Shep Hyken on creating amazing customer experience, developing the right customer service skills, and the convenience revolution

The Freshchat team celebrated Customer Service Week 2018 from 1–5 October by recognizing our support team members for their dedication and unwavering service towards our customers. As a leading provider live chat software that helps businesses ace customer engagement and establish long-lasting relationships—customer service is in our DNA.

So, to spread the word about what entails great customer support and to further our mission of creating “wow” moments for our customers, we recently interviewed Shep Hyken on the heels of the Customer Service Week. Shep is the founder and Chief Amazement Officer of Shepard Presentations. He is a globally renowned voice in the field of customer support and experience. Shep has authored 7 bestselling business books on different topics related to customer service, his latest one being The Convenience Revolution.

He has also written innumerable articles for publications such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and USA Today. He has advised businesses such as American Airlines, General Motors, IBM, Marriott,s Anheuser-Busch, AT&T, and American Express to help these clients develop a culture driven by customer service. Shep is inducted into the National Speakers Association Hall of Fame for lifetime achievement in the professional speaking industry.

Here’s a snapshot of the questions that we asked him if you want to jump directly to anyone of them:

1. Shep’s entry into the world of customer service
2. How has the landscape of customer service has changed
3. How instrumental is live chat as a customer service channel
4. Trends that Shep has spotted along his customer amazement journey
5. What AI has in store for the future of customer support
6. The next disruption in the customer service industry
7. Important metrics to measure customer convenience
8. Shep’s tips for establishing a support-driven work culture
9. How can B2B companies create exceptional CX and brand loyalty
10. The importance of being above average than being over the top amazing
11. Advice for bootstrapping companies to develop good customer service skills
12. Common mistakes businesses are making in terms of customer service
13. The healthy amount of freedom to give to customer service teams
14. What companies should do instead of being obsessed over CSAT
15. Tips to improve employee experience and help them develop their customer service skills

So, without much further ado, here are the excerpts from our interview with Shep Hyken!

How did you enter the world of customer service?

Shep: It was 1983 and I was just out of college working for a retail business. But the company sold and I was left without a job. That’s when I noticed a couple of motivational speakers doing well for themselves, and I thought to myself, “I could do that!” The reason I felt confident about it was that when I was growing up I did magic shows for birthday parties and later worked in nightclubs through college. So I thought, “I can get in front of people and I can talk, that’s not a problem.” But I wasn’t sure what I was going to talk about.

So I went to bookstores and libraries and got every business book I could read. The subject I was drawn to more than anything else was customer service. When I did my magic shows, I would always write thank you notes, I would follow-up and ask for feedback. I didn’t know it back then, but this was all customer service. I intuitively had good customer service skills, so I said that’s what I am going to speak about. I started researching, writing, and learning about it as I continued to grow my business. That’s how it all started.


How do you think the landscape of customer service has changed from the offline days before the dot-com bubble to today’s SaaS-based, unicorn bubble?

Shep: I don’t believe anything has changed as far as customer service is supposed to do. The customer has a problem, and if it’s support-based, they call up or use other channels. But the end result is exactly the same—the customer walks away satisfied that they got the answer they needed and happy that they did business with that company. Everything is the same at the beginning and at the end, but it’s what’s in the middle that has changed.

We’ve moved to a big digital presence where you don’t have to call support anymore. Before that, you had to walk-in or you had to call. Well, today you just need to tweet or post on Facebook and Messenger to get direct responses. There are many different channels for customers to connect with an organization. Yet, at the end of the day, every customer still wants the same thing—they want to get the answer that they came to get, and they want to be happy with the company they are doing business with.

Customers these days don’t just compare a company to a direct competitor anymore. They compare that business to the best service that’s available or the best service they have ever received. Click To Tweet

How instrumental do you think live chat is as one of those channels?

Shep: Live chat is great because there are several concepts of live chat that are important. If I have a question, I can type it in and a support agent can conceivably be working with me and possibly somebody else at the same time. It just seems that there could be this flow.

Some people who use live chat will ask their question, come back 15 minutes later to see if they have gotten their answer and if they have further questions they will ask more. Live chat doesn’t have to be in real-time right now, it can be extended. And that’s the way some people like to use live chat.

Shep Hyken interview with Freshchat on developing customer service skills

Shep Hyken has authored 7 books on different topics related to customer service and experience. He launched his latest book, titled The Convenience Revolution, this October.

What are some of the surprising trends you have spotted along your customer amazement journey?

Shep: One of the most recent trends that I’m seeing is that people have started to learn what good customer service is. Back in the 80s, businesses in the U.S. started an award called the Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award and a big part of that quality award for a company was based on customer service.

