Illustration by Nicolas Vicent

In recent years, some service providers have subscribed to the theory that companies should strive to provide a level of customer service that is just “good enough,” and should not spend the effort or resources trying to delight their customers. Customers will be satisfied if you just get the basics right, they say.

Rob Judson challenges that notion. “If you consistently go above and beyond the customer’s expectations, you will build long-term relationships and keep your customers for life,” he says. “That’s a far better business model. It might cost a little more, but it supports our culture and our core value to put the customer at the heart of everything we do.” Judson is senior vice president of contact center operations at HomeServe USA, a leading provider of home emergency repair service plans.

The judges at the 2015 Stevie Awards for Sales & Customer Service seem to agree with Judson. Impressed with the organization’s successful development of a specialized team of frontline reps whose main goal is to deliver a “wow” customer experience, they recognized HomeServe USA with Gold Stevie® Awards for both Frontline Customer Service Team of the Year and Telesales Team of the Year.

Extensive Training and Support for Frontline Staff

HomeServe USA has a long reputation for delivering high-quality customer service with consistently high ratings (98% overall customer satisfaction following a service experience and 98% mystery shopper score on call center rep performance). That’s not surprising when you consider the care that goes into selecting and developing the customer service team.

What does the ideal customer service candidate look like? Technical capability is only a small portion of what it takes to deliver a world-class experience, says Judson. Individuals who are a good fit for the company’s core values and culture have a service-oriented attitude as well as an aptitude for learning, are enthusiastic, open to coaching, and have the passion to do well and to grow within the business.

Once onboard, the company invests heavily in learning and development to ensure each new-hire’s success. The center’s extensive induction training program lasts for five to seven weeks. It begins with classroom training to learn about products, tools, technologies and various types of engagement skills. Senior management support is demonstrated from the beginning. Judson makes a point of spending time with each training class to talk with new-hires about the company’s core values, the importance of a customer-centric attitude and shares advice from his own experience working on the phones.

Once new-hires graduate from the classroom, they move into a transition training bay. The bay provides a high-intensity learning environment with a much lower trainer-to-trainee ratio (around 1:4), Judson explains. Reps begin to take customer calls in phases—a few calls at a time followed by additional coaching and feedback. As their skills and confidence grow, they migrate into full shifts.

“We have some great coaches who spend time engaging the reps and working with them to hone their skills, build their confidence and ensure that they feel comfortable on the phones,” he says. “We want to make sure that, from the first call they take, the customer experience that they provide is the same as someone who’s been here for years.”

Frontline training is not a once-and-done event. The center provides ongoing skills development training as part of its career-path program. “We continuously up-skill our people and cross-utilize them,” Judson says. “It’s a huge reason why we have such high engagement and a highly skilled workforce.”

Judson also credits the center’s training and development approach in part for the center’s remarkably low attrition (approximately 2% per month). “That’s a testament to the engagement and the support that we give our staff from the first day that they join us,” he points out.

A True Measure of Exceptional Service: Customer Feedback

Despite its high Csat and mystery shopper ratings, the contact center is constantly looking for opportunities to improve the customer experience. That continuous improvement mindset, along with employee feedback, is what led the leadership team to explore an unconventional approach to managing frontline performance: What would happen if they dropped traditional contact center metrics, such as average handle time, schedule adherence and sales conversions, and focused solely on customer feedback to determine rep performance?

“Our employees have been delivering against those types of contact center metrics for a long time. While management may use the data, it doesn’t tell you a lot about the customer experience,” Judson says. Similarly, standard quality monitoring approaches tend to take an inside-out view of the experience. “Why use a QA function to second-guess what the customer’s experience was or wasn’t?” he points out. “Why not ask the customers to rate the experience and let them be the true measure of whether we’ve delivered world-class WOW service or if we have opportunities to improve?”

The leadership team decided to test the new approach with a group of employees. Named the “WOW” team, their sole objective was to put the customer first and deliver personable customer service—a WOW experience—that differentiated the company from its competitors and customers from other types of service experiences. Realizing that this type of above-and-beyond service required frontline staff to be fully empowered, the leadership team rolled out a separate training program for the WOW team members that focused on taking ownership of the customer’s issue, accountability for first-contact resolution, and how to live the company’s core value of putting the customer first.

The pilot program was launched. Reps were encouraged to have real conversations with their customers without being restricted to time limits. While the staff was still required to adhere to industry compliance regulations, their service performance was measured solely by customer feedback via a post-call survey.

The post-call survey consisted of a single question that asked customers to rate their recent call on a scale of 1-to-5, with one being completely dissatisfied and 5 being completely satisfied or wowed. Management found that customers were more than willing to offer their feedback (70% participation rate). In the 13 months since the program launched, the WOW team’s overall performance proved to be outstanding—98.3% of customers rated their experience a 5 out of 5, and to date, the team has never had a 1 or 2 rating.

The pilot ran for three months at HomeServe’s Chattanooga, Tenn., contact center. After the first four weeks, says Judson, it was pretty clear that the WOW concept was going to be successful, and management began a phased rollout across applicable teams in the contact center. The positive customer experience in the U.S. business has also caused the U.K.-based HomeServe to test the WOW team concept in its European subsidiaries.

Read the full story here.