The importance of good customer service in HR

My first customer service role was at the age of 16 at a local shop/petrol station, and I quickly learned about the multi-characteristic nature of the customer demographic. I then started to work with customers over the phone in another company where I discovered a new set of characteristics to add to this customer scope. Then I started waiting on tables which broadened the demographic even further to unexpected heights (those in catering know what I’m talking about)!

All in all, I began to see all types of personalities the world has to offer. Some were a delight to serve, some not so. Some were easy to deal with, some not so. Some taught me patience, and did not so.

To me, the customer demographic is a snapshot of the broad spectrum of personalities, and in my opinion, dealing with customers early on in a career develops important people skills that HR professionals can take with them throughout their careers.

The majority of us work with people who come with their own personality (or personalities) and dealing with some of them in a professional capacity can be a struggle, even under the implied constraints of workplace etiquette.

Customers are not obliged to adhere to, or behave under the scope of HR policies, company etiquette, or even social expectation. Indeed, they can throw at you whatever personality they want and there is nothing you can do about it other than react with complete and utter servitude and diplomacy in order to resolve the situation on your toes.

Typically, HR rarely deals with ‘customers’. Those who we provide advice to are ‘colleagues’ – staff, managers, business managers, senior leaders – but at times it can be difficult to handle situations with objectivity and diplomacy as you would with a customer.

So why are good customer service skills important in HR? Here are just five out many skills that are important in both settings:

  1. Co-operation

Using good customer service skills encourages co-operation. Rather than a position of servitude, we must be able to co-operate with our colleagues for the best outcome, one which has the least negative impact by personality negotiation.

Defusing situations before tensions rise is a key skill in both customer service and dealing with colleagues, and by understanding the same principles of the server-customer relationship, we can aim to co-operate better.

  1. Respect

We each deserve respect, and in my opinion, good customer service is demonstrated when a customer is shown respect even when they themselves are being disrespectful. This shows a huge amount of integrity.

Showing respect for teams and colleagues means that you maintain professionalism even under extreme confrontations, and will find it quicker and easier to reach diplomatic resolutions. It also demonstrates general good character which is a trait that will help you organically progress in your career anyway.

  1. Listening

A good skill in general, listening – or more specifically, active listening – in customer service means you provide the customer ample opportunity to voice their objections and opinions in whichever way they feel is more productive (even when it isn’t).

Even when they’re screaming and shouting, actively listening to this in a responsive, rather than a defensive way, means you’re assessing the emotion and frustration from their vent, thus understanding the impact a situation has on them.

Hearing what is being said, and the undertones not said, you are then much more likely to be able to identify the root of the problem they have experienced. This can be applied when dealing with a frustrated or upset manager for example and use other skills as a HR professional to provide solutions to their problem.

Even if solutions cannot be found, or at least not in the manager’s favour, actively listening will assure the manager that you have taken the time to understand the issue to give the tailored solution.

  1. Process improvement

As a follow-up from the point on listening, working with customers and listening to their problems provides you first-hand opportunities to identify process flaws or gaps.

You’re at the firing line of the negative impact these gaps have on the customers, and by providing them with solutions to resolve the situation, you are in the position to address these gaps on a more permanent basis by suggesting longer-term process improvements.

In the HR environment, dealing with colleagues and other stakeholders, you act as the fixer between company’s goals and weaknesses via its people. You are in the position of having the business acumen and people skills of an HR professional, and applying these to the day-to-day issues managers and employees experience.

Process improvement is just one step for bigger successes HR can facilitate, for example improvements on culture, employer branding and the employee value proposition.

  1. Going the extra mile

Customer service roles can sometimes be incredibly satisfying, especially if you’re the sort of person who likes applying discretionary effort to helping customers.

When applying the effort on the frontline, appreciation and gratitude is (mostly) expressed immediately, and the satisfying feeling it gives you makes you want to do it again.

Applying this in HR gets the same results (if you work in that sort of company of course). Just like coming up with discretionary and one-off solutions for customers in exceptional circumstances, HR provides enough opportunities to provide the same for colleagues and stakeholders without expectation of reward or special treatment.

It begins to teach you a great sense of occupational pride, knowing that you have sometimes the capacity to go that extra mile in order for big results to have a positive impact.

