The ability to carry on a conversation in a service setting is a fine art. A great conversation evokes the right Customer emotions.
(The sign in the photo is German word for dishwasher).
This past Christmas, the dishwasher at my mother-in-law’s house in Germany broke down.
So we spent a few days visiting appliance dealers.
I grew up in the U.S. and have lived the last 17 years in Asia, so my expectations of sales & service finesse at big box appliance stores is low.
In the big box appliance store in Germany they evoked my emotions with a great conversation
In the store a young lady approached us to see if she could help.
When she heard my American-accented German she switched immediately to English.
As I stood there silently analyzing the interaction, I realized that her competence went well beyond knowing her products & services.
It was marked by her ability to carry on a conversation with us.
Full and complete sentences, clarity, responding to input, articulating responses, a calm unrushed demeanor – wow.
I left the experience knowing more about dishwashers than I had expected. And we knew which dishwasher was going to be ‘right’ for Mama.
It was so easy and my expectations were far exceeded.
The fact that the conversation was not held in her mother tongue was just an added bonus.
After years of working overseas, I don’t accept that someone can’t carry on a conversation because it is not in their mother tongue.
The German apprenticeship system
As we left the store I turned to my partner and asked – “so why is it that here in Germany, pretty much every time we interact with a retail staff, a restaurant staff or a hotel staff that the experience is so, well, competent?”
And the answer was – the German apprenticeship system.
It seems that in Germany, before you can work as a hairdresser, waiter, retail clerk etc. you complete a formal apprenticeship program.
This means that you study and do on the job training for some period of time before you are considered ‘competent’ to do the job. The time-frame for an apprenticeship typically runs 2.5 – 3.5 years.
So for most jobs this means that it is not just a job but a profession.
My mind goes immediately here to the Contact Centre industry where Agents are likely trained for 2 – 4 weeks, thrown on the phone and never trained again.
I’m not an expert in the German apprenticeship system – and I’m reading up on it all the time.
But each year I spend on average 3 – 4 months in Germany, and the retail and call centre experiences that I have there are in stark contrast to the experiences that I have back in Asia.
Something is definitely different and it shouldn’t be chalked up so easily to cultural differences.
Here is an interesting article on The Atlantic (2014) called, “Why Germany is So Much Better at Training Its Workers” which compares and contrasts the German and U.S. systems for workforce development.
Competence in the service industry – the ability to carry on a conversation
Farmers grow things, tailors make clothes, bakers make bread – but in service we produce conversations.
When I run courses in quality or service, I remind the Frontliners that every day they produce conversations.
That’s their product, their output – that’s what they’re paid to do.
So in the same way we expect the tailor to make a nice fitting suit, or the hairstylist to give us a terrific cut, it’s valid and reasonable to expect a high quality of conversational ability from a Frontliner.
In Asia, many organizations believe these conversations should be highly scripted, or the staff is trained to adhere to a strict list of compliance behaviors in the hopes that these will magically coalesce together to create a conversation.
But that’s rarely the case.
And to be fair to the Frontliners – faced with the prospect of either going off-script or missing out on their compliance measurements – they retreat into polite silence – or act at best as ‘Google on 2 legs’ simply answering questions.
Times are changing
Sure – a lot is going digital.
But human interaction through voice, face to face – and even channels such as email and social media – are more complex and important to the overall experience.
The young lady in the big box store in Wiesbaden taught me that competence is beautiful – and that in service – the ability to carry on a conversation is where the power to create a great experience lies.
Thank you for reading!
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