Coaching Knock Your Socks Off Service

Coaching Knock Your Socks Off Service

by Ron Zemke, Kristin Anderson


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"Knock your socks off service doesn't just happen. It requires coaching on an ongoing basis. Now, thanks to authors Kristin Anderson and Ron Zemke, supervisors have a practical guide to the day-to-day challenges that arise in training superior customer service people. This newest Knock Your Socks Off book explains how to help frontline employees hone their skills, maintain the motivation to perform, and meet new situations head-on. The authors present a model for successfully coaching anyone, anywhere, and they show readers how to apply it in familiar coaching situations. Everyone can appreciate Zemke and Anderson's strategies for handling the toughest coaching problems. And they will learn a most important new skill— teaching employees to be peer coaches, a growing need in the current era of teams and of doing more with less."

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780814479353
Publisher: AMACOM
Publication date: 10/21/1996
Series: Knock Your Socks off Series
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 4.71(w) x 7.17(h) x 1.04(d)
Age Range: 17 Years

About the Author

KRISTIN ANDERSON is co-author of Delivering Knock Your Socks Off Service, a frequent writer for business magazines and a consultant with Performance Research Associates.

Read an Excerpt

Coaching Knock Your Socks Off Service

By Ron Zemke, Kristin Anderson


Copyright © 1997 Performance Research Associates, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8144-7935-3


Thinking and Acting Like a Coach

"It is easy to get the players. Gettin' 'em to play together, that's the hardest part."

— Casey Stengel

Chances are pretty good that you didn't become a manager or supervisor by accident. You didn't just stumble into work one day and find a title change on your time card, someone new sitting at your old desk, and your personal possessions moved to a new office with your name, followed by the word "manager," on the door.

More than likely, you aimed and angled, trained and studied, made your aspirations well known, and spent time quizzing everyone within friendly earshot about what it would take to make the leap to the managerial ranks. And chances are that from time to time, your boss asked you to fill in, gave you opportunities to manage projects, put you in front of his or her boss to show your mettle, and generally mentored you along the road from worker bee to manager. You aspired, you worked, and you attained your goal.

And one of the first things you learned when you became a manager, after everyone had shaken your hand and wished you well, was that nobody is crazy about bosses — even if the boss is good old lovable you! That probably came as a surprise, although it shouldn't have. The concept of "boss" takes shape for most of us long before we enter the workforce. Encounters, good and bad, with authority figures — parents and teachers, ministers and scoutmasters, professors and drill instructors — shade and shape the way we think and feel about bosses, and being bossed about. To most employees, boss is a four-letter word.

From Boss to Coach

Fortunately, there isn't much enthusiasm today for "bossing" in the world of work. Most organizations are enlightened to the point where they actively encourage managers to lead, rather than to boss. To ask, rather than tell. To influence, rather than to intimidate. To encourage and support, rather than threaten or bully.

The purpose of coaching is to help an individual customer service representative improve in a specific area of his or her job or enhance or extend a valuable skill in a new way.

It is particularly vital in service-sensitive organizations, divisions, and departments that managers see themselves as leaders and coaches — not as bosses. It is more consistent with the nature of the service process and positive service outcomes than the old "bull-in-the-woods boss" model of managing.

Directing the performance of a service, as opposed to supervising the production of a product, means that you are very dependent on your employees — not machines or computerized processes — to create positive customer outcomes and experiences. In the world of service delivery, your people are your prime production asset. It is their direct, personal, put-themselves-on-the-line, face-to-face, real-time interactions with customers that you are there to support and keep focused and sharp. Customer service is the kind of hot, personal, intimate activity that product creation and delivery can never be.

Because of the very personal nature of customer service, the way you manage customer service employees has some unique attributes. You are a closely scrutinized role model, and employees take their service cues directly from you. The way you treat (or just talk about) customers in view and earshot of your people has a profound effect on how they perform, how they view their jobs and the organization, and the effort they'll put forward to serve customers.

Remember the old canard, "Do what I say, not what I do"? As leader of a customer service team, what you say, what you do, and the way you say it and do it strongly influence what your people do on the job with their customers. To your employees, your behavior and demeanor are a reflection of the real rules of the organization.

At the same time, once you step into the role of manager/ leader, you are no longer an active player with direct influence on customers. You can — and should — be a role model of good service through the way you deal with peers, colleagues, employees, and the occasional customer. You can and must support your employees' efforts. But in the last analysis, once you have left the line to manage, even if you fill in from time to time, you become dependent on your employees, not the other way around.

In the last analysis, they make the customers happy — or horrified. They fix the problems — or don't. They cool the over-heated and mollify the miffed — not you. You may diagram the plays, write the scripts, and direct the action, but as manager, leader, and coach, you will never again be seen as a player.

The Content of Coaching

There are some striking similarities between your responsibilities as a service coach and the responsibilities of coaches in athletics and the arts:

You instill fundamentals. Your people have to know how to play their particular roles or positions. What to do, and when and how to do it. What to say, and why. They need to know where they should be when the customer feeds them a cue or throws them a curve. And just as great actors and athletes know the necessity of constant practice, of "getting in the reps" (repetitions) that help them master the part they are called on to play, you have to help your people stay focused on the task and constantly hone their skills.

