Sunday, July 13, 2003

Teach employees how to put on an act


Customer service: Attentiveness is critical

By John Eckberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Business consultant Karl Corbett sometimes wonders why it took him and his wife and partner, Brenda, so long to figure it all out:

If companies want to retain employees - or for that matter retain clients or customers - they need to have workers who care 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

That's probably impossible, so what the Corbetts' Sasha Corp. realized is that employees only need to do a convincing job of acting as if they care.

And if acting as if they care was what was critical, then why not shift his Sasha Corp. training efforts toward an approach that embraced the tenets of method acting?

"We set out to change the way people think and how they approach their jobs," he said.

"If you act, you are always taught to think about why something matters. 'What's my motivation' is the question every actor asks. We want people to know motivation and to create power moments."

Sasha will be creating plenty of those power moments in the months to come.

The company will provide seminars in August for employees of members of the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau. The goal is to make Cincinnati the most hospitable city in the world.

"You have to think big," he said. "It can be done."

Sasha of West Chester was founded in 1984, but its "Showtime Training" was a departure from previous training programs. Basically, it offers techniques actors use to illuminate truth and to stay "in the moment," while illustrating why it is important for employees to be attentive to customers.

Depending on the size of the company and the scope of the training, it costs from $20 to $100 an employee.

It was born after a trip about a year ago to New York City where Corbett got a chance to drop in on a session at the famous Lee Strasberg Actors Studio.

A longtime friend of Corbett, former WEBN-FM jockey Dan Region, was part of the studio group. Region got a tuition-free slot after he was particularly helpful when the late actor came to the pet shop to buy a little dog.

While tagging along one day, Corbett realized that the same method training could function for companies and executives wanting to develop a work force that would retain customers and build teamwork.

"Leadership is really about attitude," he said. "Cheerfulness, respect, sympathy, attentiveness. The challenge was to change how people think and how they approach their jobs.

"When we scripted our method approach, we knew we were onto something but we didn't know that it would be this big. So far, what we have is the equivalent of a hit record. It's been awesome."

Smiles and eye contact

The effort, which takes two hours and includes insights such as Quit Taking It Personally - for difficult customers or people - focuses on customer-service specifics but also address co-worker relations.

The approach on one afternoon at Coney Island showed the 50 young staffers seated in folding chairs that it was important to offer smiles, and acknowledge and anticipate needs of customers and co-workers.

It also focused on eye contact, smiles, greetings and why pleasant goodbyes are so important.

Workers at Coney Island, Kroger and Appearance Plus have been exposed to the Sasha approach. Some executives who brought Sasha training to their employees have nothing but praise for it.

In one anonymous post-seminar survey, 95 of 100 trained employees indicated they planned to implement the training while on the job.

"It was far more effective than any other training we've brought in," said Jon Lindy, vice president of Appearance Plus Cleaners, which employs 70. "We are seeing permanent positive change in the way people take care of and relate to customers.

"In the customer-service field, staying in the moment and being the most important person to that customer at a point in time is really an employee's role on the stage that is our business."

Training is vital

In recent years, employee training has become a vital cornerstone of most American corporations for a very good reason, said Alfred A. Marcus, a professor of strategic management at the Curtis L. Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.

"It works. Certain companies go to great lengths to train their employees in basic etiquette and ways of dealing with customers," he said.

"When KFC went to Japan, workers received extensive training. They learned how to greet a customer, how to hand the customer the bag with the food, the whole routine had to be perfect. As a result, KFC was quite successful."

Other stores, like Wal-Mart, have taken customer service to an extreme with greeters, who must be professionally polite.

Customers have a choice

Catering to customers is usually foremost among companies that deal with the public because the public has choices about where to spend - and where not to spend - its money.

Most goods and services that people buy are commodities - that is, products with a low price sold in high volume. That means people make a buying decision based on other variables and intangibles, Marcus said.

"One of the biggest intangibles is the experience," he said.

He said an old joke illustrates the point of customer service: A guy goes into a car showroom in a socialist country and buys a car. The salesman tells him it will be delivered in five years Sept. 13. The customer wants to know if it's going to be in the morning or evening.

"Why do you ask?" the salesman says. "Because I have a plumber coming that day," the shopper replied.

"The lesson for most companies is they want enthusiastic, smiling, bright people," Marcus said. "If you go to a place, you don't need a lot of grousing people around you. If so, you don't want to spend your money there."

Sasha's suggestions

Want to bring some method acting lessons to your service counter?

Sasha Corp.'s Karl Corbett has some suggestions:

• Generate genuine smiles by remembering an incident from your past that makes you smile. "Give yourself over to a memory: a morning at the beach, anything really. When you do that, you can't help but smile," Corbett says. "But we tell people that they have to practice the skill of drawing up a memory. You can't turn away from a customer and think, 'I'll use the puppy moment.' "

• Create power moments with customers or clients. "Have complete and total focus on right here and right now," Corbett says. "Recognize that for the customer, you're the only person in the world at that moment. Once someone gets in that mindset, they are no longer on automatic pilot."

• Eye contact cements a customer relationship. "There are people who will go the entire day and not have a single person look them in the eye and be warm and sincere. The impact is profound. People crave eye contact. You're giving them something very important. You just have to do it," he says. Shy people should focus on the bridge of a customer's nose.

• Greet people with generation-appropriate salutations. "Don't say, 'WhaaaaaazUPPPP' to my grandmother, please," Corbett says at seminars. "On the other hand, if it's somebody from a younger generation, it's okay to ask, 'What'sGoingon?' "

• Trust your judgment, he tells trainees. "Be unpredictable and spontaneous. That creates the reality," he declared.

Sasha Corp. is offering a free one-hour seminar July 18 called "Customer Service - Design Dynamics." The program is in conjunction with the Southeastern Chamber of Commerce. Call 513-232-0002 for information about location and time and to make a reservation.

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E-mail jeckberg@enquirer.com




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