of service staff

All service staff must first acknowledge: the importance of the role that he or she is playing, and the importance of the company and its products.

In order to promote the value of a product effectively to a customer, service staff have to know whether they are a product narrator or a product marketer.

As a product marketer, service staff are able to explain not only the core functions of the product and its value, they are also able to make recommendations to address the customers’ needs. In this way they are creating a comprehensive value-adding service experience for the customer.

Conversely, as a narrator, the staff will not go beyond the citation of the product’s core functions and the customer service experience stops there.

Service staff have to be self-motivated and recognise the importance and purpose of their profession. Therefore, the education and training programme needs to address not just product knowledge, but also staff attitudes.

(ii) Crisis management and situational awareness skills

Service staff are at the forefront of any retail setting. Therefore, practical scenarios, roles playing, group discussion and on-site practicum must be incorporated into the training programme. The emphasis should be on the importance of crisis management and situational awareness skills. An intensive and in-depth training initiative would seek to cover all the above aspects in developing an all-rounder service professional who is, in fact, a risk manager as well and can respond to perceived customer crises.

(iii) Customer relations management

This refers to the use of the company’s resources in order to better understand of a customers’ spending habits and shopping patterns in order to add value and create a lifetime relationship with them. With such information, service staff must be trained on how best to meet and address the needs of these customers in order to elevate the current customer service satisfaction. Customer relations management ultimately is a win-win situation for both the company and the customers.

Customer relations management training focuses on the following processes:

a. Interaction

Understanding the needs of customers and helping them to address those needs during the interaction process.

b. Differentiation

Categorizing the customers into different segments (e.g. gender, age group, spending habit, geographical locations, etc) to better understand their consumption patterns.

c. Mapping strategy

Planning and customising strategies to address the different needs of customers that were categorised into different segments.

d. Response

Responding and attending to queries by customers in a timely and most appropriate manner.

(iv) The importance of emotional risks management

Simply put, this is defined as the ability to manage one’s emotions through risk management methodologies to reduce the likelihood of negative outcomes from occurring brought upon by poorly managed emotions during decision-making processes. Attitudes of service staff can be affected by the emotions of customers and themselves. The failure to manage these emotions will have adverse effects not only on customer service delivery but also on the image and reputation of the company.

From the perspective of a customer, emotions affect perception. Perception affects attitude. Attitude affects actions. This holds equally true from the perspective of a service staff as well.

Effective emotional risk management helps one to make the most appropriate decision in situations where one is overwhelmed by negative emotions. This is even more relevant when your service staff are your first line of contact with existing and potential customers.

Service staff need to be trained on how to manage their stress and emotions, especially when handling difficult and demanding customers.