“I try to be a nice guy as a manager,” a client of my customer service consulting firm told me recently, “but I also want to provide exemplary service to our customers. So it bugs me to see employees talking among themselves in public spaces where customers can see/hear them. I don’t want to come off as a jerk, but I get worried that this looks unprofessional or even makes customers uncomfortable. I’m never sure whether I should say something or not.”
Here’s an expanded version of the answer that I gave him, as I think this something essential to get right in any industry and context.
“I’m glad you didn’t jump the gun before we talked and say something that would shut your employees down too harshly. One of the great things about being an employee is being able to interact with co-workers during the long hours at work. The reality is that employees are almost always going to have more in common with their co-workers than they ever will with your customers; after all, they share a company (and industry) culture, and a shared history, including war stories and shared successes, that grows richer as the weeks roll by.
However–and it is a huge ‘however’–employees do need to learn the essential rule: never make a customer feel like an interruption. It’s absolutely unacceptable to make a customer feel like they’re interrupting or in any other way make them feel like an outsider who lacks the secret handshake that is only shared by your clique of employees.
As is the case for those who work at a luxury hotel (which is an excellent model for the best practice here), although your employees should be able to chit-chat when they’re truly out of sight and out of earshot, when a guest comes into view–even peripherally into view–it’s time to stop the conversation. If your employees aren’t following this rule–and it certainly sounds like they aren’t, then please: you have my full permission to say something, the sooner the better.
When you start thinking this way, you’re likely going to find other touchpoints where your employees sometimes make customers feel like an interruption or like they’re ‘other’:
• The employee who answers a phone call and gives a rote greeting before actually being ready to interact. (Believe me, a customer can hear it in an employee’s tone of voice if they’re still mentally finishing up the last call or tidying up the paperwork related to it).
• The employee who sends terse or incomplete correspondence that is likely to strike the recipient customer as a grudging response rather than an actual attempt at being helpful.
• The employee who uses internal jargon with external customers. On the one hand, jargon is useful within an industry or organization; it binds you together and gives you a shorthand that can be shared. But when you use the same lingo with an external customer, it can lead to them feeling like they don’t really belong around here. (And, of course, it can confuse the heck out of them.)
All in all, the ‘don’t make them feel like an interruption’ is a pretty simple principle, but it’s powerful when you get it right.
Micah Solomon is a customer service consultant, customer experience turnaround expert, keynote speaker, trainer, and author; feel free to email Micah directly, visit his website, or download three free chapters of his new book: Ignore Your Customers (and They’ll Go Away): The Simple Playbook for Delivering the Ultimate Customer Service Experience, recently published by HarperCollins Leadership.