How to Coach Your Customer Service Reps to Drive Actual Performance with Steve Richards

25 min read
How to Coach Your Customer Service Reps to Drive Actual Performance with Steve Richards TW

In this episode of Customer Service Secrets, Gabe Larsen is joined by co-founder of ExecVision Steve Richards, to discuss customer quality and assurance, as well as guidance to provide reps with customer service coaching. Throughout his career, Richards has been committed to helping companies continually improve by understanding the data and customer experience. Listen to the full podcast below for his valuable insights on how companies can transform their support function from a cost center into a revenue driver.

Data Is Not The Issue

To start the conversation, Richards makes it very clear that companies don’t need more data to offer enhanced effective customer service. Most companies do an exceptional job of collecting the necessary data they need to start the improvement process. It is in analyzing and applying the data where companies typically miss the mark.

Richards notes that measuring just to measure and having data is not going to help improve the situation. He states, “In the organizations… who do a much better job, they kind of close what we call insights-to-performance gap. So what they’re doing is they take all the data and then they use that data and they actually take action based on it to change something.” If companies gathered the data with an understanding of how to use it, they will be able to make a continuous improvement around the actual engagement, the interaction that’s happening with the customer.

Make Sure Your Agents Have the Resources to Improve

When it comes to QA, or quality assurance, a lot of analytical work is happening to ensure that the customer experience is as good as it can be. QA tools record phone calls, conduct surveys and collect a lot of data about how to improve the experience. However, this information isn’t being translated to the very people it concerns, the agents themselves.

Richards mentions, “People value more what they conclude for themselves than what they’re told. So if you actually want to get someone to change their behavior — if we can get them to –listen to one or two of their own calls per week, they’re going to hear things, they’re going to change things.” Let customer service agents and reps have access to the QA data, such as their recorded phone calls, and they will start noticing ways they can improve.

The Steps to an Effective Customer Service Call

On several occasions, customer service reps will be asked to follow a script when answering calls and managing conversations via live chat or messaging apps. This can often leave the customer unhappy or unsatisfied with the service. However, there are still resources that the rep needs to use to solve problems. To make sure that the reps get the required information and that the customer feels good about the service they’re getting, Richards suggests viewing customer conversations as a jazz musical composition. “It’s not a script, but we also don’t let them wing it. So we’re going to give them the notes you have to hit in the piece, and then everything else you do around it, bring your personality.”

With that in mind, Richards also shares the important notes that must be hit to make the interaction effective. The first important notes are the beginning and the ending of the interaction. Making sure that the rep opens with a kind, confident, and consistent greeting and ends the conversation with a definitive action plan and customer appreciation.

Secondly, practice active listening. Richards states, “The empathy, the active listening, and not doing it in such a way where you’re essentially caving. It’s like you have a backbone. You’re looking at the eye of the person, not physically, but you get the idea. As a peer and you’re paraphrasing what they said, making sure you understand, clarifying what they said…” The last important note to hit for an effective customer service call is simply not putting the customer on hold for too long. Timeliness is one of the best things to train your reps on and it will make a big difference.

To learn more about QA and customer service coaching, check out the Customer Service Secrets podcast episode, and be sure to subscribe for new episodes.

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Full Episode Transcript:

How to Coach Your Customer Service Reps to Drive Actual Performance with Steve Richards

Intro Voice: (00:04)
You’re listening to the Customer Service Secrets Podcast by Kustomer

Gabe Larsen: (00:11)
Alright welcome everybody. We’re going to dive in today. We’re going to be talking about customer experience, something a little different, a different aspect, really how to escape the insights-to-performance gap, all based on the customer experience customer service world. To do that we brought in co-founder of ExecVision Steve Richards. Steve, thanks for joining man and how are you?

Steve Richards: (00:32)
I’m doing great Gabe thanks for having me here.

Gabe Larsen: (00:35)
Yeah, it’s funny, Steve and I go way back. It’s been years, man. It’s probably been almost a decade, hasn’t it?

Steve Richards: (00:40)
I’m used to the salespeople and its kind of a little bit of a different world here going into call centers with CX. So, yeah, we’re having fun together.

Gabe Larsen: (00:49)
Yeah. But definitely knows his stuff when it comes to coaching, training, and I think using audio to really help people do their job better. Tell us a little bit about yourself and ExecVision before we jump in.

