Tech and Sympathy

Motorola’s service reps had technical chops but needed a refresher in social skills to handle customer calls. Call-resolution rates have now climbed nearly 60 percent.

January 26, 2009
Listen to customers. Empathize. Communicate. Reassure them. Only then can you correctly identify the problem, fix it and follow up to ensure people are satisfied.

    That’s the message Mike Horton preaches to his 400-person customer service team at Motorola’s home and networks mobility division. Based in Horsham, Pennsylvania, the division is part of electronics equipment giant Motorola Inc.

    The mobility division provides technical support and engineering to telecommunications companies and operators of large cable systems. When those providers experience outages with equipment, they get pressure from everyday consumers. That in turn ratchets up the tension level for Motorola’s service reps.

    "What we’ve done is put our folks in the ‘Walk a Mile in My Shoes’ attitude, from the customer’s perspective," says Horton, Motorola’s senior director of technical operations.

    Anchoring the process is a "closed loop" of corrective action in which frontline call handlers interact with different work groups at Motorola, including product engineers and sales, to identify defects and prevent a recurrence.

    The initiative is intended to help people anticipate problems and prevent calls from escalating into major headaches.

    Since Motorola took the wraps off its methodical approach last year, customer-satisfaction scores jumped 10 percent during the first nine months, Horton says. Employees handling service inquiries also earn high marks from customers for professionalism and two-way communication.

    Most notably, call-resolution rates climbed nearly 60 percent. That refers to issues being fixed the first time a customer calls.

    Findings like those make it easier to sell employees on the concept of training in interpersonal and non-technical skills, which are equally important to Motorola as technical and product training, Horton says.

    The approach seems obvious, but Motorola was in dire need of a plan to upgrade skills. The company surveyed customers before and after the training and then compared the results.

    The pre-training responses were illuminating.

    Despite a high level of technical competency and product knowledge, service reps often fell short in the area of interpersonal skills. Numerous complaints centered on the handling and management of service calls, extended wait times, longer-than-normal call duration and recurrence of the same problems.

    Horton’s division consists of three distinct employee groups. Call-center employees are the first point of contact with customers. Behind them are technical support agents who evaluate each service request and dispatch field engineers. The field engineers are the third group; they go out to customer sites for repairs, maintenance and installation.

    Because its product line is complex and ever-changing, Motorola traditionally skewed training programs heavily toward technical competency. But when it comes to customers, Horton says, "it’s just as important for them to be heard and treated in a professional manner."

    When a job entails customer service, tension goes with the territory. But so should patience. Companies are discovering that technical competence alone isn’t sufficient, says John Ragsdale, a vice president with the Service and Support Professionals Association, a trade group in San Diego.

    "It’s good to see Motorola taking notice of the trend, because the skills that made customer service people effective five years ago won’t be effective in the future," Ragsdale says.

    That presents a major training challenge for younger workers "who are good at texting but never really learned phone-interaction skills," he says.

    Ragsdale’s organization helped compile industry benchmarks that Motorola used to assess people’s competency levels and behaviors. The employee training is based on Impact Learning Systems International’s professional certification for customer service. It includes seven Web-based modules that employees use to fulfill training requirements at their own pace.

    The format blends hands-on classroom activities, coaching and self-initiated exercises that allow Horton’s service teams to continue to practice what they learned in the classroom, he says.

    Training itself is not the most important part of the process, says Malcolm Carlaw, the president of Impact Learning Systems. Positive coaching from supervisors often is the missing puzzle piece, and it’s an area Motorola took pains to address.

    "Management had a plan for behavioral change and made the effort to follow through. The results speak for themselves," Carlaw says.

    More than 300 Motorola employees in the U.S., Canada and Latin America have taken the Service Excellence curriculum. That includes 150 employees in technical support, 125 field engineers and about 30 managers.

    The true test of whether training is effective is employees’ reaction to it. Wayne V. Bilardo Jr., one of Horton’s managers, describes the training as "the kind of program that when you are finished, you say, ‘That was an engaging course and well worth the time spent.’ "

    Kim McMenamin, an employee development specialist with Motorola, likes the motivational aspect of the interactive coursework.

    "We were able to bring back skills learned from Service Excellence and apply them immediately" as part of day-to-day customer support work, she says.

    An adjunct program, "Making It Happen," is designed to help managers learn coaching techniques that reinforce the skills training. It entails passing a skills test to receive an industry-recognized certification.

    Supervisors are learning the importance of having monthly sit-down sessions with employees to review their performance and offer constructive feedback, Horton says. The performance scores in Horton’s division have stimulated interest across other Motorola divisions, he says.

    The only shadow on the training program is the gloomy economy. In January, the division’s corporate parent, Motorola Inc., announced it would slash 4,000 jobs to help neutralize the effect of declining sales of consumer cell phones and other wireless devices. The company is based in Schaumburg, Illinois.

    Most of the job losses are in Motorola’s cellular phone business, and it’s not clear how the cutbacks might affect other Motorola units, including the home and mobility networks division. The company says 3,000 positions are being eliminated immediately in its mobile devices unit, and another 1,000 jobs will disappear from corporate functions and other business units.

    The latest round of layoffs brings the total number of job cuts at Motorola to 16,000 since 2007.

    As margins tighten and executives fret over bottom-line consequences, training budgets may be in the cross hairs. That’s one reason it pays to be able to demonstrate measurable results, experts say.

    "In tough economic times, [services] companies tend to focus more on sustaining the customers they already have, and they focus less on acquiring new customers," Ragsdale says. "They want to make sure they keep their existing customers really, really happy."