So by treating those to which we provide advice as customers, we carry that mind set of pleasing the customer through the things we do at work.

The company’s customers

As an aside, HR does in fact have distant dealings with customers in that whatever we do in our daily role(s) ultimately has a knock-on effect on the customer or end user.

We guide and support managers to deal with staff who are essentially the face of the company to its customers. How this employee is managed and supported by their manager is determined by the support we can give in order for the customer to receive good service.

The benefit of understanding this, and the skills and aptitude needed for good customer service, is that we can better place ourselves in frontline staff’s shoes.

We can begin to empathise with what can be a challenging role, considering, as mentioned, there are very few restraints within which customers should conduct themselves, other than the prohibition of expletives and violence.

The stress that comes with is can be excruciating, and as HR professionals we must be conscious of this fact and factor it into our advice and strategies.

The benefit of understanding the importance of the skills needed for good customer service means we can also work better in the business with our colleagues and stakeholders in general.

Adopting a customer-pleasing approach in the things that we do ensures we go about our work with pride, respect and understanding.

If you are currently in a customer service role and aspire to become an HR professional, I hope this has demonstrated the close link between the two and encourages you to emphasise these great skills to bag your first role.

If you work in a call-centre and you want to move away from that environment, check out this article I wrote on the host of other skills you can transfer away from a call-centre environment that you might not have realised.

 

Networking events for introverts

If you’ve never been to a networking event because you think it’s a little weird to strike up conversations with complete strangers, almost as if they’re the professional equivalent to chatting people up, then you’re right. It is weird for those who are introverted or shy. However, for HR professionals, or indeed any professional, these events can be so exciting, that help build working relationships, opening up new opportunities to learn, share good practices, and progress your career.

If you feel incredibly nervous about this idea of torture for the socially awkward, then please believe me it’s not as bad as it seems once you’ve dived in head first. Here are some key points and tips about surviving your first networking event.

Everyone’s a stranger – including you

First and foremost, remember that a good networking event is one where no one knows each other. When showing up to these things and seeing people talk with each other, it’s understandable to think that you’re the only one who doesn’t know anyone, almost like you’re back at school and see all the cliques around you that you’re not part of.

Remembering they are all strangers will in turn remind you of something else – they’re here for the same reason as you, to network with new people. It’s easy to forget this but reminding yourself of this before and during the event will begin to de-weird striking up a conversation with a stranger.

For introverts or shy people it can be uncomfortable to strike up a conversation with a stranger in any environment, but at networking events, it’s expected. You have a free pass to ‘be weird’ and say hello to someone you don’t know and asking their name.

Introductions

So how do you strike up a conversation with someone? Luckily, as mentioned, these strangers expect to have another stranger – i.e. you – come up and say hello and begin a conversation. Keeping a strong hold to this thought helped me with the first 5 seconds of a new conversation.

You take a dive into the abyss with your introduction, a simple ‘Hi, my name is Bob’, that’s all that’s needed to break the ice. Before the 5 seconds are up, the stranger responds similarly, providing their name and asking what you do.

Phew. That’s all it takes. Crisis over. This isn’t dating. They’re not going to look you up and down, roll their eyes, and walk off leaving you and your extended hand hanging. They’ll know what you’re doing; you want to start a conversation with them, get to know them and their work, and to discuss similar interests.

In terms of actually approaching people, I find three particular strategies help me the most:

  1. Saying hi to someone on their own – they’ll be relieved not to be seen on their own;
  2. Making a passing comment to someone nearby who is, for example, at the bar or pinching hors d’oeuvres, like ‘try the mushrooms, they’re delicious’ before saying ‘Hi, my name is…’;
  3. Or, well into the event, and you’re feeling a bit adventurous, joining into a group conversation that includes someone you already know from one of the first two approaches.

Keeping the conversation going

Make sure that once you have introduced yourself you have a mental list of questions you can ask the new person. (Most) People love talking about themselves, and the quickest way to make a conversation comfortable at the earliest point is to ask questions about them and really get to know them and their work.

Laying this foundation will make the conversation flow with little or no effort, and lead on to follow up questions and new topics naturally.