Steve Richards: (01:04)
Yeah, sure. So, I’m a founder of various sales performance improvement companies over the years. Somebody that does outsourced appointment, setting a sales training business, but really what we were seeing that was missing and we were looking at why do some people have so much more success in actually creating revenue? I will tie that back to CX later on. And a big thing is they had a culture of continuous improvement around the actual engagement, the interaction that’s happening with the customer. Usually, it’s a voice conversation, but it certainly is also a text conversation, SMS, email, other communication channels, but they had this kind of feedback loop. Our great mentor, Ken Krogue used to call it the brief debrief. You know, they prepare in advance. They do their job throughout the day. Then they go and they debrief afterward and they have a continuous improvement or kaizen loop. So I’ve, I’ve been committing my life professionally to helping companies figure that out.

Gabe Larsen: (02:00)
I love it, man. That’s a great intro. I love the shout out to good ol’ Ken Krogue. I need to reach back out to him. You move away from somebody and then all of a sudden you don’t talk to them. He’s such a good person. Such —

Steve Richards: (02:14)
Amazing, amazing.

Gabe Larsen: (02:16)
Well let’s start big picture. Customer experience, customer service, what’s broken? Paint me — I mean, you’re in this all the time. Where are you seeing some of the fractions, the areas that are not working?

Steve Richards: (02:29)
Yeah, so the thing is with customer experience, so many call centers and contact centers have done a lot — omni-channel communication, they’ve done a lot to be able to measure and understand more what’s going on within customer experience right now. So I think what happened previously is NPS and C-SAT, and everyone’s been doing first call resolution for average handle time, for average, forever, hold times, all those kinds of things. They’ve got that. So the data’s there. I don’t think there’s anybody out there, there are very few out there that can’t say, well, we have data on our customer experience. Would you agree with that?

Gabe Larsen: (03:07)
Yeah. I mean, it seems like the data — I mean, I don’t know if it’s the right type of data, but there is a lot of data out there, right? I mean —

Steve Richards: (03:16)
Well said. Certainly, there’s a lot of opportunities for making sure we’re looking at the right types of data. And really the point of view we’re coming at is you have got the data on one side, it’s almost like there’s a canyon or a chasm that happens here. So you’ve got the data. How do you actually get that data to translate into agent performance or rep performance? Everybody calls them something different, agents, reps, et cetera, [inaudible] specialists. But really, when you think about it, it’s collecting all the data. The whole point, why do you measure a sprinter? Why do you time a skier? Why do we do these things? And the answer is to improve performance, to get even better.

Gabe Larsen: (03:54)
But it is funny, right? I mean, oftentimes we will — I mean, I get caught into this. You start measuring to measure and you’re not actually looking at how it can potentially affect the ultimate performance. So yeah, that probably as a bigger problem than you think.

Steve Richards: (04:09)
That’s it. In the organizations we’re seeing who do a much better job, they kind of close what we call insights-to-performance gap. So what they’re doing is they take all the data and then they use that data and they actually take action based on it to change something. Certainly some things could be around the processes and the systems of engaging with customers, different communication channels. I’ve mentioned things like SMS before and things like that. And then also at the same time, it’s what are our agents and reps saying? Now, I think the thing that some people might be thinking is, well, QA. Well we’ve had QA forever, quality assurance. We’ve got folks that do call listening, they do some call scoring, they do auto failing of calls. The thing that I’ve learned, Gabe, and it’s been fascinating going from a predominantly inside sales lens and going into the call center where there is no QA and inside sales typically and there really is in a call center, is the people. The reps frequently view the QA folks, almost like the cops, like it’s the police because they’re — and their language, think about their language. They’re looking for infractions, they’re auto failing. The QA, in most cases, the QA people sit like over there in the corner. It’s almost like the wizard of Oz behind the curtain. And everybody else is out here and whenever the QA team distributes a report, usually it’s, it’s the bad dog report, you know, “bad dog, you peed on the sofa, go outside.” And in many cases, they actually get their comp taken from them. I’ve seen a lot of organizations where people will get docked if they have to have a sales KPI or a revenue-generating KPI or offer a product, they’ll lose the variable component of their comp because their call was not compliant. It wasn’t done in a compliant manner, according to their — whatever the compliance department requires. Do you see what I mean?

