By Wesley Delbridge, RD 2014-03-27 07:51:47
Small Steps, Happy Customers Give your operation’s customer service approach a reboot with some common sense training that your whole team can put into practice. Most of our free time in the school nutrition business is spent fighting battles regarding the perceptions—by others in the school community, the outside public, you name it—about the food we serve. Our focus has been on getting the message out that schools do not serve fat-filled junk food, green hotdogs and rubbery hamburgers; we spend many hours dispelling these myths through persistent communication and marketing. But in that effort, we may be overlooking an important aspect of our business: customer service. What does good customer service mean to you? Service with a smile and generally being nice to those with whom we interact? And, what you would consider poor customer service? It could be being snippy with a customer or even outright ignoring a concern. Most would agree with these definitions. But customer service is much bigger than just that. It encompasses every interaction with anyone who comes into contact with you and your staff. Viewed in this way, poor customer service can be as simple as not identifying yourself when you answer the phone or not returning an e-mail within 24 hours. Because customer service is so important to most people and goes beyond the common courtesies, the potential consequences for poor service can be dramatic. And it takes lots of time and trust to build (or rebuild) a positive relationship with your customers. The good news is that the often-over-looked areas of customer service can be significantly improved with only a few minor changes in process—and a different outlook in your department’s thinking. With this understanding in mind, I developed a set of customer service standards—and accompanying training—to ensure that everyone in our nutrition department at Chandler (Ariz.) Unified School District provides friendly, uniform customer service. Asked to share my process—and the success we have experienced since—in School Nutrition, I hope you will be inspired to consider adopting a similar program for your own operation! Identify and Assess Once I decided that I was willing to spend a bit of time on marketing, training and out-of-the-box thinking about customer service, I started by asking: Who are our customers? The easy answer: students and their parents. But providing superior customer service means going beyond the obvious. Our customers also include our fellow team members, other district staff, principals, community members, website visitors, drivers on the road, people who call our department, other school districts...in short, anyone who has any interaction with our department! Our next steps were to assess the operation—with as much detail as possible—and then create a vision of what good customer service would mean. I suggest you start by surveying both existing and potential customers; you can have students fill out comment cards and send a short paper or electronic survey to parents. Work with the district’s IT department to distribute an electronic survey to all district employees. Focus your questions on the strengths and weaknesses related to customer service, such as “Do you feel that school nutrition staff respond to your questions in a timely manner?” This effort will help you identify the gaps in your service efforts, so you can begin working with your team to develop that vision for your department, with appropriate short- and long-term goals. It’s important to make your team a part of this process, so they feel included in the decision-making, and the result will be a greater buy-in commitment for those goals from your staff. For example, our internal assessment revealed such areas for improvement as answering the phone, responding promptly to e-mails and “not always seeming to be in a good mood.” While the last one is somewhat subjective, all of these helped us to clarify our resulting customer service vision: “Treat everyone you come into contact with daily as if they were your own family.” Make That Change Some of the elements of your new customer service vision may seem so small that you and your team might be inclined to dismiss them as insignificant. But taken together, such small changes can add up to a radical new perception of your department! Here are a few “outside-of-the-box” ways we worked to improve our customer service, all centered on the concept of making a great first impression. Use these to evaluate your team’s own performance! • Phone Calls and Voicemail. How you answer the phone can make a huge impact on people’s perception of your program. A good training approach is to write a couple of scripts your staff can use when they answer the phone or record an outgoing voicemail greeting. Greetings should be positive, identifying the respondent’s name and site: “Hi! This is Janet Doe, cafeteria manager at Woodrow Wilson Middle School. How can I help you today?” This pleasant, informative greeting can be the first step in diffusing a potentially negative situation. One of the practices we have incorporated is to end every call and voicemail greeting with “Have a healthy day!” Our customers will remember that short little send-off. • E-mail Communication and Signatures. It can be hard to determine the “tone of voice” behind an e-mail message, especially if you don’t make an effort. In fact, this is one area where it pays to be “overly nice” to avoid any misunderstanding. In addition to appropriate language, establish timeline goals for e-mail responses; the quicker, the better! Help your staff customize their e-mail signatures to look professional and friendly, while conveying the vision of your program. For example, our e-mails always end with our name and contact information, as well as links to our department’s website, social media pages and apps, our department’s logo and its tagline: “Part of a Balanced Education.” • The Name of Your Operation. One small change that we made was no longer calling ourselves “foodservice.” Many people have a negative interpretation of the word “foodservice,” so creating a new name for your department can bring much needed—and well-deserved—integrity to your program. • Drivers and Delivery Staff. This group tends to get the least amount of customer service training, but they come in contact with many people—including the internal customers of your own team! They are your representatives out there on the road and at the schools. Make sure they are trained on appropriate greetings and on handling various customer service situations. Discuss ways of going above and beyond: Leaving notes with the delivery packages that say, “It was a pleasure to serve you today,” for example, can leave a terrific impression! • Common Concerns. Develop uniform customer service strategies to handling common issues, such as responding to an angry parent or refunding a student’s account. This is an ongoing effort, as new issues crop up all the time. The best way to develop appropriate customer service responses is to do some role-playing together, so your team can identify unhelpful approaches and rehearse effective ones. It’s an Investment The first commitment to service is in attitudes, but a financial investment can make a big difference, too. Of course, many of us struggle with funding; it’s a reality in our business. But if you can find the resources, a good first step is creating quality content for a department website and social media channels like Facebook. More and more of our families use the Internet to research the services we offer. Your pages on the district’s website can go beyond menu information and basic marketing, and inform customers of your mission and vision. Be sure to make contact information easy to find. Answer commonly asked questions and create regular surveys to continually gauge customer satisfaction. Invite suggestions for improvement. Another area worth a look on your budget sheet is the apparel that your staff wears to work every day. This covers uniforms, aprons, hair coverings and nametags. Make sure your team understands the messages that a professional, clean, neat appearance can convey. Don’t forget that the physical appearance of your facilities offers a first impression, too. Are kitchens and manager offices cluttered and crowded? How can you improve these within space and budget restrictions? Take a look at the lobby area for the department’s central office. Do you have comfortable seating? Can you offer water and maybe even fresh fruit to visitors? Have games and activities available for children while you talk with the parents? Think of the different ways you can create a comfortable experience for your customers—as well as opportunities to promote your program while they are there. Get Set for Smiles Before we started making changes in Chandler, annual surveys identified the school nutrition operation as one of the district’s lowest-ranked departments in customer service. But after making small changes, sustaining these and building on them over time, we now have the highest customer service rankings in our district. Talk about tangible results! It may take time, money and effort to improve your customer service, but the results and positive impact it can make are well worth it. That’s bound to put a smile on the faces of you and your staff, in addition to those of your satisfied customers! Wesley Delbridge is food and nutrition supervisor at Chandler (Ariz.) Unified School District. Check out the department’s web presence at www.cusdnutrition.com. Illustration by istockphoto.com.
Published by School Nutrition Association. View All Articles.
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