The questions I find help me lay this foundation are:

  • What do you do?
  • Where do you work?
  • Is this your first time at one of these events?
  • Did you travel up here today?
  • Are you staying up here in <insert city name> for much longer after the event?
  • How are you finding the event, discovered any exciting new contacts?

These all break the second layer of ice that all open up to more follow up questions based on the answer. The trick is, as with any networking event, is talk to them because you’re genuinely interested.

Your goal for the event might be to discover new contacts, what they can do for you, and what you can do for them, but this shouldn’t be the reason to start a conversation.

This sounds a bit contradictory, but I have always found the most interesting contacts I have built up were from friendly and interesting conversations that didn’t have a hidden agenda.

I believe rapport can authentically be developed by showing genuine interest in both the person you’re speaking to, and what they have to say, and it is this rapport that can lead onto fantastic working relationships.

Working the room to seek out only those of instant benefit is not the idea of these network events and the inauthenticity will eventually expose you as a network shark. Have interest in people first, enjoy a nice conversation with someone new, even if nothing comes of it. But if something does come of it, it will be built on authenticity.

Chemistry

Like any conversation between two people, there is going to be chemistry (not in the romantic sense obv). This was another thought I consciously held onto when speaking with new people. They are just that: people.

And some people gel, some people don’t. So when striking up a conversation, remind yourself it is 100% completely natural and acceptable if conversation doesn’t flow between you and them.

When this happens you must save your own confidence and mental stamina by cutting them off. Venturing outside your comfort zone is putting you in a vulnerable position which means any negative experience, like struggling to keep awkward conversation going, will impact you on a disproportionate scale. Once this happens, it in turn takes a disproportionately longer time to recover.

You needn’t be rude to them. It isn’t their fault, and it isn’t yours. For your own mental preservation, you can simply excuse yourself to the toilet or to the bar. Don’t say you need to make a call or talk to someone else because it suggests you want to talk to someone better than them.

If you were on the receiving end, it’ll hurt like hell. Like I said, it’s not their fault the conversation isn’t working, so be respectful of them but also to your confidence by leaving courteously.

Follow up

Following up on really interesting conversations is a must-do in order to maintain a new professional relationship.

If you would like to carry on a conversation, or follow them on social media to hear more of their thoughts on a particular specialism, or even introduce them to someone from your own network that they would find helpful, swapping business cards and connecting with them on social media are the two sure ways of doing this.

With business cards that are now cheap and easy to make, and the growing popularity of online presence through social media, these shouldn’t be too hard to do.

What’s crucial for the effectiveness of this however is making sure you’re quick to do it. A day or two after meeting is the ideal timescale you’re looking for.

A really useful tip that proves popular with anyone I share my business card with is to include a simple blank text box somewhere on the card with ‘Where/When did we meet?’ above it.

This way, they can quickly make a note of when and where they met you as a reminder for when it inevitably gets lost amongst the other business cards they’ve collected. Here’s how I did mine:

Card

 

Recovery

One last tip – make sure you recover after an event like this. Introverts need to be on their own and recharge after ‘peopling’ so it’s important to book a day or two in your schedule immediately afterwards to deflate.

As fun as these events are, they’re mentally exhausting, especially if you’re not used to being outside your comfort zone for so long.

My experience of my first networking event, like a lot of things outside my comfort zone, was way less scary than my imagination made them out to be.

Going head first into it – or the ripping-off-the-plaster technique – is, I find, the best way to avoid hesitation and procrastination, the two things that delay you getting to a point where you realise it’s not as bad as you thought.

I do hope that these coping mechanisms help you overcome your feeling of social awkwardness in what is a really fun and inspiring way of meeting like-minded professionals.

Just understand the key principles of why people are there (to network with people like you), what they expect (for people like you to say ‘hi’ out of the blue, literally as soon as eye contact is made), and what you can learn (the people, their work, and their thoughts on mutual areas of interest).

Good luck!

 

Leading brainstorms in 5 easy steps

Last week I shared 3 easy steps for preparing a brainstorming session and explained that putting in the effort and hard work into these steps will make leading the session a lot easier, as well as maximising its effectiveness.

As a recap, the 3 steps to prepare a session were:

  1. Identifying the objective – why is there a need for a brainstorm, what are the desired outcomes, how will these be presented to the end user
  2. Additional information – what information will you need to give you and the group some background knowledge to put the session into context
  3. Format – which approach will you take?