You build teamwork. The second baseman is one of nine players on the baseball field. The violinist sitting in the first chair is just one player in the orchestra. No matter how individually talented he or she may be, the overall success of the production — be it a baseball game or a Beethoven symphony — is judged by how well everyone plays together. You position your players. You have to make sure they know how their roles interlock with those of others on the service team. You have to keep them focused on both their individual performance and the overall success of the group. You keep the group working together in harmony.

You evaluate and adjust. Every team starts with a game plan. But the plan can only prepare; it can't control play from start to finish. There are other variables, often not subject to anyone's control, that have to be taken into account in the midst of the performance. Like a sports coach, a service manager has to know how to reposition players, change the strategy, react to immediate needs, and anticipate circumstances that may be encountered in the next quarter or the next act.

You reinforce and motivate. The coach's role is to correct problems without destroying a player's self-confidence, and to praise good efforts without giving the recipient of the "well done's" a swelled head. You can't play favorites and build a united team.

You can't preach sacrifice and dedication and then go put your feet up while your people give everything they've got. Your words and actions set the tone for theirs.

The Importance of Preparation

Before they take the field or the stage, players have to have a good idea of what they're going to be doing and how their individual performances will combine into a cohesive group effort.

In sports, preparation involves knowing specific actions to take in specific circumstances — with a player on first, the short-stop throws to second base on a ground ball to get the double play; when there's no one on, the play is at first base.

In the arts, there's a script or musical score to learn, often augmented by "marks" to hit when delivering a line or a conductor's modifications in tempo and volume that provide subtle changes in the look and sound of the performance.

First-rate service organizations prepare their players in similar ways. At Disneyland and Walt Disney World, for example, the men and women who make the rides and attractions "go" work from carefully planned and memorized scripts, complete with exceptions, situational variations, and approved modifications — ad libs, in other words. They know where they're supposed to be and what they're supposed to do, including how to take charge of a potentially negative situation and turn it into a positive for their guests. Disney's service deliverers practice a performance art. And they are performers every bit as much as an actor, actress, or athlete, and their managers every bit as much coaches.

Coach as Performance Problem Solver

Every coach is faced with the puzzle of how to bring his or her team to a peak performance level and keep it there. To accomplish that, the Knock Your Socks Off Service coach must be flexible in his or her approach, as flexible as he or she expects the frontline service employee to be in meeting a customer's unique, special, idiosyncratic needs, wants, and expectations. Nowhere is that more important than in the service coach's efforts to help individual performers reach and sustain high levels of performance. The seasoned service coach, while flexible, has a preplanned performance management approach for every situation.

When the employee is performing well. Tailored, targeted recognition, reward, and feedback are often the key. The adage "different strokes for different folks" is very apt. When performance is superior and the performer is appropriately challenged, the good coach searches for rewards valued by the individual. Does the star employee value taking on challenging cases? Helping to train new people? Gold stars on the wall? A chance to develop special skills? The Knock Your Socks Off Service coach knows what appeals and makes it available.

When the employee performs unevenly. Every coach has players whose performance is great some of the time, average at other times, and occasionally unacceptable. The astute coach praises the great outcomes and right behaviors, and encourages improvement in the subpar. Sometimes the coach provides helpful hints for improving the below-average performance — but the astute coach never delivers both praise and correction at the same time. When up-and-down performers hear, "Charlie, you're doing great on this, but you can do better on that," they don't hear the "doing great," they just hear the "do better" part. Sometimes, in fact, they can interpret your compliments as a not-so-subtle bribe to seduce improvement —" I really want you to buckle down here, so I'll throw you a pointless compliment over there to disarm your resistance" — in which case, you risk losing the power of the reward as well as distracting from the focus on improvement. Separate the "reward" part from the "encourage" part, and you help your people glow and grow.

When the employee hits a slump. Even the most seasoned, savvy performer can have a bad streak. Sometimes employees hit a slump or a lull during which everything seems to go wrong. Good coaches patiently communicate faith in the performer, especially when the results have been off and pride, confidence, and self-esteem are at their shakiest. They focus on and reinforce "the fundamentals," the good efforts that will eventually pay off: "That's the way to go, Charlene. Keep that up and I'm sure your sales (or service ratings, or renewal rates) will improve."

Two factors are at play in this approach. First, reinforcing the process — the behaviors known to lead to positive customer service results — keeps the employee focused on the right things, and decreases his or her temptation to start randomly making changes in hopes of improving results. Second, showing faith in the employee keeps his or her effort up and panic down.

Much has been written about the powerful influence a coach's expectations have on performance. It seems clear that demonstrating your belief in people often translates into performance improvement. It's a well-documented phenomenon that's sometimes referred to as the Pygmalion effect: If you think people will succeed (because you've put them in a position to do just that) and you treat them as if they will succeed, you're generally not going to be disappointed. The reverse is equally true: Expect the worse and you have a very good chance of getting it.

