A crucial part of every company’s sales and service process takes place behind the scenes where a team of talented professionals helps to make every aspect of the customer journey possible. Although their work is less visible to customers, the back-office team provides vital administrative and support functions that contribute in no small way to the business’ success.
Back-office customer service professionals often have been the unsung heroes of a well-functioning support operation. Officials at The American Business Awards recognized the importance of this key role in 2016 when they introduced a new category to the prestigious Stevie Awards: Back-office Customer Service Professional of the Year. This year, the award has been expanded with five separate categories to better reflect the key aspects of the role across different verticals.
Kayla Adair is a fitting ambassador of excellence in both back-office and client-facing support. As the EDI onboarding and connections lead at DiCentral Corporation, a global provider of supply chain management solutions and B2B integration, Adair’s role requires her to have a foot in each world. As a member of the connections department, Adair acts as the second point of contact for customers after sales, and the first point of contact for the ongoing relationship. As a lead, she also provides training and support to frontline sales and service representatives. Both are roles that she excels in. In fact, Adair was recently recognized for her achievements with the 2018 Gold Stevie Award for Back-Office Customer Service Professional in the Business Services Industries category.
A Passion for Helping Others
For Adair, the focus on providing great customer service goes back to her first job working summers at her father’s home remodeling business. Even at an early age, she says, handling various tasks for the homeowners taught her how rewarding it was to help others.
It’s no surprise that, as an adult, she was drawn to customer service work in retail and other industries. In 2012, she heard about a job at DiCentral through a friend. Upon looking into the company, her interest was immediately piqued by the business and its customer support function. “It was a completely different aspect of customer service that I never knew existed,” she says.
Adair’s first position at DiCentral was providing back-office support for the contact center. Her strong service background helped her to shine early on, and she became team lead within a few months. Working in the back-office function provided Adair with deep insight into the inner workings of the sales and support operations; it also fueled her drive to learn more.
“I was intrigued and wanted to explore more possibilities within the company,” she recalls. “In customer support, your role is after the fact—when everything is in production. I wanted to expand my knowledge so that I could move in front of the line.” She soon made the transition into her current position in the connections department. “We’re the second people in the process who talk to the customers, right after sales,” she says. “Being at the front of the journey makes me happy because, as that second point of contact after sales, you’re the face of DiCentral’s customer service. I can set the customer’s expectations for the relationship and how we will work together to meet their goals. It’s a very rewarding position.”
Entrepreneurial Lessons Learned Early On
Adair’s parents are both entrepreneurs who provided her with an early introduction to customer-centric practices. They also have given her a big-picture view of the value that it brings to a business. “To me, customer service encompasses the entire company,” she says. “It’s the reason why we’re in business. Our product helps our customers meet their two most important objectives—saving time and saving money so they can make their businesses successful.”
She credits her mother for teaching her to approach her career with strong work ethics, an entrepreneurial spirit and a service mindset. “She is a great sounding board, and she’s always pushing me to be my best,” she says.
As business owners, both Adair’s parents have understood the importance of giving back to the community—a value that Adair shares. “Ever since I can remember, we were always finding ways to help within our community,” she says. Most recently, Adair offered her time working with her father’s company to help people to rebuild their homes in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike.
During her time at the remodeling business, Adair picked up a vital skill that has contributed to her success as a service professional—the ability to view needs and requests from the customer’s point of view. “In the remodeling business, it’s all about the customer. You’re making unique selections and trying to create the home that customers picture in their mind,” she says. “It’s not about your preferences or choices; it’s what they want to see in their home.
Being able to empathize with another’s viewpoint is a trait that Adair applies on a daily basis when communicating with internal and external customers. “I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt,” she says. “With social media being so active these days, a lot of people forget that there is a person behind every comment, email or phone call. For instance, if I get a phone call or email at the end of the day, I may be trying to walk out the door, but the other person may have things that they need to get done or they may be having a bad day. I try to keep that in mind and be thoughtful in my response.”
A Servant Leadership Approach
Adair has a deep-seated belief in the servant-leadership philosophy that helps her to excel as a leader. She brings to her role a great deal of compassion for her team and those she trains.
She is driven to continuously expand her knowledge and skills to improve the service that she provides to others. “When I first started at DiCentral, I was grateful that I had people who I could go to for answers,” she says. “Now I’m that person who people look to for answers. That motivates me to make sure that I am knowledgeable in my field. If someone comes to me with a question, I want to be confident that I’m giving them the best answer that I can. If I know everything about a situation and everything that encompasses it, then I’m their one-stop shop and they don’t need to go to someone else. They can end their search for information with me. It makes me feel good to be able to provide that kind of support.”
For Adair, it’s not about simply providing a quick answer—it’s more important to share information with insights “so that everyone has the same knowledge that I have,” she adds. “I’m not keeping it to myself.”
Adair takes a flexible approach to training, adapting the information and technique to the audience, whether she is training new connections team members, sales staff or support staff at other DiCentral locations. A recent trip to the company’s Vietnam facility provided Adair with a welcome opportunity for both learning and teaching. Adair’s assignment was to train the local customer support team and help them to improve their service delivery. She spent over a month on site sitting with the team, listening to calls and providing training and coaching.
Initially, she noted that many English-speaking callers were quick to dismiss the support staff’s help because of their accents. “[The support staff] were often being judged the second they answered the call. It was difficult to see,” she says. “The callers didn’t have the patience to listen to them, they just heard the accent and immediately put up a guard.” The impact on the staff was demoralizing and many lacked the confidence to assure callers that they were capable of handling the requests.
After the first week, Adair decided to expand the training agenda to focus on building the team’s confidence. She determined that the best way to do that was for her to open up and share her personal struggles with self-confidence. “Each day, I met with the team and I would tell them a story about myself, because I’ve also had confidence issues that I’ve had to deal with and overcome,” she says. “It helped them to relate and we were able to connect the training back to their day-to-day lives to help them feel more confident on the phone.”
Adair’s open and compassionate training approach helped the Vietnam support team to improve their response time and overall quality of support. Soon after Adair returned to the U.S., the Vietnam support operation was able to expand the operation to 24/7 support. It is a significant accomplishment to which Adair is proud to have contributed.
Four Keys to Excellent Customer Service
Adair has absorbed and applied a considerable amount of service-related knowledge during her time at DiCentral. But the most valuable lesson that she has learned has been the difference between listening and hearing. It’s a piece of advice that she passes along to her trainees, and which she takes to heart in every customer interaction.
“When you’re passively listening to the client, you lack the empathy to fully understand the situation and you don’t hear the urgency in their voice,” she explains. “If you focus on hearing the client’s words and their explanation, you can apply empathy to the situation. It will give you a clear idea of their problem and you can help them with a quicker response.”
When asked for her advice on how to excel at customer service, Adair points to four steps: “Be patient in hearing the customer. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Be eager to learn. And be confident in your knowledge,” she says. “People can hear the confidence, or hear when confidence is lacking. So if you allow yourself to be confident, your experience with the client will be much better.”
Adair feels honored to have received the Stevie Award, yet she is quick to credit her manager and colleagues at DiCentral for the achievement. “I’m excited to be part of the Stevie Award. It’s a great opportunity for DiCentral to be recognized for its customer support,” she states.
But for Adair, the work itself provides daily rewards. “When I can hear someone’s smile in their voice, it makes me feel good,” she says. “Honestly, just knowing that you’ve made someone’s day or helped them with an urgent request, it’s much more rewarding than most people would expect.”