Now you have prepared the session, you should hopefully know feel more confident in leading the session. These 5 steps should help you:

Step 1 – Introduction

It’s crucial to set some basic ground rules for any type of brainstorm session. This should always include the likes of:

  • No belittling or dismissing ideas – all ideas, no matter how far-fetched or ridiculous, are allowed
  • No interruptions
  • Respect other people’s views and communication style
  • If the group wanders into a tangent, explain that the idea will be noted separately (so not to lose any good ideas) and that the group should come back to the main topic in the time they have.

The introduction should also include a brief summary to the group about why they’re in the group, the reasoning behind the session, the objectives, and how the findings will be used.

Step 2 – Leading the session

At this point, most of the hard work has already been done. You’ve prepared, you’ve told everyone why they’re here and what you expect of them. Your main job throughout the session is to make sure people stick to the ground rules and that each attendee has their chance to participate.

You will also need to make sure the input is balanced, for example, if someone is doing most of the talking, thank them for their input and tactfully ask if someone would like to add to their point or come up with a new idea. This opens the floor to everyone else, briefly but professionally silences the person doing all the talking and subconsciously gives permission to those who feel they need it to speak up. If there is someone who seems disengaged or just doesn’t provide any input, use this time to single them out by asking for their specific view.

Just don’t single out too many people – if a lot of people are disengaged or not participating, it might be appropriate to ask the group why this is. Word it in a way that isn’t accusatory but more inquisitive for example “The group isn’t coming up with a lot of collective ideas, do you think we’re missing something? Do you feel this approach isn’t the right one for idea generation? Do we need to work on this individually and reconvene at a later date equipped with more information? If so, let’s discuss what this information should be and decide how we will find it.”

But what happens if there’s a lot of enthusiasm and participation? Keeping an eye on the time is essential. If there a number of sections or topics you need to get through, you must make sure you stick to the allotted times. Going over time on one topic will have a knock-on effect for ALL following topics. However, enthusiasm shouldn’t be killed purely because an agenda you have created states the group needs to move on to the next topic.

Over time you will be able to figure out a way of allowing the time to go a bit over and shuffling the timings for the other topics. This of course is more restrictive the less time you have, but if you choose to do this, make sure you inform the group so they are confident the time is being looked after. If push comes to shove and it’s evident a lot more time is needed, you can always look into the option of having a follow up meeting at a later point.

Step 3 – Collating and relaying the information

About 10 minutes before the session comes to an end, you will need to start to discuss as a group which ideas are going to be taken forward. So that no ideas are lost (for example they might not be appropriate for one particular issue but is a good enough idea to not waste) you might find it helpful in categorising the ideas. Below are some examples of categorising your ideas:

  • Immediate action/Non-immediate but important action/Park for another project
  • Action within a month/Action within 6 months/Action within a year/No immediate action
  • Actioned by Team A/Actioned by Team B/Actioned by Team C
  • Needs approving/No approval but needs referring to/No approval or reference needed
  • It’s worth have a separate category for any ideas that weren’t related to this topic

Once the ideas have been categorised, relay the information by category to the group. This helps everyone structure the ideas in a logical pattern, but also highlights how ideas will be acted upon.

Step 4 – Formatting the outcomes

After the session, begin to format the ideas in the best suitable way, which should have already been determined in step 1 (third bullet point). Usually you could summarise the ideas by both category and as a whole. In some instances, you might find highlighting key themes in the ideas, or starting off with the big ideas that then feed into the ones with less impact. As with any presentation of data, it is all about the audience. How do they want to use the information? What do they really need to know? What would constitute as being too much information? Can the data be presented visually, for example with a word cloud to highlight common themes, or with a graph, or even infographic?

Step 5 – Follow up

Be sure to keep the brainstorm group updated with how the information is being used. It can sometimes be disheartening when you take part in a session and you hear nothing from the lead again, especially after having put the effort into the session. Even if the ideas haven’t gone any further, for example with management, let the group know this, ending it with a general “I will continue to chase and will contact you if there is any progress”. This means you won’t have to keep updating them on a regular basis if there is nothing to update them on.