When the employee tries, fails, and can't figure out why — but you have a pretty good idea of what's going wrong. In this situation, most coaches will take the employee aside for a discussion. Our colleague Dr. Chip Bell calls these "advice-giving" sessions and suggests four guidelines for making the most of the discussion:

1. Get agreement on the performance problem.

Coach: "Charlene, your call rate is below goal."

Employee: "I know. And I've been trying to get my call length down, but it's not easy."

2. Ask permission to give advice.

Advice is more easily accepted when the employee agrees to hear it.

Coach: "As you know, I was monitoring calls this week, and I think I have some ideas. Are you up for hearing them?"

Employee: "What do you have in mind?"

3. Give the advice in the first person singular.

Coach: "I noticed that some of your callers were real chatty. If it were me, Ithink Imight try using a little creative silence. For instance, ..."

4. Get feedback on the usefulness of the advice.

Coach: "We've talked about several ways to attack the call length problem. Do you think one of them might help?"

Advice-giving sessions work best when you are careful to avoid causing defensiveness and rejection of the advice. You accomplish that by proceeding slowly and with permission, inolving the employee in the problem solving, avoiding judgmental language, and positioning yourself as helpful, friendly, and knowledgeable, not autocratic or "bossy."

A variation on the advice-giving session that some managers like is to make the discussion slightly more didactic through the use of questions and active listening. The key here is to ask genuine questions, not the accusing, empty, or leading sort. This is a useful variation when you know that the problem exists, but you don't know what the employee has been doing to rectify it. You want to avoid covering already well-plowed ground. For example:

"Charlene, I know you've been working to get your call length down. Can you review what you've tried so far?"


"Charlene, I know you were going to try several things to increase your average sales ticket. Can you tell me what's worked and what hasn't?"


"Charlene, would you bring me up to speed on what you've been doing to get more interviews?"

The performance coach should be seen as a mentor ("wise and trusted advisor"), not as an interrogator or a commander giving precise orders. Your goal is to assist and support in a manner that allows your help to be heard and accepted, but that leaves the accountability for improvement with the employee.

When the employee tries and fails, and neither the coach nor the employee has a clear idea why. This situation calls for careful analysis. More often than not, situations like this one have a wider impact than just on the single employee with the confounding problem. A careful assessment of what the employee is doing, and what the surrounding conditions are, sometimes shows a systemic problem that affects several areas of performance. For instance, Charlie tells you he is having a terrible time meeting his after-the-sale survey volume. Careful investigation suggests that the customer follow-up survey has been modified by marketing, and it is virtually impossible for a rep to meet the old goal for the number of follow-up calls per hour, using the questions on the new survey. The problem isn't Charlie, but a change in the task he and his peers are trying to accomplish.

There are at least seven factors you as the service coach should have in mind when looking for the cause of a rep's — or team's — performance shortfall:

1. Task clarity. Perhaps the performer is not clear on the performance you require. Would you bet your next year's salary that your view of the employee's accountabilities and expectations matches the employee's view of those key parameters? Asking, "Tell me what you are trying to accomplish in this situation" can lead to surprising insights.

2. Task priority. Sometimes failure is due to the performer's perception that the performance you expect is not really all that important. Does the employee's view of what's important match yours? Are there conflicting priorities?

"Charlene, there are a lot of demands in your job. Tell me how you see the importance of your various duties."

Are you, for instance, inadvertently demanding quality without explaining how to meet both quality and quantity goals? Or when and how to make the trade-off between the two?

3. Competence. Failure can sometimes be due to a simple lack of skill. People can't do well if they don't know how. Learning psychologist Robert Mager offers an easy test to determine whether you're facing a skill problem or a motivation issue: "Could he do the job if his life depended on it? If no, you have a training problem. If yes, you may have a performance gap that no amount of training can affect." Sitting next to or riding along with the employee, watching and listening, can give you insight into competence. So can simply asking something like, "Charlie, can you show me how you go about cutting off an overly long-winded customer?" and doing a little role-play.

4. Obstacles. Real or imagined physical and procedural barriers can interfere with good performance. Being told by a fellow employee, "Don't spend more than seventy seconds on a call. Long phone calls are the easiest way to get fired around here," makes that rule real in the employee's eyes, whether it is in fact real or simply hearsay. To the extent that you, as the coach, can modify or remove such barriers, you can free your people to perform better.


Excerpted from Coaching Knock Your Socks Off Service by Ron Zemke, Kristin Anderson. Copyright © 1997 Performance Research Associates, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Acknowledgments, xi,
Introduction: The World of the Customer Service Coach, xiii,
1 Thinking and Acting Like a Coach, 1,
2 Skills of the Knock Your Socks Off Service Coach, 14,
3 "Welcome to the Team!" Coaching the New Employee, 33,
4 "Nice Job, Charlene!" Coaching for High Performance, 48,
5 "Can I Help?" Coaching on the Run, 56,
6 "Help! I'm Stumped." Coaching the Unsure Employee, 66,
7 "This Could Be Tricky." Coaching for Difficult Duty, 73,
8 "Great Opportunity, Charlie!" Coaching for Special Situations, 84,
9 The Coach's Nasty Nine, 91,
10 "Can We Talk?" Peer Coaching,
11 Recommended Resources,
About the Author,

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