Gabe Larsen: (06:00)
And that’s probably — I mean, when we were first dipping in inside sales back in 2000, we were playing a little bit of the call center space with the in contact, way back when, but that sounds like QA hasn’t changed much from when I was playing with it 20 years ago.

Steve Richards: (06:20)
And Gabe, to be fair, just to interrupt. They want to. I don’t think it’s a question of the QA people not having the best interest of the business or the agents or the customers or the customer experience. It’s just that QA is one of those processes that it makes me scratch my head. I get a kick out of it. You and I have seen this. The process was what evolved over time, based on the resources they had. And when a QA function really just has a big pile of call recordings or nothing else, or maybe they have some speech analytics and nothing else, they do what they can do. They do things like random sampling. They spend a lot of time listening to dead air or calls that really are not scorable or coachable anyway. And as a result of that, they had to create all these kinds of crazy Rube Goldberg machines around this to ultimately improve agent performance. But along the way, that vision was never really achieved. And instead, it turned into like the infractions department,

Gabe Larsen: (07:18)
But, I’ve got to give them credit because I don’t mean — Steve and I share such a history you guys, you’re going to have to be patient as we [inaudible] sometimes, but at least they’re doing it. I mean, you look at the sales space and that’s like, people are acting like listening to, doing QA or listening to calls that was something revolutionary and brand new. So kudos that they’ve at least been, I think, going down that path and trying to listen, because the idea of listening to that real-time game film, whatever space you’re in, service, success, sales, it’s important. I mean, I think we need to hear it so kudos that it is happening. So where do you then find as you think about that traditional QA, be a little more black and white, how is that starting to branch out then? Where are some of the areas that they’re starting to kind of say, “Hey, how do we make this a little better?” And what does that look like?

Steve Richards: (08:09)
They want, so QA wants to be more involved in the process of actually seeing the business metrics improve.

Gabe Larsen: (08:16)
Got it. Okay. Yeah.

Steve Richards: (08:18)
And that’s —

Gabe Larsen: (08:18)
The tie in we were talking about.

Steve Richards: (08:21)
There’s the tie in. So they’re aware of that. Most of the time they’re actually, they’re not usually measured on NPS or customer satisfaction or those other metrics we talked about before they’re aligned with customer experience. They’re usually measured basically on the number of calls we’re able to score. They’re hitting their SLA, their departmental SLA to the rest of the business. But most of them spiritual, in their hearts and in their minds, they want to be doing more. And I think the other thing that’s changed is if you go to the average call center and contact center, you sit with the average agent on the phone. And I don’t care if they’re taking inbound calls or making outbound calls. What you’re gonna find is the vast majority of them never have an opportunity to even hear one of their own calls or anybody else’s calls to try to sharpen the saw or improved performance and it turns into a little bit of a hamster wheel and a little bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. So what happens is their supervisor will get the recorded call with the report from QA and usually there’s some infractions and maybe some areas of opportunity. Now, if they’re kind of busy doing their thing trying to service the customer or provide support, and then maybe offer an upsell or offer an additional product, maybe try to stop a cancellation. They’re so busy doing that they never have an opportunity to actually absorb what that is. But even more importantly, I think Gabe, is that people value more what they conclude for themselves more than what they’re told. So if you actually want to get someone — a human being, if you want to get a person to change their behavior, if we can get them to, even if they listen to one or two of their own calls per week, they’re going to hear things, they’re going to change things. And certainly, a supervisor is much better suited to do that with them than if they just simply get a report of what happened.

Gabe Larsen: (10:01)
Yeah. So yeah. It has been a lot of people in the corner listening and throwing over a report that doesn’t feel — I’m not –you teach me how to fish, you give him a fish type of thing. If they can see it, taste it and touch it one, the reps will be more important.

Gabe Larsen: (10:16)
But two, we then start to tie that QA into something that might be a little more directly tied to ultimately the business outcomes that the people want. So how do you start to move down this path? How do you make that happen?

