This week we chatted with Kurt Friedmann, President of The KJF Group and Vice President of Sales at Service 800. Kurt develops soft skills training programs for the IT industry to cultivate customer service skills that match up to a technician’s technical ability and know-how. Soft skills can help technicians empower their customers, carry out jobs with confidence, and provide a level of service that increases revenue and brings customers back.
Hey Kurt! To start, walk us through your background and how you were involved in teaching and applying soft skills to the IT industry.
My initial exposure to the importance of customer service began in the world of restaurant management. There’s a huge difference between restaurants who provide fantastic customer service and and those who don’t, and usually those who provide fantastic customer service create stronger businesses that succeed in the long term. So that’s really where I got my start, and from there I went into a number of positions that were more sales oriented.
My primary background in soft skills training came at Impact Learning Systems where I was Vice President of Sales. Impact Learning was engaged in training and coaching programs for medium to large sized Fortune 500 companies. We developed programs for anyone doing customer service work on the phone or in the field. What we were really trying to improve was the quality of those communications in order to make those relationships as strong as possible.
Why is it important for technicians to cultivate soft skills? What’s the benefit in investing time in that area?
A major component of a technician’s job is to exist as a source of knowledge. What we found out through a lot of research – and what I know from my years in that industry – is that fixing the client’s computer issue is the fundamental task at hand, but to make the greatest impact, you have to help fix the customer as well. If you’re a tech with great diagnostic and troubleshooting skills in addition to great listening skills and great confirming skills, you’ll have an easier time understanding your customer’s problems and solve them faster with much lower rates of error.
What are some important soft skills that would benefit those in the computer repair business?
The key soft skills that I would focus on are being able to listen to the customer and use the customer as the first method for clearly identifying their problems. That one is super important. Often, a customer will come to a technician and explain their issues, the tech will hear a couple of things, and then go ahead and try to fix what they think is the problem. When a tech doesn’t work to truly understand the information that the client is trying to deliver, time may be wasted on the wrong issue, or worse, the client may feel like they weren’t being listened to. If technicians simply ask the customer a few key questions, listen to the customer and use the customer as a tool to understand the problems better, their success rate in getting to first call resolution or first time fix – those are two huge metrics in the IT service industry – goes way up. When you take the time to listen to a customer, they feel more confident about their situation and view your business with far more trust. Good customer service skills are critically important to the growth and retention of your customer base and to the sustainability of your business overall.
Often what we think we hear and what the customer actually says are two different things. These all seem like basic skills, and many techs I’ve worked with would say, “Oh, well I do that.” But when we record their calls or go out on visits, it turns out that very few actually do. Technicians need to make sure they ask the right questions to diagnose the problems, listen to the customer, and then confirm what they say.
Talk about the relationship between soft skills and metrics. How can you prove that soft skills bring real results?
In most companies – I’m talking over 90% of companies – there is very little real measurement of the efficacy of a technician’s customer service skills. The company will measure things like first call resolution, first time fix, overall customer satisfaction, willingness to recommend or professionalism. However, by themselves, those things don’t measure whether any kind of training works.
When we lead training sessions, we actually train a group of technicians with their manager. We will train one group in the program and compare their customer feedback surveys to several control groups that have not gone through the training. This allowed us to directly measure the benefit of soft skills.
The difference was almost always at least a 10% improvement in customer satisfaction. And a 10% improvement in customer satisfaction is enormous; it may not sound like it, but in terms of making a bottom line impact in repeat business and revenue for the company, it makes a ton of difference.
Technicians are busy. How would you suggest a tech or business owner go about learning new skills or tackling a certification?
Technicians often think “I’m busy, I don’t have time to take the stupid training and I’ve been doing this for 15 years so I already know everything there is to know about solving problems.” They may know everything there is to know about solving problems, but what they don’t necessarily do is solve those problems right the first time.
Training really enables techs to offer a better customer experience, one that the customer is delighted about. Additionally, it helps technicians hone their communication skills so they aren’t stuck solving problems that don’t need to be solved. If we can improve first call resolution rate – the ability to solve the problem the first time out – by 10%, 15%, maybe 20%, that means fewer phone calls that come back to the call center or fewer techs that need to repeat a site visit.
When someone has to go out on site and they aren’t able to solve the issue, that makes a huge, huge difference in not only the tech’s time but the tech’s satisfaction with their own job because they’re not having a customer complain for not having it done right the first time. Soft skills can save technicians time, increase job satisfaction, and increase profitability for the company dramatically. All good things!
So bottom line, how can managers and business owners really drive home the importance of soft skills?
Here’s where it clicks: training by yourself doesn’t work as well as with some type of coach. People don’t learn fully by just gaining knowledge. When you try to perform training alone, the return on investment is like -5 to 1. You actually end up spending more money just doing training alone. It’s better to do nothing than to train someone on something you’re not going to reinforce and coach. The way that someone learns most effectively is through someone watching them, coaching them, and then giving them the feedback they need on a continuous basis and then setting that expectation so they can change their behavior. In my opinion that only happens when there is a front-line manager involved in the learning and who acts as a coach on an ongoing basis after the training’s done. When that happens in a coached environment, the return on investment is 33 to 1.
The best return from making an investment into customer service training is when a customer walks out of your door feeling satisfied and confident, ready to recommend your services to their friends and co-workers.
Kurt suggested the following resources for technicians interested in finding further information or getting the ball rolling with training programs:
Technology Services Industry Association has resources to help technicians develop their customer relations skills and implement consistent practices.
CompTIA provides training programs and certification for a number of technical areas as well as customer relations and sales.
Impact Learning Systems helps industry professionals develop efficient and sound customer service practices to increase metrics.
Kristin handles RepairTech’s PR, social media & communications strategy. She enjoys writing, drinking craft beer and getting involved in all things startup.