Building a Bridge to Good Customer Service

by Jennifer Juhler, Director of Judicial Branch Education, Iowa

Court employees must provide good customer service, especially in light of the link between funding and how citizens feel about their courts. Good customer service translates into better overall feelings about the courts, and better overall feelings can translate into adequate funding.ManagersBriefcase

The courts have tough customer groups who typically are in the midst of extremely stressful situations, making the job of excellent customer service even more challenging. Excellent customer service requires the ability to discern and meet the physical and emotional needs of a customer while maintaining an appropriate role in one’s job. It is a dance between understanding other people and understanding oneself; working within the rules while maintaining flexibility; seeing the good in other people when the “good” is hard to see.

This is a tall order, to dance easily among these competing needs. How can we accomplish excellent customer service in the courts? Some in the private sector have abandoned training and now fill customer service positions based upon the results of personality assessments and interviews. The theory is that teaching customer service is not possible; a person either has it or he or she doesn’t. Like all absolute statements, this is partly true, but only partly.

In this article, I make the case that education can play a role in creating exceptional customer service and focus, but only through a developmental lens combined with continued reflection, learning and action. For the sake of simplicity, I assume that the organization in question embraces a customer focus and that managers will readily play an integral role in both establishing customer focus within their work group and supporting the learning of employees.

Intentional Use of the Kolb Learning Cycle
Because exceptional customer focus is a journey, not an event, educators must consider the journey and design learning to address both the personal level and the work group level. The Kolb learning cycle provides an easy and effective model to teach learners.

An example of Kolb applied to the individual level would be a quick in-class exercise such as the following:

  1. Think of a customer service situation. (concrete)
  2. What did you think, feel and experience during the situation? (reflection)
  3. What could explain the situation on the part of the customer and in terms of your reaction? (theory)
  4. How could you change what you did to improve the outcome for the customer? (action)

Management plays a role to further support this learning for individuals. For example, a manager could post the questions above in strategic yet inconspicuous locations throughout the office so the questions are seen by employees every day. To reinforce the culture and to leverage learning, this exercise could be incorporated into an ongoing activity for employees who could take 5-10 minutes during the day to consider a recent customer service situation. Employees new to customer service would complete the assignment every day; those with more experience would complete it once per week.

Learning could then be strengthened on the group level through periodic staff meetings to discuss some of the more challenging situations that have been encountered and to reconsider other options for improving the outcome. The learning could then branch from work group to work group by employing an online forum where groups could pose some of their more challenging situations for others to consider. Now the learning is spreading throughout the organization.

The Developmental Side of Customer Service
The Kolb model above provides the “technical” side of the training. However, the more challenging piece of mastering customer service is the adaptive or developmental side – the increasing ability to understand others; the ability identify one’s emotions and to manage those emotions effectively.

Findings from brain research indicate that the brain does not finish developing until a person is a young adult, somewhere between 24 and 30. Key learning through early adulthood includes both the ability to identify personal emotional states as well as the ability to take on the perspective of another person. Clearly, understanding one’s own reactions and accurately assessing the needs of another person are essential skills in order to deliver exceptional customer service. Working with a customer service mindset will help to develop the brain of young adults to be predisposed to delivering exceptional customer service, because we know that brain development follows a “use it or lose it” trajectory. As a result, people who begin working in customer service during adolescence and young adulthood will more likely develop a brain pattern that supports exceptional customer service. Ironically, they may not be able to deliver exceptional customer service, at least initially. Developmentally, this age group does not yet possess the refined skills to see the complexity of life and think in novel ways that might benefit the customer. To address the developmental component of exceptional customer service, we turn to the work of Robert Keegan.

When reviewing Keegan’s work, we find the people most likely to deliver exceptional customer service would fall at the level of the “self-authoring mind” or level 4. Yet, Keegan’s research indicates that the majority of individuals are at a developmental stage below level 4. In fact, 58% of college-educated professionals are not yet at the self-authoring mind. The logical conclusion is that most of our employees do not yet operate using a self-authoring mind.

Keegan’s developmental levels describe abilities related to increasing mental complexity. At level 3, or the “socialized mind,” individuals are rule-bound based upon the rules of their chosen group, whether a family group or a group adopted during adolescence or young adulthood. If managers are successful in having level 3 employees identify with their work group, the established rules of the group would tend to prevail. Using the model laid out so far, we have rules about learning by using the Kolb cycle. Rules are a good start for our level 3 employees. However, exceptional customer service will be delivered by those employees who have reached level 4 or the self-authoring mind. How do we help people to move from level 3 to level 4?

Keegan is clear that a level 4 person describing how to think about customer service to a level 3 person will have as much impact as speaking to the level 3 person in an unknown foreign language. Instead of explaining or describing the level 4 perspective, the Judicial Educator must start squarely in level 3 and build a bridge over to level 4.

Starting with level 3, we create rules because rules work well for the level 3 mind; however, the rules will be directed at level 4 competencies. For a person firmly in the middle of level 3, understanding and following these rules will be a frustrating exercise to say the least. However, continued appreciation for a person following the rules independent of outcome is key. You will notice that one of our rules is to keep trying, or rather, keep learning.

Consider these rules for delivering customer service:

It starts with you . . .

Rule #1: IMAGINE — Imagine how you would feel if you were the person at the counter? What would help?
Rule #2: STAY PRESENT — You must try not to lose your temper or shut down. If you do, you must step back and get someone else to help. If no one else is around, you need to apologize, take a break, breathe, and then try again.
Rule #3: KEEP TRYING — Your goal is to continue to learn so that it is harder for you to lose your temper or shut down.
It moves to the other person . . .
Rule #4: EVERY PERSON IS PARTLY RIGHT BUT ONLY PARTLY — If you can’t understand why the other person is reacting differently from what you expected, don’t assume that person is wrong. Take a deep breath and ask the customer, “What could I do that you think would help this situation?”
Rule #5: TALK IT OUT WITH SOMEONE ELSE — Every time you do not understand another person and/or they “push your buttons” you should debrief with someone in the office who is successful with most people. Keep the situation in mind as a useful one for further learning.

You can imagine these “rules” that form the bridge as part of the Kolb model, #3 above, “What could explain the situation on the part of the customer and in terms of your reaction?” Now we have a bridge embedded in an on-going learning situation. At this point, the Judicial Educator, with the assistance of mid-level managers, has created a bridge that promises rich learning. Even better, this developmental learning will increase mental complexity and the complexity will spill over into other areas of thinking, enriching the employee’s life and elevating the workplace.

To effectively serve court users is a difficult task and one that could provide a lifetime of educational opportunities. For the journey, stress on-going learning and create rules that build the bridge. Finally, continue to challenge yourself to be part of the developmental journey.