When companies won this award, they would share the news that they have won and they shared why they won it, which basically set the bar higher for everybody else in that industry. What happened over time is that customers have now learned so much about what good customer service is that they now don’t just compare a company to a direct competitor anymore. They compare that business to the best service that’s available to them and to the best service that they have ever received. So again, the bar has been raised even higher and the big reason is that if there’s one thing that has changed—it’s customers’ knowledge of what good service is and the expectation of what they want.

Secondly, there are many exciting things happening in the digital world. Some customers are embracing these technological trends when done well. Some companies are taking too big of a plunge into technology and missing out on the human factor. They are not always able to find the balance—finding the right balance between digital and human is the key.

The third thing I want to mention is that I am recognizing that customers—whether they realize this or not—gravitate towards companies that are just easier to do business with, at every level. Be it just the standard day-to-day doing business with them or “I need help. How quickly can I get that help? How fast can I get support?”—the easier you can make it for them, and the less friction you can provide, the more likely you are to win over that customer’s business. I spotted this with the last book that I was writing, and I decided to write another book about it called The Convenience Revolution.

Customers gravitate towards companies that are just easier to do business with. Click To Tweet

Businesses nowadays are taking an AI-first approach in all their business operations. What, in your view, has artificial intelligence in store for the future of customer service?

Shep: AI may be perfect one day, but right now it’s not. I can deal with a chatbot that is able to give me a lot of great answers. But what happens when it doesn’t give me the answer that I am looking for? That means there needs to be a human fallback and it needs to happen quickly and seamlessly.

Many years ago, when the system of buying tickets and checking-in online was still very new, a friend of mine said that he had a great experience on an airline. He made it all the way to the plane without having to talk to an employee of the airline. When I asked, “Is that because you don’t like the employees?” he said, “No, because they have created this great system.” It was just so easy for this person, but he knew that if there was a problem, he could pick up the phone or walk over to the ticket counter and get somebody to help him.

Coming back to the discussion on AI, a chatbot should be smart enough to understand the words that I am using as a customer. When I say, “I don’t think that’s not the answer I’m looking for” or “I’m not sure I understand,” those should be triggers that transfer my conversation seamlessly to a human being. The customer may not even know that they were dealing with a chatbot and then being switched; it has to happen seamlessly. Or, at any time during a phone call to the support team, customers could have the option to just hit zero to connect with a live operator. There needs to be fallback for even simple things like that.

AI is getting better and better. But at this point, you can’t depend completely on AI—the operative word here is complete. Again, it’s the balance. Right now, it’s great for basic, lower-level tasks like checking your bank balance, changing a mailing address, or requesting a new credit card number. Customers don’t need to talk to support agents for these kinds of jobs and waste their valuable time. That’s a perfect place for using AI, chatbots, or automation.

AI and chatbots don’t have the same kind of customer service skills that trained human employees to have.

What direction is customer service headed towards in the near future? What are the next disruptions in the service industry?

Shep: The big disruption right now is going to be the company that figures out how to be more convenient to their customers.

Let’s put it in customer support terms, “How fast can I get my answer?” or “How easy you are going to make it?” I will give you a perfect example of something that’s just absolutely ridiculous.

A friend of mine was over at somebody’s house and wanted to watch a sporting event on TV. But he couldn’t remember what channel it was on because his friend had a different cable operator than he had. He picked up the phone, called the cable company, and he said, “I am trying to find the channel for this particular event. Can you tell me where the sports channels are?

Now I can’t remember the exact words, but this is the response that the support agent gave him: “Can you please give me your account number?

Why does that customer need to give somebody an account number when all the question is— can you tell me what channel this event is on?

Now maybe that is a ridiculous thing to have to call about, but at the end of the day, it was a ridiculous response that the customer support agent gave. There are times when you just answer the question and move on. There is no reason to ask questions that aren’t necessary or cause friction. There is no reason for a shopping cart form to have a question that doesn’t really need to be answered. So, reduce the friction—that’s the trend happening today.

Companies are recognizing this and I wrote about this in my latest book too. There are six Convenience Principles:

  1. Reducing Friction
  2. Technology
  3. Self-service
  4. Subscription
  5. Delivery
  6. Access

Access is all about logistics. For example, how convenient is your location or hours of operations? I recently bought a ping-pong table that I had to put together and I had a question about it. When I called them toll-free 1-800 customer support number that was there in the assembly instructions, the IVR said that the hours of their support were the same as the hours I am usually at work, i.e. 8 am–5 pm. Well, that’s not the time I’m putting the ping-pong table together for my kids. (Laughs)

Many companies look at the success of their customer service teams differently. What would you say are some of the most important—maybe even unconventional—metrics to measure customer convenience?

