What does it mean to be a Trusted Advocate in Customer Service? To be truly successful in delivering service, it is necessary to understand and support the many collective individuals who are part of the complex chain in delivering customer satisfaction.

As an executive in the service organization of a global manufacturer, it was relatively easy to admit that it would be impossible for me to personally handle every customer complaint or escalation. Even with excellent quality product, the sheer number of consumers and potential for escapes in a well run process were more than any single individual could juggle. Fortunately, the quality of the people in the service organization, and the quality of the service provider network, was commensurate with the renowned quality of the brand. This complete circle of quality relied on integrity, honest communication, and trusted collaboration.

Advocate for the People

Mark Blevins put it best when he said, "service pays for the sins of the past." Service organizations do not design the product, the process, or the promise, but service organizations have to fix the problems when one of those three preceding perspectives fails to perform. Quite often, the problems do not appear until long after the marketing, sales, and revenue are long gone. Service organizations continue to provide solutions for items that the sales and promotion pipeline have long since forgotten. Of course, these problems can not be overlooked. There is a stated or implied commitment to the consumer, there is a relationship with the customer to be maintained and preserved, there is reputation, and there is future business to consider.

It takes a very special kind of person to work in a service organization. Each day is full of commitment to understand and resolve numerous consumer complaints. Typically there is very little warning about what type of issues will escalate, or the perceived severity of each one. Most often, problems carry a considerable amount of emotional baggage. It is difficult, if not impossible, to circumvent the emotional baggage on the route to the root cause of the problem. So, customer service associates have the additional burden of assisting the customer with carrying that baggage until the problem is resolved. It takes a tremendous amount of compassion and patience to be a bellhop for emotional baggage on a daily basis, while simultaneously being a detective to solve the problems with a very limited number of clues. Needless to say, customer service associates can be identified by big hearts, broad shoulders, and an incredible sense of humor.

A primary function for any executive or manager in a customer service organization is to give these associates as much support, understanding, and protection as possible. Sometimes the burden of the emotional baggage may become too great. Sometimes the problem or the resolution may be too elusive. Sometimes the associate just needs a helping hand, or someone to refuel the compassion and patience that they have just spent on customers. Sometimes the group just needs a little protection when the policies that they are trying to defend are not keeping pace with other changes in the environment, and the associates are caught in the current of change. A leader of this group must be an advocate for the people, listening intently to their needs and providing the necessary tools. A true advocate will provide not only tools and empowerment necessary for customer service associates to satisfy the clients, but will also provide tools and empowerment for the customer service associates to develop and achieve personal professional goals as well.

This commitment to advocacy is not limited to management. This advocacy is expected and portrayed in the camaraderie that is displayed within the trenches. As the threats, complaints, and abuse fly overhead like so many misdirected bullets, the customer service associates support and defend one another in the trenches. It is this commitment to one another that gives strength, when the satisfaction of assisting a thankless consumer is sometimes not enough.

Advocate for the Service Provider Network

Beyond the confines of the ivory tower are the people in the field. Many organizations enlist the support of network of authorized service providers, field service agents, or similar representation that is much closer to the actual consumer. This closeness is often face to face with the consumer, and quite often is the only face of the organization that a consumer will ever see in person. These faces may belong to retail or reseller associates, detailers, installers, delivery personnel, or technicians. These individuals have power beyond reckoning, because these are the people who are closest to the consumer and have immediate impact by decision and action. The reputation of the brand, the torch of compassion and competence, is carried in their capable hands.

Just as a manager or leader has responsibility for the welfare of the people in the service organization, so too does the entire service organization have responsibility for the welfare of the field service network. To be a successful service organization, it is necessary to advocate for the service providers. This means providing education, training, information, and assistance to enable the service network to satisfy customers, and it is more than that too. The service organization should also study and learn what the service provider network needs to be successful as independent businesses and individuals. The success of the service organization is intertwined with the success of the field service network and external service providers. If you are in a position to hand off a customer relationship to another entity, then learn everything that you can about what you can do to make your service partner successful. This relationship works both ways, and it relies heavily on honest communication and trusted collaboration. With collaboration, all of the partners can succeed and endeavor to work together for the benefit of the mutual customer.

Acting in partnership with service partners is more than a focus on pay. While reimbursement is an essential element of the interdependency, a relationship as a trusted advocate is based on mutual obligation to understand the goals and requirements of the other. It is very much like the relationship between a manager and employee. While adequate compensation is an expectation, employee satisfaction is not based purely on pay. Employees typically desire a career path, opportunity for personal development, a sense of belonging, and self-worth. Managers typically seek cooperation, creative ideas for improvement, and collaboration. Why should the partnership between a service organization and the field service network be any different? Communication with active listening is crucial to developing trusted collaboration.

Advocate for the Consumer

Whether the role is with the central service organization, or with a service partner, it is necessary to have harmony in the aligned efforts to advocate for the consumer. Designing and developing customer services policies and procedures should be based on information and insight gained from listening to consumers. Gather the feedback and you will learn about competition, industry, environment, expectations, issues, and opportunities. Being truly committed to customers does not necessarily mean that every customer is right, or that every customer can be satisfied. Being obligated to customer satisfaction means listening to each consumer with an open mind, identifying the real issues behind the emotional baggage, and acting accordingly. It also means learning from each experience as an opportunity to repeat or improve performance, working in concert with coworkers and service partners to produce excellence.

The excitement and allure of customer service is that there is no finish line. It is a perpetual race to stay ahead, but it is a race without an end. The delight of one customer provides a spark of enthusiasm that carries us to the next one. The camaraderie in the trenches gives us companionship. The challenge to continually adapt and improve, as the industry and the environment continue to change around us, is like a puzzle that can only be solved temporarily. Everything that we have learned in the past can only prepare us for what we will learn today, and give us fresh ideas for tomorrow. By advocating for one another, and for the mutual clients that we serve, we can savor the sense of achievement in our dedication as each new challenge comes along.


Words of Wisdom

"Service pays for the sins of the past."
- Mark Blevins

"The crisis of yesterday is the joke of tomorrow."
- H G Wells

"Everything that we have learned in the past can only prepare us for what we will learn today, and give us fresh ideas for tomorrow."
- John Mehrmann

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
- Margaret Meade


Author's Bio: 

John Mehrmann is a freelance writer and President of Executive Blueprints Inc., an organization devoted to improving business practices and developing human capital. www.ExecutiveBlueprints.com provides resource materials for trainers, sample Case Studies, educational articles and references to local affiliates for consulting and executive coaching. www.InstituteforAdvancedLeadership.com provides self-paced tutorials for personal development and tools for trainers. Presentation materials, reference guides and exercises are available for continuous development.