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An Interview with Chip Bell: “Trust the Brilliance of Your Frontline Employees”

Chip R. Bell, author of several bestselling books including Take Their Breath Away and The 9 ½ Principles of Innovative Service, will present at the i4cp 2018 Conference: Next Practices Now (March 26 – 29, 2018) on the topic of innovative service – based on insights from his book Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences through Innovative Service. His latest book, Kaleidoscope, explores how to create authentic customer service experiences.  

Ranked consistently by Global Gurus as a top speaker on customer service, Bell gave us his take on customer-centricity, the importance of listening to frontline workers, and what to expect from his presentation next spring.  

What would you say lit the fuse – when organizations started waking up to the importance of customer-centricity and it became real for everybody?  

I think it was most triggered by the advent of social media, when the balance of power shifted from service provider to customer. Service providers started recognizing that if they don't deliver, there are a bunch of people out there who are going to tweet or post some snarky YouTube video about you. I think that's what began to change the balance of power.  

And I use that phrase loosely because historically organizations have tended to say, "Here's what we have -- take it or leave it." Obviously, some didn't -- you wouldn't find that happening at Nordstrom.  

But the typical customer service-providing organization sort of took the attitude of this is what we have, this is the way we have it, we build our organizations around our products or whatever it is we do -- not around you the customer. It's not that they weren't customer aware obviously, and sometimes customer-friendly, but they weren't customer-centric.  

Jeff Bezos [CEO of Amazon] has a great line: “If you make customers unhappy in the physical world, they might each tell six friends. If you make customers unhappy on the Internet, they can each tell 6,000.”

That capacity -- that reach of social media and the ability to influence so many people so quickly -- created enough pressure that organizations recognize that we've got to get our act together or we're going to be the subject of some bad reviews.  

And what we're learning is that when customers make a decision about who to do business with, the influence of their colleagues or peers or people like them have much greater influence today than what the company or the organization says about itself. That’s been the biggest impetus for a new focus on service.  

And this is particularly true for internal organizations like human resources, operations, marketing -- functions within an organization that have a captive audience. You can say "This is the way we work -- you don't have a choice, deal with it.” Well, maybe they don't have a choice, but they can do a lot of damage to your reputation internally based on the service you provide.  

We live in a democratic society, we're used to having a choice. We like choices. And so, when I don't like the service I get at Hyatt, I can go to Marriott.  

It's even more graphic in its demonstration internally than externally. If I'm angry with a service provider I just say adios, I'm going to your competitor.  But when a customer doesn't have an option -- like you're the only HR department we've got -- what they typically do is take it out on the front line.  

My anger can't be displaced to a competitor, so now I take it out on the front line. Which elevates burnout and absenteeism and turnover and now you've got employees saying you aren't paying me enough to deal with customers who take their anger out on me because they're not happy with the service our department provides.  

Chip, you've published so many books. Is there one in particular that has been the most meaningful to you?  

Well, that’s like asking which of your children you love best. That's a hard question because they're all sort of like my children because I created them so to speak. I guess in some ways the one I am closest to is the most recent, Kaleidoscope , which is my newest book -- it came out in February. It's a book that probably of all the ones I've done is the deepest. It's designed to touch your soul and it's the one that I'm proudest of how it turned out.  

If people take away only one thing from your presentation at the conference this spring, what would you want that to be?  

I would want it to be: Trust the brilliance of your frontline employees, who are your very best scouts and the best source of customer intelligence. Meaning they hear it every day, they listen every day, and a lot of times we don't just sit down and ask about what our customers are saying.

What are they fussing about? What are they frustrated by? Particularly internally, the customer is going to be really graphic about their frustration and not just suffer in silence and leave.  

And so, the frontline is armed with a lot of information. Too often though, people in leadership roles say, "Well, let's send out a survey to our customers." My response to that is: Why send out a survey? One -- it's going be rearview mirror data; two, it's probably going to have a low response rate because you didn't say "If you'll fill out this survey I'll give you a thousand dollars," and you probably didn't make it funny or emotionally engaging. And it's probably too long. There are all kinds of faults around surveys -- I mean, surveys can be helpful, but why would you go with that option when you can get real-time feedback about what the customer thinks from an interaction that just happened with the folks on the frontline?  

And what happens is that the more you ask people who are directly serving the customers to be your scouts, the more they're going to notice. Because now they know it's an expectation you have because you're going to come back around shortly and ask. So, they pay attention to the details, they start seeing more, remembering more, because the consistent question is what are you learning? What can we do better?  

So that's the one takeaway -- you've got a great source of customer intelligence on the frontline.  

Here's my analogy: imagine you're in the old wild, wild west, you're the captain of a fort, and you send out a scout. They're gone for three days gathering information about the enemy out there and they come back to the fort all wide-eyed. What do you say to the scout? You probably wouldn't say "I don't have time to talk to you because I have to go to a budget meeting now.”  

Well, organizations have scouts coming back from the frontline wide-eyed every day.

We need we need to tap that knowledge and value that source of intel.  

If you’re a senior HR or business leader seeking next practices in talent, join Chip and other thought leaders such as Brené Brown, Dan Pink, and Andrew Razeghi at the i4cp 2018 Conference, March 26 – 29 in Scottsdale, Arizona. Sign up by December 8, 2018 and you’ll save $400/person.

Lorrie Lykins
Lorrie is i4cp's Vice President of Research. A thought leader, speaker, and researcher on the topic of gender equity, Lorrie has decades of experience in human capital research. Lorrie’s work has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other renowned publications.