What Owners Need to Know About Customer Service – John Kenneally

If there’s one thing John Kenneally would want all businesses to remember, it’s that without customers your business doesn’t exist. That being said, how do you make sure you’re giving the best customer service?  Well, the emotional intelligence and social intelligence of the people you hire play a huge role in that.

Certainly hiring people with empathy and a clear understanding of empathy, self-awareness, and social skills is going to be a great place to start. But what if you have a great team that lacks effective social skills?  Luckily – unlike your I.Q. – these are things that can be trained and taught.

Rich: My guest today founded and is co-owner of Kenneally & Company, a marketing and consulting company in southern Maine. He currently serves as an assistant professor of marketing and management at Saint Joseph’s College, he has also taught at the college since 1993, and a variety of Maine institutions including Colby College, SNHU, Thomas College, Husson University, and University of Maine Hutchinson Center.

His research interests include improving customer service through social and emotional intelligence, as well as creating strategic wins through coopetition. He holds a B.A. in French form the University of Maine at Orono and an MBA in Finance from the University of Connecticut. So please say “bonjour” to John Kenneally.

John: Bonjour.

Rich: Welcome to the show.

Yury: Welcome. It will be all international today.

John: Exactly.

Yury: John, so allow me to ask you the first question. Can you tell us a little bit about Kenneally & Company, and your focus on customer service?

John: Kenneally & Company involves itself in a lot of things, a lot of it is marketing. And on the marketing front we focus on both small businesses as well as economic development for communities. And then we also do educational knowledge management as well. So in terms of customer service, we do trainings on customer service and it’s also something I teach at Saint Joseph’s College. It’s one of those virtual cycles where you have both helping the other.

Yury: Sounds good. One thing that I wanted to clarify, is there a difference between customer service and customer experience?

John: Customer service and customer experience are two sides of the coin. Customer service is that you provide to the customer, and then the way the customer accepts it is the customer experience. So they are two sides of the same coin.

Yury: Got ya. So sort of like the recipient and the messenger.

John: Exactly.

Rich: So in your bio we mentioned emotional intelligence and social intelligence, EI and SI. What role do they play in customer service?

John: They’re underpinning almost everything in terms of customer service. Emotional intelligence breaks down into two parts. One is the emotional self-awareness and understanding yourself. And then the other side is managing yourself.

Similarly social intelligence has those two sides as well where one is the awareness of where you fit in the organization that you’re providing customer service. And then the other side is managing relationships. So really they’re two very similar types of things.

Emotional intelligence is internal to you. And then social is in terms of the way you present to the world and connect with the world. And there are a lot of similar things. A lot of what I teach and a lot of what we train on is based largely in the teachings of Daniel Coleman, a Professor at Harvard University and a prolific writer on both emotional and social intelligence. One example of something that really connects to customer service is empathy, where you understand your customer and understand where they come from.

The approach we take at Kenneally & Company on emotional intelligence is to start where you are and then raise your game and improve your level of EI and SI. So for example with empathy, the base level of customer service is just understanding that you’re there for the customer, understanding that without the customer your business doesn’t really exist. And that’s whether you’re a small business or a large business, that’s the case.

And so you start there and you raise to a point where the higher levels of empathy include a point where you’re saying, “Ok, I understand where you’re coming from. Now I’m going to mobilize my network to make things better for you.”  And so in the higher levels of empathy you’re taking your feelings of empathy with a customer and taking them to a point where you’re actually doing good for the customer or helping the customer do well for themselves.

And that applies whether we’re talking about Kenneally & Company. An example was my wife, Jennifer, and I were – Jen is the other part of Kenneally & Company – and Jen was talking about an economic development program that we’re doing for a community where in addition to providing marketing advertising and video for that community, we’re also doing some things on a small basis for some small businesses. So for the community to succeed, for economic development to succeed, the individual businesses need to succeed. And so that’s an example of that.

Similarly at Saint Joseph’s College, we’re always dealing with students and again having them succeed as well. And so that highest level of empathy, you’re developing your network, connecting people to resources, and helping them to succeed.

Rich: So is that all under emotional intelligence, or does that also cross over to social intelligence by chance as well? It feels like there could be a blurry line even tough one may be internal and the other one external.

John: Right. Empathy is definitely the case of that where in the earlier writings of Goldman he was talking about it as part of EI. And as he wrote about SI most recently he moved empathy from EI into SI. And it really is one of those things that does transition between the two and cross boundaries because you start out with a basic level of empathy and there’s just a hurricane. And so the basic level is you feel badly for people who are in there and that’s internal and that’s a good thing.

But when you make a donation to hurricane relief, that’s when you’re starting to activate the social side, or when you’re deciding you need to be there, I’m a nurse and I need to be around so I’m going to go down to that location and help people out. So that’s when you get to the more advanced level of empathy is when you’re really mobilizing yourself and mobilizing others in some cases.

Rich: So it feels like there’s a test for everything these days. Is there one for emotional intelligence and social intelligence that somebody could take to understand where they are on the scale… or to give to our employees?

John: Mmhmm. Another prolific writer in addition to Goldman in EI and SI is Travis Bradberry, and Emotional Intelligence 2.0 is a book that he wrote. And as part of it there’s a test that you can take it and track your own progress as well, to find out areas of your strength in terms of EI and SI. And then also you can take it again at a later point and see if you have developed your EI and SI.

Yury: So speaking of all these here tests, and I believe the name of the book is actually Strength Finder 2.0, I think that’s what it was. But how do we know if our staff is giving good customer service and how can we tie the good customer service back to their emotional intelligence and social intelligence?

