Driving Customer Loyalty: Is It the Car or the Driver that Wins the Race?

We are not Formula One racing experts, nor are we really even fans of the sport, but we are aware of the long-standing debate in the racing community among experts and fans about whether it’s the car or the driver that makes the difference between finishing first and anywhere else in the field.

Some believe a Formula One race is essentially won or lost during the vehicle construction process, long before the cars are even positioned on the grid.  Others contend any performance gaps among cars are negligible in light of the comprehensive set of rules, regulations and restrictions imposed on Formula One carmakers.  Instead, they believe the “human element” is more of a determining factor in the outcome; for example, the minute difference in driver reaction times which over the course of a 200-plus mile race distance can make a significant difference.

The same debate often comes to mind during the discovery phase of our work with companies seeking to improve their Net Promoter System (NPS) scores and enhance their brand loyalty.  Often the customer experience ends up anchored in the customer relationship management (CRM) systems of the company or its call center outsourcer.  Millions of dollars/euros are poured into technologies that organize, automate and synchronize business customer service processes.  The goals are certainly noble – winning new customers, nurturing and retaining existing customers, enticing former customers back into the fold, and reducing the costs of marketing and customer service.

But What About the Customer Touchpoint?

What is often overlooked in the quest to improve NPS scores and enhance brand loyalty are the skills and behaviors of the customer service representatives, the very people charged with solving customers’ problems and delighting them during the experience.  Yes, you read it correctly – we are referring to the actual, flesh and blood humans interacting with the customer, either in person or by phone, email or chat.  That touchpoint, that one-moment-in-time opportunity, is where the cheesecake is found … if we may stick with the Formula One analogy, that is where the rubber meets the road.

What does the rep say?  How do they say it?  What do they say that adds value?  What do they say that adds no value or even detracts from value?  Are they creating a high-effort experience for the customer, or are they making the company easy to do business with?  Are they truly listening to understand the customer’s story?  Are they assessing where the customer is from an emotional standpoint with the product or service and attempting to overcome emotional barriers to gain emotional buy-in from the customer?

Are the rep’s words, actions, behaviors and mindset geared toward moving this customer to join the company’s brand and become a loyal promoter or perhaps entrenching an already-loyal customer deeper into the brand?  Amazon and Zappos embrace the customer experience to engage the customer and ultimately build brand loyalty.  But what exactly is it they do, and how do they do it?

When we talk to high-performing reps during discovery (for example, reps with individual NPS in the 70-plus range), we ask them a simple question: “What are you doing to achieve those results?”

The answers we receive are astonishingly consistent, whether we’re in the U.S., Europe or elsewhere, and regardless of the industry vertical.  The answer nearly always sounds something like this: “I’m not exactly sure.  I’m just myself, and it seems to work.”  You may have heard this referred to as an example of unconscious competence – the rep is competent and skilled but cannot articulate the specific actions and behaviors they use during the interaction to produce the exceptional outcome.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of customer service managers, supervisors, team leaders and quality monitors have not been able to figure out how to effectively “clone” their top-performing reps to increase team or overall customer service performance.  In a sense, many of the unconscious skills and behaviors that produce great results at the individual rep level often remain in an unconscious space within the company’s customer service world.

Now … just imagine what could be achieved if companies knew how to effectively “reverse engineer”the ideal customer service interaction, extract the specific rep skills, behaviors, actions, techniques and methods responsible for the outcome, and then organize, package, teach and coach those same skills, behaviors, actions, techniques and methods to others?

We believe the key to driving up NPS is improving the quality of the customer touchpoint on the front line and turning the stewards of the company’s brand promise, the front-line customer service representatives, into a consciously competent brand promise delivery force.  With the right skills, methods, techniques and behaviors, and with the essential steady support from leadership, reps can have more value-driven conversations with customers.  More promoters and fewer detractors and passives are among the rewards enjoyed by companies that choose to make this an objective.

Not only do we believe this to be true, we have the results and the data to prove it.

So back to that question about whether it’s the car (technology) or the driver (human dynamic) that determines the outcome of the race.  Customer service reps can achieve more than ever these days in large part because they have more and better technology at their disposal to help them help the customer.  But technology can take a company only so far when it comes to the customer experience.  The critical question is whether or not the rep has the right set of behavioral skills to leverage that technology in a manner that achieves more than just solving the customer’s practical problem and being polite in the process.

Is your NPS where you want it to be?

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