Receiving Combined Technical and Customer Service Training Will Empower Your Field Technicians to Establish Real Customer Relationships

(Originally published in the November/December 2006 issue of AFSMI's Sbusiness.)

By William K. Pollock

There is more to customer service - and satisfaction - than merely fixing the customer's equipment. The field technician must also be empowered to fix the customer at the same time. However, without the proper training, most technicians will typically fall back on what they already know they do best - repairing equipment.

There are many training resources available that focus on the "how to's" of equipment repair, and many services organizations - probably including yours - have historically benefited from the use of these traditional training resources. However, if your field technicians are not also receiving training on how to provide customer service along with technical support, then your organization can never hope to win the enduring confidence and loyalty of your customers.

Providing Customer Support Requires More than Just Technical Training
Every day your field technicians deal with customers that vary by type, size, installed base, equipment usage, personality and everything else that differentiates one customer from another. However, one thing remains constant - their systems and equipment are important, if not vital, to their day-to-day business operations, and they depend on your technicians to keep everything going. They depend on your field technicians for the continuous availability, operation, and usage of their systems and equipment. For these reasons, your field technicians require much more than just technical training - they also require a full measure of customer service training.

Training Is an Essential Component of Successful CRM; And Communications Is a Critical Element of Training
Customer Relationship Management (CRM) is only what organizations put into it - nothing more, and nothing less. The trouble is that some organizations still do not recognize the importance of including customer service training in their CRM initiatives - or even if they do, they don't quite know how to make it work at the individual technician, individual customer level.

Mark Challenger, founder and president of MindBuilder Group, the Chicago E-learning software company, believes that "teaching technicians to understand and effectively communicate and build relationships with their customers should be a critical component of their overall training. We teach technicians to utilize the 'Listen, Observe, Think, Speak' - or LOTS - approach" (Figure 1).

Figure 1

According to Challenger, "Every time a technician walks into a customer's door, he should be thinking LOTS because its guidelines will foster loyalty and understanding. It works well in virtually every service environment, regardless of the type of equipment being supported."

Listen
A good technician may get all of the information he needs directly from the machine, but by effectively listening to the client, he can "pull" her over to his side and convince her that they are working together to not only fix the equipment but meet a production deadline, avoid the need for an overtime shift, or support the executive office. Listening is always the right place to start; but it is only the point of entry to the customer relationship. There are other important things that must also follow.

Observe
Observing begins at the same time as listening. Words are not just words. The way they are spoken tells a more complete story. Therefore, the field technician must observe how the customer acts, the tone in which she speaks, and the overall situation around the equipment itself. Through careful observation, the technician can determine urgency, complacency, panic or whatever is the emotional content that drives the customer's expectations and desires - a vital component to responding effectively to the situation at hand and to building lasting customer respect and loyalty.

Think
Ever since grade school, we have been told to "think before we speak". This is never more important than when field technicians are dealing with customers - especially with customers who are faced with an expensive and important piece of equipment that isn't working. The first words a technician speaks on arriving at the site will set the tone for the entire service call so it is vitally important to choose them carefully. Choosing the right words can only be accomplished if they have first listened to and observed the customer and environment.

Speak
If the previous three areas have been handled properly, this next step should be the easiest. Technicians should remember that they are the experts. They are the ones on whom the customer is depending to properly assess the situation, repair the equipment, and get them back to some semblance of normalcy. Still, the technician's words will be what the customer remembers long after the technician has left the site, which is why it is so important for them to wait to do the thinking until after they have listened and observed. Your technicians should know that nearly everything they say will have "legs" - that once they say it, it will be frozen in time as far as the customer is concerned.

The basic rudiments of customer service are not always obvious - especially in delicate situations where the customer is becoming increasingly unhappy, which is why field technicians require customer service training. While they may know how to fix equipment, can they make an unhappy customer happy again? Do they know how to transform a "bad" service call into a "good" one? These sorts of customer skills can only be learned through formal instruction, and are not included in any technical training manuals.

If You Train Them, They Will Sell (i.e., Cross-Sell and Upsell Services)
Many people think selling physical products, like computers, printers, or segment-specific equipment (i.e., medical devices, bank equipment, HVAC units, etc.) is easy. Companies can include photographs and hardware specs for their products in brochures, catalogs and on their web site; and demos can often be conducted right at the customer's site.

But, in reality, selling products is actually quite difficult, and for technicians who have never sold anything in the past, selling your company's products is certainly no slam dunk. And yet, technicians have an on-going relationship with the customer, and so if they can be taught to "sell" service agreements, equipment upgrades and professional services on already installed equipment, they can become a vital source of new revenue (Figure 2).

Figure 2

For example, some customers may vaguely understand that warranty service on a specific piece of equipment lasts only for one year without fully recognizing that post-warranty support is billed on a time and materials basis - which could end up being quite expensive. Others may have new staff members that require "fresh" training for an already installed business system. These are both classic cases where existing accounts may already be clamoring for enhanced coverage or extended service agreements, or for various other types of professional services that your company may offer (i.e., user training, train-the-trainers assistance, custom documentation, etc.).

When your field technicians are properly trained in cross-selling and upselling, they will be able to pick out which accounts are "ripe" for selling extended maintenance agreements, professional services, and so on. If they have also been keeping up-to-date with your company's portfolio of product and service offerings, they will also be ready to speak directly to those accounts on what will make for a more effective service package over time. What your field technicians need to contribute to the company's overall services sales effort is a good understanding of what their customers need, and the ability to match those needs with the various types of products and services your company offers. When properly trained, your technicians will be able to tap this untapped source of revenue.

