Solving Customer Problems on the Frontline

Customer Service
Customer Service
The Ritz Carlton, NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Wisconsin Physicians Service reveal how they ensure a great experience by empowering their frontline to be problem solvers.

Customers with a problem want one thing: resolution. Frontline employees are the first point of contact for these customers. Their response to a customer's concern will determine whether that customer has a good experience or bad one; it might even determine whether that customer recommends a brand or switches to a competitor.

For this reason, organizations should consider frontline employees as one of their most important resources and guardians of the brand. They not only need to be selected carefully, properly trained, and empowered to resolve problems, but also equipped with the necessary knowledge and resources to do so, ensuring that each customer has an optimal experience and leaves happy.

The Ritz-Carlton, NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder, and Wisconsin Physicians Service are three organizations that have recognized the importance of their frontline workers. These businesses provide the support their frontline requires to address customers' needs in the moment.

Address issues before they escalate
Research carried out by the Ritz-Carlton found a direct correlation between the number of people a guest has to speak to before an issue is resolved and a decline in her engagement with the brand. So, a problem that was perceived as minor at the start escalates in a customer's opinion with every person he speaks to, according to Janet Crutchfield Souter, senior director for quality.

Armed with this knowledge, the upscale hotel chain empowers its associates to resolve customer's problem on the spot, without escalation. The hotelier uses its service values to communicate this. Those values urge employees to "own and immediately resolve guest problems," as well as be "empowered to create unique, memorable and personal experiences." In order to do this, frontline workers are allowed to use up to $2,000 to address a problem, Crutchfield Souter explains.

Employees take that empowerment to heart. Last July, for example, an employee at the Boston Common Ritz-Carlton inexhaustibly tried to locate a guest's camera, long after the customer had given up hope of it being found. When the lost item, full of irreplaceable holiday photos, was found on a plane, the employee took a taxi to the airport to collect the camera, which was waiting in its owner's' room when she returned from dinner.

"Empathy and caring are two important characteristics that make resolving guests' opportunities natural for employees," Crutchfield Souter says. The hotel chain gives weight to these character traits when it recruits new people, who receive extensive training within the first month of employment aimed at helping to identify and address guests' concerns. The training emphasizes the importance of resolving issues immediately and provides scenarios and role-playing opportunities to practice Ritz-Carlton's four steps of service resolution: listen, ask, solve, and thank.

Clicking with guests
Similarly, NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder puts a great deal of emphasis on training, urging its 600-plus arena staff members to present one face to the guests, going out of their way to identify problems and solve them immediately. This ensures that every person who walks into the arena receives consistent service throughout his experience, even though the staff-compromised primarily of part-timers-is employed by several different organizations that operate within the arena. Empowering the staff is one solution to guarantee this consistency.

"They have the green light to make the guest experience gold," says Pete Winemiller, senior vice president of guest relations, adding that this is achieved by "clicking with guests."

In fact, the company uses the word click as an acronym for its five-part service strategy: communicate courteously, listen to learn, initiate immediately, create connections, and know your stuff. Employees seen doing sterling work are given a CLICK! chip, four of which can be redeemed for merchandise and CLICK! lapel pins, which they can wear as a badge of honor.

"We can't control the play on the floor, but we can control how we treat our guests and staff," Winemiller says. "We encourage our frontline staff to make decisions in the moment, knowing that we will back them up."

Last May for example, an usher ticked all the CLICK! boxes when she helped a season ticket holder find his wedding ring, which he dropped as he was putting it in his pocket just before a game (as part of his pregame ritual). The guest lauded the usher, who did not stop at telling him how to make a claim, but instead found time to do a row-by-row search when she was not busy, and finally found the ring, allowing the guest to enjoy the rest of the game.

The empowerment to assist guests is itself what motivates the arena staff to go above and beyond for guests. Ultimately, Winemiller explains, it is imperative to ensure that workers feel valued and not invisible. "You cannot expect them to treat guests better than they are treated themselves."

Informing customers to make the best healthcare choices
For people seeking medical help, speaking to one individual is of paramount importance; they don't want the added stress of being transferred around to difference customer service reps. So, Wisconsin Physician Services (WPS) has a system in place that allows its more than 100 agents to seek assistance before going back to patients with the needed information. Barb Bleiler, WPS's contact center director, emphasizes the importance of ensuring that customers are communicating with one person, which helps to build a rapport between the patient and the agent handling the call.

"It is not [uncommon] that clients ask for a particular agent, and if they are not there on that day, leave a voicemail to be called back," she says.

WPS hires individuals with excellent listening skills, who are empathetic and self-motivated to dig into any situation, are comfortable asking questions, and are able to understand exactly what the customer is asking, as well as interpret what patients might not even know they need to ask and proactively provide that information, Bleiler says. New agents go through a six-week training program. Additionally, WPS uses NICE analytics to identify new customer queries and bolster its employees' knowledge with ongoing training.

Most important, agents understand and take to heart the knowledge that every time they pick up the phone, they are helping someone.

"Patients are happy and very appreciative to know that when they picked up the phone they received assistance with what they needed," Bleiler says. Compliments are especially forthcoming from new retirees who are helped to understand how Medicare works with their supplemental insurance and are given the information they need to make the right decisions.

Bleiler says that although WPS cannot offer incentives, it sends personal note cards to employees who are seen doing an excellent job. This provides recognition, essential to ensuring that they continue to do sterling work.