by Colleen Futvoye-Colburn, SVP, Regional Sales & Operations
A family friend recently asked my now-retired husband how his days have changed since he has been home during my remote-work status this past year. And his answer was simply “She’s on the phone all day long… Colleen focuses on customer service.”
He’s right. I am on the phone all day long because communicating and customer service are central to my role as a staffing and solutions professional. It may not necessarily be on the phone per se; we now have the wonders of Zoom. Nonetheless, I am continually engaging all day, every day.
It is important to note, however – when communicating, I’m not always talking; I’m usually actively listening. You can learn a lot when you just listen, and in the end, can solve many issues that arise in customer relationships.
Our industry is based on building relationships and communicating plain and simple. Whether it is to understand the needs of a new contact and establish trust or to foster and nurture an existing relationship to maintain the faith they have put in you, communication skills – particularly listening skills – and providing stellar customer service are of the utmost importance.
Why it’s so important to Stop Talking and Just Listen in Customer Service… and beyond
I follow certain rules of engagement in business, and I have been fortunate that the teams I work with are often cut from the same cloth. Together, we listen, truly listen, to what our customers want, ask questions when we need to, and deliver on our promises. It is a simple, winning formula that shows transparency and underscores why a customer chose to work with us in the first place.
For example, some moons ago, I took on a new role in an organization to help save a client relationship that was going awry. I was welcomed into this new position with the client expressing “We don’t like you and we don’t trust you.” Even with broad shoulders, that is tough to take to say the least. However, it became my mission to win back their trust and it started with listening and gathering as much feedback about what they attributed to the relationship breakdown.
It was essential to refocus on what they wanted, so we proceeded to peel back the layers of the whole relationship and re-engage with every contact. That meant HR, end-user managers, the sourcing team and supplier partners – we cast the net wide to rebuild with all parties. We had hard conversations, were humbled by the criticism, and even brought new talent in to mend the fracture.
By asking the right questions, and dedicating countless hours of time, we unraveled the issue: we had not managed the implementation according to their needs and force-fed our procedures and processes onto them because we thought we knew better – and we did not.
Figuring out what they needed helped us regroup, start over, and deliver on their expectations. It was by no means an overnight process, but with a full team contributing to righting the ship, we re-proved our capabilities and helped a customer reach success.
Reflecting back, saving the relationship proved more challenging than sometimes building a new one but with strong listening skills and ability to understand the customer’s wants and needs, we rebuilt their trust and the relationship.
The Mantra “The Customer is Always Right” comes with a few caveats: transparency, honesty, and reality
The staffing professionals I work with will treat you the way we all want to be treated – with respect. We use our active listening ears to give customers the opportunity to voice their concerns and we will always offer the next step towards a solution. Yet, good customer service does not always mean saying yes and the personalities must be strong and confident in delivering that message. It is saying “no” respectfully, followed by the truth and perhaps an alternative.
Over the last few years, pay rates have increased due to large volume headcount needs by an e-Commerce distribution company. Most recently, the added government stimulus whether through direct and/or unemployment payments is also causing a ripple effect on hiring full-time and contract labor. The demand for workers is great and it is holding our feet to the fire in the industry to deliver.
We saw this happen recently when a potential new client simply could not fill their jobs in this competitive market and were turning to us to solve it. The contact was frustrated with their current suppliers; it was a prime opportunity for us to swoop in and save the day. In reality, we would never be able to do that, and our honest customer service abilities conveyed that. After listening to their current situation, we quickly came to realize they weren’t paying their consultants enough and, in the end, we would face the same challenge as the other providers unless a change was made. So, no, we could not solve their immediate issue; however, the alternative was to give them a detailed market analysis on what the suggested pay rate should be and recommendations on how to remedy the situation. In the end, the decision would be up to them on how to move forward.
It is a “no, with an alternative solution” response that conveys realistic honesty. We do not win business at all costs, but our service skills will help build relationships for the future.
Can you teach staffing professionals the listening trait?
In customer service, especially for staffing, we like to have a mix of skill sets and traits. Yes, there are some people who are born with the willingness to listen and solve problems. But, there are people who can learn it, too. It is a hard trait to “train” for, but you can certainly work with an eager learner to understand our winning formula and emulate the values of the organization.
For my teams, we follow certain basics as a strategy for good customer service:
- We need to ENGAGE and that means not always by email. It is imperative that we understand intention, tone, and mood of our customers, which is difficult to discern in non-verbal communications.
- Convey a smile, even if your customer cannot see you.
- Three or more emails on the same topic means something might be lost in translation and it is time to pick up the phone. Video conferencing has helped because we can now gauge emotion that we could not through the phone or email.
