When you think of “women” and “customer service,” is the first image that comes to mind a smiling, headset-wearing woman in a low-level customer service job meekly taking guff from a grumpy caller? Think again. With women now making up the majority of the U.S. workforce, enrolling in and graduating from college at higher rates than men, and owning 8.3 million businesses that employ 7.7 million people (according to American Express OPEN’s study The State of Women-Owned Businesses), they are also leading the way in developing new approaches to customer service.How are women business owners and managers driving the changes in customer service, and what can other small-business owners learn from them? “I hate to generalize, but across the board I think women are generally more nurturing, and tend to be more customer-service centric,” says consumer advocate and social media expert Dave Carroll, who earned fame with his United Breaks Guitars video and has since co-founded Gripevine.com, an online social media platform for consumer-complaint resolution.
All About Empathy
Along with that customer focus comes a strong sense of empathy. “A great component of engaging employees and customers is empathy and walking in the customers’ shoes to drive the operation from the way the customer experiences the company,” says customer service expert Jeanne Bliss, author of I Love You More Than My Dog: 5 Decisions That Drive Extreme Customer Loyalty in Good Times and Bad. “That can be found in both great male and female leaders, but what we see in female leaders who excel at driving great customer experiences is a keen ability to coach on empathy.”
That empathy is tied in with a holistic approach to life and business. “My research shows that women often don't separate home from work. They are in-born multitaskers—brain research shows both hemispheres light up when women are multitasking—so work and personal life just all blend together,” says Elaine Allison, a customer service expert, speaker and trainer and author of The Velvet Hammer: PowHERful Leadership Lessons for Women Who Don't Golf. “When customers have problems, [women] often have a broader empathetic understanding, and quickly look for ways to fix not only the initial problem but also other areas surrounding the issue.”
Most Customers Are Women“Since women make up 80 to 90 percent of the customers in a lot of industries, I think they have a greater sensitivity to the needs of the customer, and greater appreciation for what customers are looking for and how they want to be treated,” says Nell Merlino, founder and president of Count Me In for Women’s Economic Independence, a nonprofit organization that provides resources to help women create million-dollar businesses.
Merlino cites retail as one industry where women’s approach to customer service is making waves. “So many things are going to apps and digital. A different shopping experience is developing, and it’s driven by women in leadership positions, as well as changes in technology,” she says. While women have always enjoyed gathering and sharing information about products and services, Merlino says, technology is now enabling that curation and conversation, propelling women who know how to harness it—like Daily Candy founder Dany Levy–to the forefront of the customer experience.
More Than Just Service
“We use the term ‘customer experience’ rather than [just] ‘service’ to define the fact that customer experiences a journey across the silos,” Bliss explains. Successful women business owners focus not just on the service department, where problems end up, but on all aspects of the business.
“Leaders who embrace a comprehensive process for building the business are establishing a differentiating approach to business growth,” Bliss says. One aspect of this service orientation is hiring for cultural fit, says Bliss, who cites Colleen Barrett at Southwest Airlines and Amy’s Ice Creams founder Amy Simmons as examples of women business leaders who excel at finding service-oriented employees.Once that team is in place, a coaching approach fine-tunes customer service. Bliss says successful women leaders invest two to three times more than the average company in employee selection, training and development, and building tools to support frontline employees.
Why Collaboration Matters
“Building what I call ‘the collaboration muscle’ in connecting the silos is another key element of [customer service], and is a strong common denominator in great female leaders,” Bliss adds.Collaboration not only helps companies correct service problems, but also prevent them, Allison says. “Using their innate talent of nurturing, women can look at service breakdowns as opportunities to prevent the breakdown in the first place,” she explains. “Using [collaborative] teams to brainstorm what is going on and how to fix it will help them win every time. With service breakdowns, it’s almost always a system problem, not a people problem.”
If there are any weaknesses in the female approach to customer service, it’s that your empathy can sometimes get in the way of creating systems. Bending over backward to help the customer is all well and good, but if you spend more money repairing customer service issues than you do preventing them, you’ll quickly be out of business, Merlino points out: “Getting systems in place is critically important.”
Combine systems with empathy, however, and you’ve got the double-whammy Bliss calls “operational reliability plus humanity. That sounds vague, but here’s what it means: language on a packing slip written for the common man, with humor or at least everyday language. It means hiring people for empathy and the ability to connect with the customer.”
Moving forward, providing standout customer service will become even more complex and require every company, big or small, to pay attention to what women in leadership roles are doing. “Women naturally want to ‘tend’ to people, and if customers feel tended to, they will come back and refer new business,” says Allison. “The bar will rise.”
What can all businesses learn from women’s approach to customer service?
- Create a unified service experience: “As customers ‘voices’ become stronger and they voice their opinions louder through the Internet, leaders must be able to connect the experience across channels,” Bliss warns.
- Get in on the conversation: “The conversation that goes on about products and their attributes is very important,” says Merlino. “Men tend to talk more about the attributes; women are more focused on how products fit into their lives.”
- Balance your act: “Look after your people first, and they will look after you,” says Allison. “Financing, marketing and operations are important too, but it’s all intertwined.”
- Don't give up: Business owners often feel like Sisyphus, pushing that rock up the hill and gaining a bit of traction only to have it tumble back again. “My experience is that most women leaders who excel have a big ‘Sisyphus’ component in their DNA,” says Bliss. “It’s a character trait I recommend to anyone trying to improve the customer experience.”
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