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Staffing Stunning People for Stunning Service

What do Michael Curtiz and Martin Brest have in common? They each had the challenge of casting the best candidate for a starring role in a new film. Michael had an exciting new star named Ronald Reagan, who had screentested for the lead male role opposite Katharine Hepburn in a new movie titled “Casablanca.” And Martin had a similar challenge: a successful, new box office drawing card named Sylvester Stallone had screentested for the lead role in a comedy movie titled “Beverly Hills Cop.”

Selecting people for customer service roles is similar to casting people for roles in a movie. The concept of “best” takes on new meanings. First, both require artful performances aligned with audience expectations. Creating an interpersonal experience that customers remember as stunning is like the actor’s mission of having audiences so caught up in the play or movie they start believing the performer is the person portrayed.

Second, both require a casting choice based on personality, not on GPA or being captain of the football team. Ronald Reagan in Humphrey Bogart’s slot would have resulted in a movie quite different from the screenwriter’s intent. And, Rambo as Axel Foley?

Fair and Accurate Casting
How was movie casting done without selection being solely “the whim of the director”? Did Michael Curtiz worry that Ronald Reagan would file a grievance with the screen actor’s guild if not selected? Did Eddie Murphy get the slot because Martin Brest had no interest in devoting the hours needed to “build a file” that would satisfy EEOC?

The exaggerated effort to exclude interpersonal information from the selection process—to focus solely on objective information—may lead to hiring decisions that are fair and stupid rather than fair and smart.

A challenge that film and customer service professionals share is how to choose fairly and accurately the performer with the greatest potential for success. Hiring is—and must be—based as much on intuitive feelings as on analytical judgments. The problem is that imprecise justification of subjective data to explain hiring one service applicant over another is risky. And with good reason.

Selection choices based more on the subjective than the objective—more on vibes than facts—are more susceptible to bias and prejudice. The “I have a gut feeling you just won’t fit in here” rationale has slammed the door on many who may well have become our shining stars. It was and is the justification for bigotry, old boys’ networks and myopia, which pay homage to a particular race, color, creed, gender, age, national origin or sexual orientation.

Be that as it may, the exaggerated effort to exclude interpersonal information from the selection process—to focus solely on objective information—may lead to hiring decisions that are fair and stupid rather than fair and smart.

Some Guidelines for Hiring Stunning Service People
How, then, do leaders choose people destined to give stunning service to customers? Here are several guidelines that will enable you to avoid the conflict between fair and subjective.

Clearly Define the Service Role and the Critical Qualities Needed
The search for the potential customer service star begins with a clear view of the service role to be filled. First, define the skills the service person must bring to the job, and the technical aspects of the job that can be learned and that you are willing to teach. Then focus on the interpersonal qualities that are important. Be as specific and thorough as possible.

Many frontline service roles require people who are friendly and courteous. Such behaviors are relatively easy to observe and document. But the qualities found in stunning service employees don’t end there. Equally important are people with a strong need to see things to their end, the ability to withstand irate attack without wanting to retaliate or feeling personally affronted, and the ability to demonstrate ingenuity in solving a customer’s problems.

Make the Selection Process Match the Service Outcome
Years of experience have taught Walt Disney World that one of the most important skills for employees in service roles is the ability to get along well with others. Managers judge potential cast members through group interviews. The group experience mirrors the contact between cast members and guests. If an applicant appears uninterested in what other interviewees have to say, chances are that he or she will not be attentive to Disney guests.

Solicit stories. “Tell me about a time you had a particularly irate customer and how you handled it.” Seek to understand the applicant’s service values, not just the facts. Ask: “What does stunning customer service mean to you?” and “What are ways you work to achieve it?” “What’s the best service you have received and what made it great?”

You don’t have to conduct stress interviews to ascertain stress management skills.

Give applicants an assignment before the interview. One company asked the applicant to make notes on what he saw that was good and bad service while en route to the interview. It led to a heart-to-heart talk later with the rude security guard in the building. Give applicants a take-home project as a part of the selection process.

It is worthwhile to simulate typical service situations during the interview. Just as an actor auditions using lines from a play or an athlete tries out in a practice scrimmage, a simulation during the interview will help you accurately gauge how well the applicant will perform the service role.

Simulate customer service requests first, and then advance to more difficult situations. For example, tell the job applicant: “Now I will be a customer with a problem in how my account was handled. You are the service rep this customer encounters first.” How the person works out the answer is far more important than whether the answer is right or wrong. Put the person at ease initially by letting him or her know you are not after “a single correct answer.” Rather, you are looking for assertive, friendly, customer-focused service (or whatever the role requires).

Learn how the Applicant Reacts to Pressure and Stress
The frontline service person encounters far more stress than most people in the organization. Angry customers vent their frustration on the first person they encounter without regard to whether that person is specifically to blame. The resilience and tenacity of service people—the capacity to “hang in there” when the going gets tough—can be critical for stunning service. Customers prefer frontline people who respond with confident empathy, not calloused indifference or passive weakness.

Customers prefer frontline people who respond with confident empathy, not calloused indifference or passive weakness.

You don’t have to conduct stress interviews to ascertain stress management skills. Simply asking an applicant to recall a time when she or he encountered an irate customer may be adequate. Simulating an experience with an irate customer is another. Be willing to “push” the encounter issue in order to have the applicant demonstrate his or her ability to handle tough situations.

Beware of the Pollyannas who “love all customers.” Customers are not always right, but they are always customers and the primary determiners of success or failure in the marketplace. Choose people who are respectful of and attentive to customers’ needs and expectations, not those who are naãve. Frontline stress is a reality to be understood and managed, not ignored or denied.

Performing in the Service Role
Customer service is first and foremost an interpersonal experience. Service people must bring a mix of skills and aptitudes to the role if they are to be successful. Casting frontline people to perform the art of stunning service requires gauging both the subjective and the objective. When we recognize and meet that challenge, the conflict between subjective and fair, between qualitative and equitable, no longer exists.

Effective leaders make choices about service applicants based on a clear definition of the service role they are seeking to fill. They use interviews that entail an honest examination of the qualities that make up a “stunning service orientation” and offer the applicant concrete ways to demonstrate these qualities.

Frontline employees in material handling have a major impact in determining what customers experience and how they will evaluate the organization. As with cinema or stage, making the best casting choice is critical to box office success.

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association
Meet the Author
Chip R. Bell (left) manages the Dallas office of Performance Research Associates. He is the author of several books, including Customer Love, Customers As Partners and Managing Knock Your Socks Off Service. Bilijack R. Bell (right) is a commercial real estate professional with Wilson, Hull & Neal in Atlanta, Georgia. Their new book, Magnetic Service: The Secrets of Creating Passionately Devoted Customers, was published in 2003.

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