- Motivate each other, always want to be better than we were yesterday.
- Always deliver what you promise.
At the end of the day, our customer service staffing professionals have the freedom to be genuine and who they are because that is how they build trust with their customers.
There’s not always a dollar figure for the value of service
We are all contortionists in the world of staffing – we must be nimble and adjust to the ebb and flow of the world around us. Labor demand is high right now, customers are searching for top talent, but they must work within the confines of a budget. Additionally, we try to say it is not, but the reality is the primary focus for most customers is finding the right talent for the best price or, in some companies, the most cost savings. With the added pressure of the labor demand, to create a cost savings outcome, solutions are borne from listening and understanding the true goal of our customers. Three questions you need to ask: what is your budget, what is your cost savings goal, and are you willing to review your expectations for your current req?
While my crystal ball is fuzzy, the approach to cost-savings as we emerge from the pandemic and head out 2-5 years, is going to be critical as wages increase and talent availability tightens. The effects of the pandemic ran the gamut across the employment landscape and were particularly industry-driven. Healthcare and IT were and are still tight markets. We were witnessing salary wars so to speak – companies would quickly counteroffer with higher rates because they could not let the right talent walk away. For light industrial, it is increasingly difficult to staff – there are open jobs, but limited applications. Wage offerings must be so enticing and, in many instances, organizations have not budgeted for them, but yet they need work to get done.
As a partner and true counsel to our customers, when creating a cost-savings formula to apply to a workforce solution, we must understand our customer’s pain points. By doing our due diligence and providing truly valuable customer service and attention to the account, we can learn what they need and build around that. We focus on the following:
- What are the true expenses and where is the magic number that allows for profitability with savings? By examining all the data – pay rates, experience, skill levels – and creating a historical look at that information, we can create formulas that set rates year-over-year that work.
- We continually engage with managers on how they are managing their talent because our job does not stop when the request is filled. We review reports and work with the manager and question, are you spending on overtime? Reports would suggest that the increased pay rate on overtime could be solved by hiring another person at the regular rate versus paying overtime rates. Providing a different solution for savings, but not at the expense of productivity.
- We also stand behind our deliverable. If talent does not produce over a certain amount of time, a customer is guaranteed their money back.
- We offer solutions to possible dire situations: Is there an alternative solution versus going through layoffs? For instance, during a recent recession, a customer shared we need to reduce consultant headcount. It is an emotional process; people losing jobs and a company facing budget constraints and layoffs for both full-time employees and consultants. Unfortunately, it was an inevitable, hard truth for many companies, but in this situation, we tried a different approach. We reviewed all the consultants’ positions. For some consultants where their pay rate was negligible in delivering any savings, their jobs and pay were not changed. For other positions, we negotiated pay rates with consultants and suppliers alike for reduced wages. It gave people a choice and we were able to retain talent at a reduced rate for an organization that still needed the help. We counseled our customer on creating a different outcome amidst a dire situation because that is the service we agreed to give.
Working with our customers and consultants to adapt, listening to their needs, and not simply being a revolving door for talent transcends the transactional nature of our industry. It is instead having a service-driven mentality to provide our customers with what is important to them, managing costs and still delivering to their customers.
The Service-driven approach applies to existing business as well as starting from the ground up
Recently, I was given a flag to stake ground for a new division at Matlen Silver. What sometimes has felt like two steps forward, five steps back to get the division off the ground, the endeavor is taking shape because I am following a footprint, a roadmap if you will. This roadmap is led by the engagements I make along the way and what I learn by listening to the needs of those around me.
Being in the staffing industry for almost 20 years, I have an extensive network of people, both personally and professionally. I feel fortunate because we build our network, treat everyone with respect and never stop nurturing our relationships. What starts out as one account, quickly grows to two then three because of networking and a history of offering good service. Building a team to service new business follows suit – and again it gets built by reaching out to a network of like-minded, service-driven individuals who would be perfect for a role that we need.
Shout out for service!
I attribute the success at Matlen Silver and our ability to grow due to our service model: we provide top quality customer service in everything we do, and that applies to all our customers: employers, consultants, suppliers, and more.
After 40 years, Matlen Silver continues to treat consultants like they are part of the Matlen Silver team, not as temporary talent filling a need or requisition. The division between the “Company” and the “staff” is blurred because everyone is treated as part of the bigger picture here. We don’t just staff numbers. We create all-encompassing solutions based on truly listening to what the customer needs and then delivering the talent solution that will help them reach their goals. Matlen Silver consultants are gold, so it makes it that much easier to work with customers and guarantee our good services when we are so confident in the talent that we deliver to them.