Steve Richards: (10:32)
Yeah. And I’ll give you a tie back to Kustomer to what you do. And obviously this is not about what our respective technologies do, but if you’re thinking about customer service re-imagined, and if you’re thinking about personalizing that experience and providing that real-time information to the folks that are doing the service support, selling, et cetera, then, really the last mile, if you think about it, with that in place, the last mile is, well, what are they actually saying? What are they doing? What does that communication sound like? Because there’s a lot of different research that shows that the most important part of the customer experience, the thing that’s the most memorable, the things that show up on the feedback surveys is when the customer interacts with one of your reps or agents. And it can have a tremendous impact on having a lifelong customer versus a churn customer or someone who tells your friends, because they’re such a net promoter, they’re telling everybody, you gotta sign up for X. And so what we find is that we have to start number one with defining, what does good look like? What are our, not scripts per se? I mean, there certainly are scripts. Really the way to think about it is more like jazz. When you hit the notes in the composition. I heard that one time Gabe, it stuck with me. I love that. I think it was a speaker at the Inside Sales Association who told me. It’s not a script, but we also don’t let them wing it. So we’re going to give them, really for this communication type, for this call type, these are the notes you have to hit in the piece, and then everything else you do around it, bring your personality. Bring your personality. That’s number one. Number two, you have to have a method or a system to understand, are they doing it? Are our agents doing these things according to hitting the notes. So if they’re hitting the notes and all the rest of their metrics are good, fine. If they’re not hitting the notes, then we know we have to go in and change that behavior. So we need to automatically surface these, if you will, coachable moments. And that’s an interesting thing because in the call center or contact center, the term “coachable moments,” I don’t think it’s as prevalent as sales. So I think that what you and I have experienced, I think that call centers are way ahead of us in terms of QA and quality. I think that sales, in general, has kind of been better about at least having a focus on the coaching of the person and the coaching of the communication.

Gabe Larsen: (12:56)
The time and the results yeah, probably. Yeah.

Steve Richards: (13:00)
And then you’ve got to see it through. You’ve got to track the performance improvement. So whatever it is they’re trying to change or improve, let’s see how that score for that item increases over time.

Gabe Larsen: (13:15)

Steve Richards: (13:16)
See what I mean? And that’s it. That’s the full circle. Ken Krogue, right? Brief, execution. It’s from the book Flawless Execution, the Navy fighter pilots where they brief before they go and do a mission, then they have the mission. And then later on they debrief and the way that they describe it in the book is that they all get into a debrief room and it doesn’t matter what your rank is, it doesn’t matter who you are. If you saw something that will improve the mission for the future, we’re going to talk about it. So they, I think they symbolically take the velcro rank off of their shoulders and they put it down on the desk from what I understand.

Gabe Larsen: (13:48)
Yeah. Yeah. I think you nailed it to the T. How — are there certain things you’ve found? I like the simplicity of it, right? I mean, it is. And the tie in. You look for the right behavior, you don’t necessarily have to script it, then you follow it through, make sure it’s moving the levers you ultimately want to move. Thinking about that jazz or the notes, are there certain things that you’ve found as you’ve studied conversations or worked with different customer service or experience organizations, contact center, whatever it may be, but what are some of those notes? Is it, is it the personalization that that really is an important behavior, or thing to do or say? Is it thanking them? Any tidbits or advice there? I’m just curious if you’ve found anything.

Steve Richards: (14:31)
Yeah, yeah, yeah. For sure. So I’m going to go with, probably I’m thinking a lot of people listening to this are going to be predominantly inbound calls from a customer type of setup. So let’s talk with them first. It’s always going to be the bookends of the call are going to be really important. So it’s going to be number one, how they open the call. Is there consistency, is there confidence? Are there clear expectations set for what’s going to happen? And then of course, how they end the call and how they end the call with a definitive plan of action for resolution. If there’s still an open issue, or if they end the call based on being appreciative, showing appreciation, like you said, thanking the customer, those types of things and or offering an additional thing or asking for an additional thing. And then in the middle there are some key notes that we hear people have to hit. One of the big ones, of course, is active listening. The empathy, the active listening and not doing it in such a way where you’re essentially caving. It’s like you have a backbone. You’re looking at the eye of the person, not physically, but you get the idea as a peer and you’re paraphrasing what they said, making sure you understand, clarifying what they said, saying, “okay, let me, let me go look into this.”