Shep: The most important thing to measure is: was an issue resolved? When it is resolved, there are two levels of resolution: i) Yes, I got my answer, and ii) Yes, I got my answer and this is why I love doing business with this company because they restored my confidence in the process of giving me my answer.

Another way to measure customer convenience is to look at your Net Promoter Score (NPS). That’s a great way for customers to say, “Yeah, I was happy with that interaction to the point where I will recommend somebody else.

Personally, I love it when I get off the phone with American Airlines and they say they have a one-question survey. I love this question: “If you were to hire a customer support person, would you hire the person you just talked to?

Those are not the exact words, but think about how powerful that question is! Not only did I get my answer, but I also answered “were you happy with the agent?” question. That’s a really important one.

Number three: you can measure overall customer satisfaction (CSAT) or customer effort score (CES), i.e. how hard was it for the customers to get what they wanted. That’s part of what the book Effortless Experience by Matt Dickson is about.

Finally, there is one thing that most companies don’t really think about but is really important to measure—does the customer actually come back? Or what’s the frequency of that customer coming back? That will really help you determine whether you have created a loyal customer.

Customers come back when you create a great customer experience, not because you sent them another advertisement. Click To Tweet

What are your tips for establishing a support-driven work culture?

Shep: My strong belief is that customer service is not a department; it’s a philosophy. There are people on the frontline that deal directly with the customers, there are people behind the scenes that are taking care of things that impact the customers. If somebody in the warehouse who never sees a customer doesn’t understand his/her role and responsibility in the customer experience, the company is not doing a good job of training their employees.

Let’s say there is an employee who says, “all I do is pull a part off the shelf and stick it in a box and mail it, I never see the customer.” But what if that person pulls the wrong part? What if the person didn’t pack it right and it was damaged in shipment? What if the customer opens it up and they just see a mess of parts because it was broken? Suppose I check my bag at an airport and three hours later I end up at my destination. I never saw the dozen people who probably handled my bag in the airport’s basement, but they have a huge impact on my experience.

Amazing customer service is not necessarily over-the-top. Amazing is a little above average all of the time. Over the top experiences come from isolated incidents. Click To Tweet

And then, of course, there’s the frontline support, handling phone calls and chats and managing the experience of the customer from a support level as well as salespeople. Everybody has a role to play when it comes to the world of customer service and customer experience. They need to recognize what it is, built their customer service skills, and take advantage of it.

Customer support is the new marketing. I think that when you create a great customer experience, customers will come back because of that experience, not because you sent them another advertisement. The ad might remind them of you, but they are going to remember what happened to them. The customer will also talk about you and that’s the best marketing that you possibly could have.

What is your advice on how B2B companies can create an exceptional customer experience and fierce brand loyalty?

Shep: It depends on what the situation is. In B2B, customers have fewer choices than a typical consumer might have in a B2C setting. So, recognize that because there are fewer choices, the competition is ramped up. If you lose this customer, there is a pretty good chance that you may never get them back again. The critical tip is to recognize two things:

1) Communication is the key. Always keep your customers informed. Most problems in a B2B aren’t like B2C.

2) Speed is huge when it comes to almost any type of service, but especially B2B. If there’s a problem, you need to resolve it quickly.

Also, in B2B, there are many different factors that go into winning a company’s business. Building a relationship or having some ability to build a rapport with a customer may allow you to keep the customer even when there is a problem because the customer now feels comfortable talking to you.

I want people to think about questions like how easy it is to reach you, how quickly you give the customer the answer that they want, was their issue resolved, and is there an ability to follow-up. These factors are important for businesses of all types, but they are put under the microscope and scrutinized much closely in the B2B.

Is customer service the esoteric quality that only the high and mighty companies can achieve? Or it is more important to be consistently above average than being over the top amazing in customer service?

Shep: I’ll start by giving my definition of what ‘amazing’ is. Amazing is not over the top. Amazing is a little above average all of the time. And when it’s all of the time and it’s predictable and consistent, customers will say, “wow, that company is amazing!” Over the top experiences come from isolated incidents.

Customer calls in with a problem, maybe then you will go over the top. Or maybe you hear something, and you say, “Oh, I have got an idea that I am going to do that you wouldn’t normally do.” Otherwise, you want customers to say, “I love doing business with them because they are always knowledgeable, they are always friendly, they are always helpful, they always call me back on time.