It is also important to follow up with the end user. If the findings have been presented to the end user (see the post for tips on presentations) it is useful for them to also receive the same or more information by a follow up email for them to peruse in their own time. It’s always courteous too to remind them that should they need any more information or more work done on this (eg to include you and/or the group in any follow up actions) for them to get in touch.

I’ve taken these 5 steps on leading a brainstorm, and the 3 steps we looked over when preparing for brainstorms, and combined them in an awesome infographic which I’ll share on The Avid Doer’s social media accounts, and put at the end of this post.

Brainstorms are a great way not only to collect and formalise ideas, but to also bring different teams and people together whose differing perspectives can really add a fresh light on an issue. Essentially the success of a brainstorm lies within the solutions that are generated; making sure the preparation, format and facilitation of the session only makes the generation of solutions more time effective.

It’s also important to remember that as long as the solutions are found, the group have a say in how they are found. If you have a certain way in which you wish them to reach the end goal, but the group are veering to a more productive or innovative approach, it’s OK to take their lead and ‘roll with it’ – granted that the desired outcomes will be met in the same (if not less) amount of time.

Now, of course leading any sort of group, including brainstorms, involves an element of public speaking but as avid doers, we recognise this is something we need to work on to succeed in our careers. Even if your dream career doesn’t involve any public speaking, it’s a skill worth developing, especially if you consider yourself as an introvert or shy (please note these are two completely different things).

Over time, I will share ways that have helped me overcome these jitters, as well as inviting guest writers to share their tips on confidence. In the meantime the post I wrote on presentations offers a few pointers on how to handle speaking to a group of people.

 

Preparing and leading brainstorms

Dealing with people more senior than you

Regardless of your role now and in the future, you will always have to deal with people more senior than you (until you hit the big time and become CEO) so it’s important to understand how you emotionally deal with these people. It’s also important for me to clarify that when I say ‘senior’, I mean in role or position, not in years. 

Of course, each senior person is different; it may be easier to deal with people more senior than you than others, but sometimes it can feel intimidating, even for those who don’t consider themselves as introverts. For that reason (and so I can create a typing shortcut), we’ll call this particular group of people more senior than you as ‘the Seniors’ (excluding those who don’t necessarily make you feel intimidated).

One of the first things to assume when you’re dealing with the Seniors is that they too are human beings. This is both incredibly obvious, and yet effortlessly forgotten. For that reason, going back a step before this consideration is to check your thought pattern that is making you feel worked up and intimidated.

Emotional intelligence

Recently, I’ve been reading a lot on emotional intelligence (or E.I., emotional quotient, E.Q.) and part of what makes someone more emotionally intelligent is to keep their thought patterns in check. So much thinking and worrying can occur out of habit and subconsciously. It just runs on autopilot while you control your conscious processes (eg panicking, getting worked up, acting defensively). But although your thoughts run on autopilot, the products of them are certainly present and conscious; feeling intimidated, feeling like you’re not good enough, feeling like you’re going to be ridiculed for knowing less than they do, feeling like the gap between you and them in terms on seniority is proportionate to the gap in knowledge, intelligence or capability. All of those fun things.

This is why it’s so important to listen to the thought patterns being created in the background without your knowing because their effects are the very things holding you back from performing confidently, and therefore keeping them in check is an important way of dealing with Seniors.

So how do you keep your thought patterns in check?

There is no doubt a number of different methods out there that work for different people, but one I have found particularly helpful is the below process:

  1. Single out one thought pattern
  2. Articulate why this thought pattern makes you feel intimidated
  3. Ask yourself what is the worst that can happen
  4. Ask yourself how you would handle the situation if the worst was to happen
  5. Ask yourself what you have to offer that counteracts the original pattern.

(I’ve made this in a handy infographic at the end of this post!)

