Good customer service means making every second count

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I have long preached to bankers that ubiquitous mobile technology, self-service applications and universally available data will make adaptive people far more productive in their jobs. The same factors, however, will render others far less relevant in their jobs than they are now.

Employees who use evolving technology to improve their speed, efficiency and capacity for delivering what customers need and desire will thrive. That said, I believe that people who have faith customers will always prefer conducting business by interacting with other people miss an important point: Most people prefer interacting with humans when those humans bring something to the equation beyond routine transactional assistance or access to data. Rote transactions and access to data are not going to add value in the minds of customers.

Businesses, including financial institutions, that are dedicated to keeping their people focused on being the differentiators in a technology-driven industry will have happier, more engaged and productive teams. Others appear to be in danger of allowing their people to become irrelevant at best and sand in the gears of customer satisfaction at worst.

When making these points to banker groups, I’ve found that it is often helpful to share examples from other industries. It is hard for some to grasp that many of the seemingly vital roles they perform today may one day become largely irrelevant to customers.

One of the more recent nonbank cases I experienced involved a real estate agent.

Like banking, the business of selling homes in America has been transformed over the past decade. Those of us who purchased homes prior to omnipresent internet, smartphones and universally available listing data remember the stone ages of home buying. It was exceedingly difficult to know what homes were available without engaging an agent. Local real estate agencies were, in many ways, the gatekeepers of vital information about the largest purchases most people will ever make.

Today, up-to-the-minute listings, comprehensive descriptions of properties, detailed photos and videos of properties, comparable sales data, objectively estimated property values and more are available to everyone. Rookie home shoppers today have more and better data in their hands than the most competent and dedicated real estate agents had at their disposal 10 years ago.

During this recent interaction, the young agent helping my wife and me was pleasant enough. However, it quickly became apparent that we knew more about a prospective home than she did. We had reviewed the available details of the property online — and it soon became clear she had not.

As we walked through the older property, my wife and I openly discussed the plusses and minuses of older homes. Anyone who has ever watched a single episode of a house-renovation show could have added to the conversation. Yet the young agent had nothing to add. More worrisome was that she didn’t ask very many questions. Even after volunteering to her that we were thinking about renovating the home to accommodate older parents, she wasn’t inquisitive.

I found myself coaching her on the fact that while it needs significant renovations, the property has unique hundred-year-old oak trees, the kind of sturdy construction found in nicer older homes and is in a location extremely convenient to shopping, a university, and a large hospital.

My wife later pulled me aside and told me the agent should be selling the home to me, not the other way around. I laughed and told her I hate seeing anyone underperforming in his or her job.

In the end, the only thing the agent brought to the table that we could not get ourselves was the key to the house. By not learning our thoughts and needs, offering useful advice or sharing information not easily found elsewhere, opportunities to connect with us were missed.

As customers turn to us less for basic information and transactions and more for problem resolution, assistance with complex transactions and informed advice, employees have greater opportunities than ever to earn customer loyalty. Self-service tools have caused the number of personal interactions customers have with a company’s representatives to decline. With that, however, the value of each individual interaction has increased.

And while it may seem counterintuitive to some, bankers who become adept at helping customers understand and embrace self-service tools are actually providing superior service to their customers. This may be as simple as personally offering to demonstrate to a customer how he or she can easily process certain transactions they have brought to you ( such as depositing a check) using your mobile app.

Customers tend to regard people who teach them ways to be more informed and efficient in their personal finances as valuable resources. More importantly, they tend to favor and return to those resources the next time they need information or assistance.

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