Steve Richards: (15:41)
Another big one we hear is don’t put the customer on hold for a long amount of time. That’s another thing that I think plays into customers’ hands, because the reality is a lot of these call centers and contact centers, especially serve and support. The answer is not necessarily readily available. We want to try to do first call resolution. We want to try to not escalate if we can. So if we can provide that rep or agent with what they need to be successful or resources they can turn to, they can have hold times be shorter and get to the resolution sooner. Or ultimately if they have to escalate, they can know that they have to escalate and how to escalate so they can get it done faster. And I think a big thing that we also see is, we’re starting to see more and more people asking for referrals or people asking if you’re for the advocacy of the customer along the way. And that’s the cherry on top. If you did all the other things well, you’ve earned the right to try to expand your business with that customer, maybe offer them an upsell, something they’re not thinking about or a higher level of service if it’s a subscription.

Gabe Larsen: (16:43)
Yeah. That is fascinating. One more quick question on that. I mean, do you see, it does seem like a lot of people are talking about, “Hey, let’s make this not a cost center, but a revenue center.” That’s a little bit of a buzzword. So it’s like, have you figured out, are you seeing people kind of talk through, “Hey, I’ve got a contact center, but I ultimately would prefer that this is not just a cost center that’s spending all the money, but we are trying to get more referrals, upsells, cross-sells.” How do you think about that?

Steve Richards: (17:11)
Yeah. Let me tell you, I’ll tell you a quick story from a very well known, but I will remain, leave them as an unnamed company that has, it’s a retail store and they sell beer and wine and my wife’s cousin previously worked at this company. And at the time they set up a contact center to basically be a service hub for anytime someone has a party and they go into the store and they place an order, like if years later, they want to make an adjustment or all these kinds of things. And I asked him, and we talked about his measurements and pretty much all his KPIs are all the things that we’re talking about with CX, with customer experience. Um, but then I said, “Well, what, what revenue KPIs do you have? Basically, Hey man, would it be helpful if I, cause I’m having a party, should I buy from you? Like, is that good for you?” And he said, “No.” I said, “Interesting,” I said, “cause I’m seeing a theme and a trend towards, –” and it’s kind of like Gabe what you and I saw with field sales versus inside sales, kind of like retail plus the call center where you’re also going to offer them something or you’re going to, or you’re going to try to avoid churn or something like that. So most of these places aren’t set up cause he said, “Well, we can do that, but we don’t have a KPI.” So I said, “Well, if that’s the case, you don’t have a KPI. You don’t have any kind of incentive structure for the rep. Do they do it for your agents? Do your agents do it?” And he goes “A little bit, but not really.” But you know, you and I both know if you give him a comp plan if you will, or some sort of incentive — I know it doesn’t work the same way, it’s not like a variable — but it’s like, if you give them a little spiff, a performance incentive for offering something, you’re gonna bring in more business and you’re going to do it, you’re going to have an additional channel and it’s going to be a little — and sometimes that additional business gets so big, then it displaces some of the other channels.

Gabe Larsen: (18:54)
Yeah. Fascinating. Yeah. That does — that trend. That’s a little more of a side note, but that’s interesting to hear. It does seem like a lot of people are starting to try to think how do I not just do this, but I can also do that while I’ve got them here on the phone, right? Well Steve, it’s fun to have you man. It’s always fun to catch up. We talked about a lot. If you had to kind of summarize, take away, where would you end with this? Advice for the audience.

Steve Richards: (19:16)
Data is fantastic. The reason we measure is to improve performance. If you really want to improve performance and what I mean by performance is all those metrics that you look at, NPS, CSAT, all that stuff. If you want to improve that stuff, you have to understand the customer experience. You have to see it through the voice, hear the voice of the customer yourself, secret shop yourself, and then ultimately improve what the agents do and how they communicate. Because agent communication is like the sharp end of the spear. That’s one lever that most people haven’t done as good a job at pulling as they need to. And in order to get the agents better and reps better, they really have to be involved in their own development.

Gabe Larsen: (19:53)
Love it. I love it. Alright man, well if someone wants to get ahold of you, or learn a little more about ExecVision, what’s the best way to do that?

Steve Richards: (20:00)
Connect with me on LinkedIn. That’s always good. And we’ve got a lot of really good content on the insights to performance gap and call center coaching and things like that on

Gabe Larsen: (20:09)
Okay, well, we’ll make sure we direct people that way. So, Steve, appreciate it. For the audience, have a fantastic day.

Steve Richards: (20:15)
I’ll see you at the Rangers game at MSG all right.

Gabe Larsen: (20:18)
Take care.

Exit Voice: (20:27)
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