Selecting the Most Effective Training Tools and Resources Requires a Checklist
When looking for the most effective type of customer service training program to supplement the technical training that your field technicians have already received, e-learning (or distance learning) will generally be the best way to go. According to MindBuilder's Challenger, "Today, e-learning comes in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and flavors - so, depending on what you need, there are many alternatives for you to consider".

Challenger advises that, "The first question you will need to ask yourself is whether or not you can use one of the plentiful off-the-shelf courses that are readily available in the market. If you can, that's great because it will likely save you time, money, and a lot of headaches. However, before you jump headlong into what is a supposed time- or cost-saving alternative, first do some homework as to what the program offers versus what your technicians really need to learn".

Based on years of experience in designing and implementing e-learning programs for clients in the services industry, Challenger offers the following guidelines for selecting the most effective - and cost-effective - e-learning solutions (Figure 3):

  1. Narrow your choices to e-learning courses that are based on a sound pedagogical design that incorporates multiple tools to ensure that students are directly involved in the learning process; only choose those educational programs and software that effectively transfer knowledge and allow administrators (i.e., the Service Manager, Human Resources/Training) to assess and manage groups, individuals and programs.
  2. Whether your organization covers the globe, the nation, the city, or just the equipment installed in your facility, only choose learning systems that deliver content in a manner that will inspire your technicians, providing them with the tools they need to achieve their goals in the most effective - and cost-effective - way possible.
  3. If you are simply looking for technology-oriented training (e.g., supporting computer networks, or software training for programs like Microsoft® Word or Excel), then off-the-shelf programs will likely be your best alternative because there are literally hundreds of programs already on the market, and there is no reason to pay a premium price for a commodity service, or need to reinvent the wheel.
  4. While some of the available programs are very good, the quality is widely divergent from one vendor to another, so it is important that you thoroughly investigate the alternatives. For example, take an online demo course to provide you with some "real time" comparative information.
  5. Beware of e-learning programs that require software downloads: the rule of thumb is if you have to download something, then your field technicians will have to download it too. You may first need to assess the varying types of Internet connections your technicians will be using to access the Internet, and make your decision accordingly.
  6. Figure 3

  7. Assess whether the selected program is easy to navigate. Navigation should be both easy and self-evident; if your technicians require a learning curve on how to use the course, you may lose some of them before they even get started.
  8. Carefully evaluate the graphics that come with the course, as graphic design has historically been a major problem for many of the off-the-shelf courses. What your technicians see on-screen is critically important because they will not have a classroom instructor who can snap them back to attention if their interest strays. Make sure the graphics add instructive value to the course, and that your eyes do not gloss over when you look at them.
  9. Look for courses that include an instructor's voice-over, as both the audio quality and the instructor's presentation of the course material will be of extreme importance to student comprehension. After 12+ years of school and vocational training, your technicians should be well-trained to listen to the instructor's words. Courses without an audio component are little more than poor imitations of books, and usually more expensive. If the on-line course you are evaluating does not have an audio component, you should look for an alternative that does.
  10. Make sure you have the ability to track the technician's course performance, as not all off-the-shelf courseware allows managers to do so. Many of the programs now on the market were not designed with the capability of conducting student assessments. Not everyone likes taking exams, but a course without a student assessment is a waste of time for both the student and for the organization.
  11. When you start evaluating learning platforms, look not only for content, but also for its applicability to the specific segments of the marketplace you support. Check to see if there is a way for students to take notes, or contact instructors from the courseware vendor. Evaluate the ease with which you can build a technician discussion group, or include additional extra-curricular resources.
Challenger says that whether you are developing a course in-house or are planning to use the services of an outside e-learning provider, make sure that each of the courses are based on sound pedagogical principles - and that they work specifically in your segment of the marketplace. The bottom line for evaluating the value of any course is knowledge transfer. If your technicians do not acquire and retain usable, real world knowledge from these courses, then you have wasted their time - and your money.

Technical Training and Customer Service Training Go Hand-in-Hand
Customer service is not a game, any more than the technical training your field technicians receive is a game. Both are serious matters, and both go hand-in-hand. Ultimately, you cannot be a successful services organization if your field technicians do not have a fair mastery in both areas. Therefore, whatever curriculum you ultimately choose, make sure it addresses all of the facets of customer service and support that your technicians will need to know to establish and maintain real relationships with their customers.

Your field technicians have already received extensive training on how to fix various types of systems and equipment, and they probably take remedial courses from time-to-time, or whenever the company introduces a new product line. Customer service is no different. They will need to take follow-up courses in this area over time. That is the nature of the business, and they are directly immersed in it - day after day, right at the front lines.

Whether you call it "customer service", "technical support", "field service", "Customer Relationship Management", "CRM", or whatever - it just makes sense that by providing your customers with a full measure of technical and customer service support, you can improve their overall levels of satisfaction and loyalty. It is a win-win situation for everybody involved. The best-in-class services organizations have already learned how to accomplish this - and now, with the proper technical support and customer service training, your field technicians can learn as well.

When you think about it, there is nothing difficult about building customer loyalty - if you receive the proper training. In fact, if you do it right, it can be argued that training your technicians to fix the customer is really a lot easier than training them to fix the equipment.



William K. Pollock is president of Strategies For GrowthSM (SFGSM), the Westtown, Pennsylvania-based services consulting firm specializing in strategic business planning, services marketing, CRM consulting, market/survey research, and customer satisfaction measurement and tracking programs. Bill may be reached at 610-399-9717 or via e-mail at wkp@s4growth.com.

Mark Challenger is president of MindBuilder Group, a leading provider of educational software that effectively transfers knowledge and allows administrators to assess and manage groups, individuals and programs. Mark may be reached at 877-753-8889 or via e-mail at mark.challenger@mindbuilder.com. MindBuilder's website is accessible at www.mindbuilder.com.


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