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Drive sales by steering your crew members away from these 10 roadblocks to customer service

Service is our invisible product. It makes a good meal taste better and customers come back. But unlike the other products we offer, it can’t be discounted or featured only as a limited-time offer. On the other hand, it can be super-sized, delivered and given away. So if it’s so important, what are the primary obstacles to executing great service? Here are the 10 big ones along with strategies to overcome them.

1) FEAR. Nervousness, uncertainty and discomfort do not enhance service or build sales. Always train the crew first on the things that cause them the most fear or frustration every day at work. If customer-facing team members are worried about interacting with the point-of-sale system, headset, cash register or Web-enabled processes, they will not be concentrating on serving the guest. Teach them to be comfortable with your technology. If they’re fearful of interacting with displeased customers, practice daily with them on how to respond.

2) APATHY. The three root causes of poor performance are employees that 1) don’t know, 2) can’t do, or 3) don’t care. The first two can be solved with training and additional resources. The third is deadly to service. Give those people a job at the competition.

3) CYNICISM. If your crew-member training materials preach positivity but the prevailing culture is negativity, guess who wins? If managers and crew are routinely cynical or sarcastic in their dealings with the customers or brand, the new team member will defer to what the mob does, not what the manual says. General managers must model the way by being passionate, compassionate and upbeat. All managers should eliminate sarcasm, yelling, profanity and inappropriate remarks from their behavior. Be positive and have fun.

4) SHYNESS. Is the shyness truly innate to the person’s personality or because of discomfort linked to language, culture, age or training? Determine the reasons. You can improve the latter but probably not the former. Screen for personalities that enjoy customer interaction when hiring and provide positions that don’t require interaction for those who do not.

5) UNCERTAINTY. Confidence is a cornerstone of hospitality. Uncertain behavior is eliminated not by “training,” but rather by effective training. There is a difference. Asking someone to read a manual or watch a video is compliance, not communication. Set and clearly communicate expectations for each shift relative to volume and goals via mandatory pre-shift meetings.

6) MIXED MESSAGES. For instance, announcing that your 2008 twin goals are improving customer service and reducing labor costs.

7) “TELL-SHOW-DO-REVIEW.” This four-step training mantra may be quick, concise and alliterative but it’s efficient only for the trainer, not the learner. Here’s a more effective seven-step alternative: 1) Say What: explain what you’ll be covering. 2) Say Why: explain why the information is important. 3) Show How: demonstrate the correct way. 4) Detail Variables: since all service is situational, discuss acceptable variations on the “correct” way, depending on the situation. 5) Guided Practice: rehearse the skills together. 6) Spaced Repetition: repeat the skills training every other day until you feel certain the person “gets” it, because if they haven’t caught it, you haven’t taught it. 7) Teach back: have the trainee now repeat steps one through six in the trainer role.

8) NOT CARING FOR THE SERVICE-GIVER. Sure, customers are key, but servant leadership is the foundation of exceptional customer service. GMs must not overlook the fact that service-giving is emotional labor. Extend and encourage the exchange of common courtesies to all team members throughout each shift. Debrief each shift by asking customer-facing team members what made their day difficult. Now figure out how to eliminate those challenges from tomorrow’s shift. Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.

9) NO PLAN FOR SERVICE RECOVERY. Service is a complex concept, and despite your best attempts, you will fail to please some of the people some of the time. It’s just as important to know what to do when service fails as it is to know how to make it rock. Have a clear policy for correcting complaints, don’t compromise standards, and although the customer is not always right, pretend that they are. My favorite five-step process for handling customer complaints follows the acronym B.L.A.S.T. Believe the Customer. Listen to their concern. Apologize. Suggest a solution. Thank them.

10) GOODNESS. Jim Collins famously warned that “good is the enemy of great.” If you’re good at service, and know it, a strange thing can happen over time; you can get complacent and over-confident, focused on numbers and shareholders instead of better serving the guests lined up at the hostess stand or drive-thru lane. Don’t misplace priorities. I can assure you that the shareholders primary concern is the queued-up guest.

Be where the competition isn’t service-wise. Look for and exploit overlooked areas of micro-hospitality between managers and crew and crew and customer that you can master. Teach your customer-facing crew to focus first on hospitality that eliminates the guest having to ask for anything. And don’t overestimate speed of service when accuracy and quality will also be valued more. Nobody should feel they’re “good at service in general,” you’d better be great at service in specific.

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