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5 athletic training principles to whip your customer service into shape

May 10, 2012 / Rich Fox

When I’m not building call centers or talking about the cloud, I’m a triathlete. I’ve competed in a dozen races, and I know that I need to put in the work whether I’m completing a short or a long course. As I train, I keep an eye on my progress. Am I getting faster? What is my heart rate? Can I handle longer or more intense workouts? Triathlons, like all sports, are about continuous improvement.

These same principles apply to customer service, especially for small businesses. Who hasn’t seen companies that could do more to improve customer service on the phone? Simple triathlon training principles can keep your business at the front of the pack and make sure you cross the finish line first, whether you have a single person fielding calls or a fully staffed call center.

Here are five ways that small businesses can take a page out of a triathlete’s training program to better serve customers and improve business performance:

  1. Track metrics. Numbers are key to measuring performance. I can look at my race results, heart rate, course elevation, or pedal cadence to asses my training in cold, hard figures. Implement the same principles in your business. For example, when you have a customer on the phone, measure hold times, call length, conversion rates, and the number of calls it takes to resolve customer issues. Use these numbers in tandem with measures of quality. For example, while call length is an important cost element, find out why the call was long or short as part of your assessment.
  2. Monitor progress. Every time I finish a workout, I assess how I feel and why. Some days I feel great, and others I feel like I got hit by a truck. Figuring out why I feel the way I do helps me have more great days and fewer sluggish days. By keeping track of what goes right — and wrong — when your employees pick up the phone, you can make sure more customers return. Record your calls so you can better understand and asses how your staff interacts with customers on a daily basis. Are your employees effectively listening to customers and addressing their needs? Is your staff curt and inattentive, or friendly and respectful? Does your team build relationships or simply answer questions? Note where your employees are doing well and where they aren’t so you can highlight accomplishments and identify areas of improvement to bake into your next training. If you can get all of your staff to operate at the level of your top performers, would that vastly improve your services?
  3. Set goals. Whether you want to win a medal or customers, goals will help you get there. Give employees actionable steps that lead to your main goal — happy customers — within a specific time frame. Build on their strengths while helping them bone up on their weaknesses. For example, say you have an employee who is talkative and friendly on the phone, but needs to cut out some of the chit chat about the weather. Challenge him to be just as engaging, but reduce his average call length by a minute by his next review. Remember to set goals that are achievable and measurable so your employees can see their progress and believe the finish line is within their reach.
  4. Become a coach. Nothing beats a coach’s ability to motivate and monitor progress. Sit down periodically with each employee to review their calls with customers. Measure their performance against their goals and your company’s best practices. Identify specific room for improvement, like being more courteous or listening more attentively. Reward employees when they reach their goals and motivate them if they fall behind. Many employee surveys show that one of the top sources of motivation is informal feedback, so meet with your team regularly.
  5. Know where you rank. When I look at race results, I can see how I stack up against everyone else out on the course that day overall and by gender and age. That ranking speaks volumes about an athlete. When you look at your small business, do you know where you rank? Find out by surveying customers about their experience. Ask specific questions about what products or services they use, how they felt about their interactions with your staff, what suggestions they have for improvement, and even how you stack up against other companies. Knowing where you stand with customers helps you set realistic goals moving forward.

Right now I’m in training for my first Olympic-distance triathlon, and I have my eye on each of the above principles. At the same time, as I help develop virtual call center strategies for our clients, I’m making sure their systems benefit from seeking the same continuous improvement. Do the same for your business and you’ll outpace the field.

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