The word ‘always’ followed by something positive shows consistency and when that happens, that’s when you are creating amazing customer service. And sometimes it’s even easier for smaller companies to do it.

Shep Hyken interview with Freshchat on developing customer service skills


What would be advice you would give to a company that’s bootstrapping and wants to develop world-class customer service skills?

Shep: First, recognize that customer service is everyone’s job. So, if you are bootstrapping, that means you are small, you’re nimble, you’re working hard, and you’re growing. One of the coolest things to do is to say everybody in a company—assuming you’re small and starting up—everybody has a role to play in customer service. That makes everybody get in tune with the customers, not just the role that they think they were hired to do.

What are some of the common mistakes that businesses today are doing wrong in terms of customer service?

Shep: Well, number one: they are not recognizing the power of customer service to help create that loyalty and confidence in the customers. They are not recognizing that customer service is not just a department and it’s more than just a philosophy. It’s also some of your best marketing. Some of them are seeing customer service as a cost center instead of a profit center and that’s a big mistake. Other businesses are missing the opportunity to turn unhappy customers into evangelists and advocates for them.

Many companies are able to offer stellar customer service because of the freedom that they allow their employees. To what extent is this freedom healthy? How much is too much?

Shep: It’s only too much when somebody crosses the line and goes too far. So, let’s first define how you stop people from going there.

Number one: You must empower good people to do what they are supposed to do and not micromanage every single decision they make. It’s not necessary for somebody to have to go to a manager to get approval when they have already gotten approval for the same thing earlier with another customer. In such cases, the manager should say, “By the way, you no longer need to come to me to get this approval. I want to know that you did it, so at the end of your shift, let’s have a quick chat and you can let me know that you did this for a customer. But you don’t need to come and ask me to do it again. That’s one way of training people to where they can go without crossing the line.

There’s another concept called “One to Say Yes and Two to Say No”. First of all, hire good people that get it, who have good common sense, who understand what they are supposed to do, train them on what they are supposed to do, and then let them do it. Tell them, “You don’t have to come to me for every decision. If you can’t figure out a way to say yes given the parameters that we’ve trained you on, then come to me (manager) and we’ll work together to come up with a solution.” Many managers and leaders have said to me that after they implemented this concept, the number of calls or interruptions that these managers receive on a daily basis dropped dramatically. It’s because they’ve empowered their people to develop the right kind of customer service skills.

Many businesses display their 4-star CSAT ratings as a badge of honor, while in reality, it’s just a bare minimum threshold. What do you suggest companies should go after instead of being obsessed over CSAT?

Shep: You can’t manage what you don’t measure. So there has to be some score that you can get yourself that will give you an indication of whether or not you are doing a good job. But if you are going to advertise that you have these high scores, if you are going to advertise that you have won an award—you better live up to the expectation.

In one of my earlier books called Amaze Every Customer Every Time, I use one company as an example throughout the entire book. When we sat down and talked about this with the client, I said, “this is not a book about you. This is customer service and experience book. There are going to be principles in here about management, direct frontline interaction, culture, and service.

So here is the thing I asked them—if I were to use them as an example throughout the book, were they willing to live up to what I was about to write? Because I was going to say, “this is a great company.” The book was going to be in the bookstores, airports…everywhere. So, I asked them if they were willing to step up and do what was in this book. They empathetically said “yes” and that’s what companies should do. They have to deliver on what they promise. As soon as they let customers down, they open the door for the competition to come in and take it away.

What are some tactical ways to improve employee experience, motivate them, and help them develop their customer service skills?

Shep: The first thing is to recognize that the employee experience is every bit as important—if not more so—than the customer experience. You’ve got to practice what you preach internally before you can expect people to practice what you want them to do externally.

One of the concepts that I talk about in my books is on creating FUN for employees. That’s not the same kind of fun as have a good time and let’s have a party. This FUN is an acronym for the fulfillment, uniqueness, and next. So, the first question really is: are we creating a job for people who work here that fulfills them?

For example, we have Stephanie in our office who loves to do video. She told me that before she even started the job. So now that’s part of her job—she works on video every single week. We gave her something that she loves to do and that gives her a sense of fulfillment. Hopefully, there are other things that give her fulfillment as well, but that’s a good start.

The second one is about finding uniqueness. Stephanie loved making videos, that was her unique talent and we let her use it. We had somebody else in here who was bilingual, so we let them talk to some of our potential clients from South America. We leveraged her for her unique talent.

Finally, do something that is going to excite your people. Maybe you are just such a great place to work that people love coming back to work the next day. For example, I just came out with the book, The Convenience Revolution. This is what drives me, and I think everybody in my office is excited about this book and about what’s next.

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