So, by way of example, let’s say I have to contribute my opinion to a meeting that consists mostly of Seniors:

  1. My thought pattern is that I have nothing to offer that the Seniors don’t already know
  2. I feel intimidated as I will make a fool of myself if I offer my opinion that’s either invalid or is common knowledge amongst the group of Seniors
  3. The worst case scenario would be the group ridiculing me for not contributing anything of value and making me, and the group, feel really awkward. I’d feel really stupid
  4. If this was to happen, thinking about it, I would aim to remind them that I was under the impression the meeting was a space for offering opinions and hearing from different points of views, and what may seem obvious to them and not to me might actually highlight a certain significance eg colleagues less senior than the Seniors are not privy to the information they are when they ought to be.
  5. I have my opinion to offer, which is neither wrong nor invalid. I have been invited to the meeting for a reason and if I had nothing to offer, I wouldn’t have been invited. After receiving the invite, it would help me to have a quick chat with the organiser to understand their expectations in terms of my involvement and contribution. That way I know why I’m there and I can do some homework on the matter if needs be. Having the opportunity to offer my opinion at a lower position in terms of seniority ensures whatever is being tackled in the meeting is done so with a hierarchal-diverse group.

Steps 1 to 3 are acknowledging the subconscious thinking you didn’t know about. Steps 4 and 5 are where you need to turn the pattern around and establish some non-emotional logic to get a truer view of the situation.

Safety nets

It’s important to remember step 4 in particular, as this provides you your safety net. I’m all for safety nets. They’re a handy mechanism, a banked reaction that has already been thought through, at a time where you were cool and collected, so that should the worst happens you have a quick response at the ready to use. This saves you from having to think of a quick and collected reaction on the spot when all eyes are on you. Step 4 is very unlikely to happen, but knowing you can handle the worst case scenario off-the-cuff with a good response will ease the fear.

Step 5 is the most crucial step. Having gone through your pattern and why it’s happened, the final step turns the pattern on its head by replacing it with positivity and logic, and helps you see it from a pragmatic point of view. This means your energy is spent on how you can make a positive impact in the situation, rather than on how you might mess up or feel awkward.

And by noticing the positive impact, you become more aware of how to up your game, like doing more homework into the nature of the meeting in the above example, rather than crumble under the self-imposed pressure.

Another thing to consider is the possibility that you want to impress the Seniors because you admire them professionally. Do you fear failing in front of them, or not delivering the goods, because you see them as a role model? Although this is a positive thing (I will talk more about the concept of work role models and ‘career crushes’ in another post), the pattern itself is making this into a negative experience. Instead you could try to connect this to step 5 and turn it into a positive experience by thinking what they would do in your situation, or what you would need to do to meet or exceed their expectations of you.

The senior profile

As I mentioned, at the end of the day, the colleagues that intimidate you – and that’s how they should be seen, your colleagues – are people; people you work with and therefore must share professional respect. The Seniors would have been in the same position as you and the ones who are down to earth will be aware of that.

For those who aren’t as down to earth as the others, they are no different to any other colleague you work with that might be a little more difficult to handle. I have found in the past that these particular Seniors exert their seniority to get what they want out of you. While you can’t change who they are or how they act, you can learn how to cope with their behaviour towards you in an attempt to work on a better professional relationship. Of course if it gets to a point of bullying, you need to raise this using your employer’s appropriate procedures.

Coping with difficult Seniors

So if these people exert their power to get what they want out of you, you first need to figure out if this is a reasonable request. If it isn’t, again follow your employer’s appropriate procedures. If is reasonable and forms part of your role, as an avid doer, you should turn your thought pattern to see this as an opportunity to improve yourself in giving them what they want in the best way you can.

This involves: probing them for a clear steer of the nature and extent of the information they need from you; how they want this information delivered to them; when do they need it by; if there is an unreasonable deadline, explain to them why a reschedule is more appropriate; explain to them how you will manage their expectations; is this an ad hoc request or will they be requiring it on a regular basis?

By improving your efficiency, you improve the professional relationship, improve your reliability and in time they should not have to be so difficult to work with. You have then turned the experience into one that develops you, rather than intimidates and drains you.

Reality check

This might sound really easy in theory, and you might already be doubting the likeliness of this happening in practice. I know it can be hard in these situations but they are always going to be a part of working life. It’s therefore essential you give it a go and start to hear what specifically you are reacting to, how you choose to handle it, and how to make it into a positive development opportunity. Like anything outside of your comfort zone, practising really does make things easier. You will become more resilient and strong in handling these situations. Give it a try; ultimately the alternative is letting negative patterns affect your working life.

 

thought patterns