Customer Relations

by Roisin Murray & Wallace Murray

Develop your staff

The prime skills for enhancing customer relations are:

  • Creating empathy (or Rapport)
  • Eliciting customers’ implicit needs with Questioning Skills, so they can make their needs explicit.

Staff need to know that using these skills and interacting with the customer is part of their job. And that it is important, worthwhile and sound business practice.

Knowledge building

They also need some knowledge and competence, and an awareness that these are skills that can be learned. Ideally, what should your staff know about?

The products

There are several aspects to this:

  • Company marketing strategy
  • Why the company’s products are different from those of other companies
  • How a particular product works
  • How a particular service is provided
  • What are the advantages and benefits of its features
  • Laws and rules that will apply to particular sectors of staff.

Such knowledge should help them more fully explain the benefits to a customer. Would that not make for a more eager customer?


This might, for example, include:

  • Where should the department store assistant, receptionist or call-centre operative direct callers to help them get their needs met as quickly and easily as possible?
  • What should customer service staff in your organisation know about, to be able consistently to delight clients?

Interpersonal skills

There are several topics that may be of use here:

Competence comes from three things:

  • Practice
  • Practice and
  • More practice.

Mindful practice, that is, with skilled advice. Call it coaching, mentoring or whatever you like. Increasing the competence level of staff is a key management responsibility.

So, you need to offer training, information, practice and advice. Once you have capable staff, you need to help them apply their capability to best effect. The essence of this is empowerment and flexibility.

Empower your staff

Empowerment sometimes gets a bad name. People rightly get nervous if they are told they are empowered, but believe they will get slapped round the head if ‘it all goes horribly wrong’. So you need to be specific about what is OK and what is not. It is also helpful to increase empowerment by stages, so both parties feel only a little scared by the risks (see Levels of delegation in the Delegation topic). You might like to offer and seek coaching to encourage people to act responsibly as well as flexibly.


The chambermaid’s tale

A guest in a certain London hotel forgot his laptop when he left for New York. He realised his mistake only that evening, when about to prepare for a presentation he was due to give the next day. He immediately phoned the hotel, if only in the hope his laptop had not been stolen.

Imagine his surprise and delight when the chambermaid who was sent to check his room arrived in New York and handed him the laptop in time for his presentation!

She had blown her ‘delight the customer’ budget on one guest.

A chambermaid – with a budget? She did what? What do you make of it? She certainly acted flexibly. Did she act responsibly? The story went round the frequent flyer community like wildfire – and business boomed for that hotel. Maybe the PR was worth it. On the other hand, the chambermaid could not spend any money at all on delighting a customer for the rest of the budget period. Maybe that would be OK, though. She might just have had to think more creatively.

What matters is that individual members of staff will be more willing to go the extra mile if they know it’s OK by you. So discuss it with them. If needs be, document their delegated authority. How far you empower staff depends on your present organisation culture. The chambermaid’s example might be a step too far in your context, but you get the idea. Empowering people involves a leap of faith, and it is sensible to take precautions. As the Arabs say, ‘Trust in God and tie your camels’.

See the Empowerment topic for more ideas.

Encourage individual responsibility for end results

Some people would see a maintenance man’s job as menial – not in the story below, however. That guy did more than most people would see as his job. He took responsibility for the end result. He also acted flexibly. He made a real difference to the customer’s stay. Look at the benefit for the organisation. Oh, by the way, he got his reward too.


A traveller’s tale

I spend half my life in hotels, and to be honest most of them get the basics right – well they have to. One hotel that does stand out for me is in Belfast. The basics are all there – the friendly staff, the nice décor – but it feels like they make just that little bit of extra effort. Maybe it’s the plastic duck in the bathroom, which always gives me a smile. They also publish a newsletter covering the whole group of hotels and there is a copy in your room. I like reading about their staff changes and what famous guests they’ve had – it sort of feels like I am ‘in the club’.

It’s not just the frills either. Once, there had been a leak onto the bathroom carpet and when I reported it they sent someone straight away. The maintenance man who came and looked at it immediately rang reception, arranged for me to change rooms, and offered to get a porter to help move my stuff. In other hotels people just come and do their own job, but this guy fixed the whole situation for me. OK the leak caused me a nuisance, but within 35 minutes of letting them know there was a problem I was settled in a new room – with very little hassle.

Now that’s what I want from a hotel. I always recommend this hotel group to anyone going to Belfast.

The maintenance man may have been naturally helpful, but how was he managed? For a start, he must have been empowered to see an incident through to conclusion. His personal objectives must have been more strategic than ‘fix x per cent of failures in the hotel structure and utilities within y minutes of them being reported’. They may well have included something about behaviour or end results. His pay was clearly not based on piecework. Performance indicators may have included qualitative aspects. There can have been nothing like ‘spend no more than ten minutes on any incident’.

The hotel systems clearly allowed him to engage support from reception staff. The structure obviously enabled him to step outside a narrowly defined maintenance role. Maybe that flexibility was enshrined in his job description.

Take a little time to reflect and jot down some page notes:

  • What behaviours, beliefs and values is it most useful for customer service staff to exhibit, to achieve excellent customer relations?
  • Remember a time when you (or someone you know) went out of their way – maybe stepped out of line – to do something that would delight a customer, maybe draw them back again and again?
  • How was that rewarded? How can this kind of behaviour be encouraged in your own organisation?
  • What behaviours, beliefs and values do your management information, performance management, reward and appraisal systems encourage in staff?
  • How free might the organisation want staff to be – free to go above and beyond the expected for a customer? What needs to be in place for that to happen?

Give credit where credit is due

Prompt and positive feedback encourages desired behaviours.


The power of praise (Beethoven’s kiss)

Andore Foldes, a Hungarian-born concert pianist, observed that a well-timed specific piece of praise often led to students outdoing themselves.

He tells of how he first realised the power of such praise. Foldes had made his debut at the age of eight, and at 16 was facing a crisis about his music and falling out with his music teacher.

The then renowned pianist Emil van Sauer (Liszt’s last surviving pupil) came to hear him play. He played well and at the end Sauer came up and kissed his forehead. He then said to him ‘When I was your age I became a student of Liszt. He kissed me on the forehead after the first lesson saying ‘take good care of that kiss; it comes from Beethoven, who gave it to me after hearing me play.’ I have waited years to pass on this sacred heritage, but now I feel you deserve it.’

Foldes was lifted out his crisis and went on to become a world-renowned pianist.

Few of us receive praise of this order. Even so, well-timed, specific praise motivates people like nothing else.

Some people get their greatest satisfaction simply from knowing they have done a good job. A lot of people though, like to know that someone else has noticed. Most of us respond better to praise than criticism. Try regularly telling a colleague what (specifically) they are doing that works well. You may be surprised by the positive effect. They are likely to do more of what you have praised them for. It seems as though this kind of feedback overlays – or leaves less space for – any undesired behaviour.

You could say

‘You are good with customers... there was that one tricky situation three months ago I really remember...’

That’s too late and too vague.

It would be much more useful for the listener to hear

‘I like the way you dealt with that angry caller. You stayed calm and friendly, but got the information out of them to sort the problem out.’

‘I am really glad you remembered that Mr Jones had a complaint last time he dealt with us, so we could pull out the stops to ensure he went away delighted this time.’

There is much more on this in the topic on Feedback.