John: That’s a great question, and it’s really important for a human resources standpoint to hire people with strong EI and SI. And so one of the ways of finding people with strong EI and SI is by situational questions where you’re looking at their position where they would be applying some of their EI and SI.

When you think of the EI traits you’ve got that emotional self-awareness that I mentioned, you’ve got positivity, you’ve got an achievement orientation and the ability to be flexible to adjust yourself and meet the things that come along.

At Machias Savings Bank I’m sure something that’s very important is sometimes you have a flu epidemic and so suddenly your branch is decimated and you’ve still got to provide excellent customer service. And having people that are able to be flexible, to jump in, to change a role, it’s of huge importance. And so I think the idea is to try to populate your staff with people that do have that strong EI and SI and then have them apply it. And it is something that unlike I.Q where you either have it or you don’t, EI and SI can be trained, it can be developed.

Yury: Is it something that we can anticipate, or is it something we should begin the training tomorrow instead of waiting for some kind of incident to happen?

John: Absolutely. It is something that being proactive about is going to be tremendously helpful. And it’s definitely something that you can start today. And you can think in terms of your human resources and finding people that do have that do have that positivity and finding people that do have that ability to think on their feet to make adjustments to think strategically.

I talk about predictable surprises and it really is when something happens when you have a staff of 5 people and two people are out, that’s a surprise but it’s predictable as well. Because things do happen and people do move on and people do get sick and they do occasionally take the first day of baseball season to go to Fenway Park and so on.

These things, when they come up they’re a surprise. But by the same token you should be able to anticipate them and have a plan in place. You should always have that Plan B in place.

Rich: So there’s roles. Companies have customer service reps, not all businesses are big enough to necessarily have that role. How do we make sure that all of our employees are focused on our customers?

John: I’ve been in small business for a long time, whether you’re Andy’s Agway or Maine Indoor Carting, most Maine businesses are relatively small businesses. And one of the challenges always is when Andy is not at Andy’s Agway, do you get the same great customer service that you get when Andy is there.

 And it’s so true of mom and pop businesses is that when mom is not there or pop’s not there, sometimes your business slides. Sometimes your quality slides, sometimes people who are on their best behavior when there’s a boss around aren’t on their best behavior when the boss isn’t around.

And again, it’s something that you should try to be aware of those sorts of situations, and you should know some of your key customers so that you can find out how things are when you’re not in the place. When somebody comes into your shop and you’re not there and you find out that this person who you hire is your front end person is providing that outstanding customer service or not.

Rich: And would you ever recommend sending in a confederate while you’re away to kind of see how that front line employee is treating your unknown typical walk-in customer?

John: Right. The secret shopper kind of thing is definitely something that you can do. Someone who’s a friend or a valued colleague, it’s something that you can do and it will give you some insight and maybe surprise you.

One of the things with EI and SI, like anything in life, a little of it is good and more of it is better. And then it gets to a point where it becomes bad. And one of the downsides and one of the problems with the EI and SI is that there are people who are Machiavellians, people who are psychopaths who have no empathy themselves, but they know what it looks like and what it sounds like and they know how to fake it. And so those kinds of things are part of the problem with EI and SI because a lot of people do have that understanding that, “Gee, I should be thinking about the customer first, but then I’ve got my cellphone.” And when the customer comes along it’s like, who the heck are you.

But it is something that you want to be aware of and you want to find, if you possibly can, when someone is faking it or when someone is being authentic.

Rich: So if a company decides that they do have room for improvement, is that one of the things that Kenneally & Company does? Like, do you come in and train the staff on different ways to interact and behave around customers?

John: Absolutely. And it’s not only your external customers, it’s your internal customers as well. There was a company in town that hired us to deal with their IT people, because their IT department was very strong on the technical side but not very strong in terms of interacting with their fellow employees.

Rich: God, you never hear that.

John: Shocker.

Yury: So what exactly did you do to help the IT folks to be better collaborators or communicators?

John: We took them in emotional intelligence and developed their adaptability and developed their emotional self-awareness. And I think that was a big piece of it is they really didn’t understand how they came across to people.

And it’s something that I had kind of slapped in my face a number of years ago myself. I got into teaching because I was painfully shy talking in front of people. And we had a thing where I was working where we’d have about 20 people around a conference room table and every Monday we’d go around the table and talk about our past week and experience and I was always very quiet in those meetings. And at one point a colleague pulled me aside and said why do you think you’re better than everyone else, why are you so arrogant that you don’t think that this is worth your time sharing your experiences with other people. I was shocked, I wasn’t aware that I was coming across that way.

Rich: What to you was shy, but arrogant to someone else?

John: Right, exactly.

Yury: Wow that is a good example. Thank you. I’m pretty shy, too. Anyway, John what do you think, how has social media changed customer service? Because now that every single person has access to a mobile device and if someone says something to me at the local store I can just simply go online and write a review and maybe have a negative or a positive impact on the business that I interact with.

John: It’s coming in so many ways. I think of small businesses here in Maine and we live in a world where the difference between 4.5 stars and 3.5 stars can be the difference between a restaurant succeeding or failing. And so you really do have to be very aware of customer experience and you have to address them.

One of the problems with small businesses is oftentimes social media becomes something that is another responsibility of someone, and as they get busy with their other parts – and sometimes with business owners that have the best intentions who want to be the face of their company and want to interact – that becomes something they do for a month and then it falls by the wayside. So you have something out there where somebody leaves a bad review and it just sits there for 6 months to a year because nobody has paid attention to it. So it is a challenge and social media is huge today.

And I think one of the things form a customer service standpoint that’s becoming more and more evident is that you don’t always have to have emotional intelligence and social intelligence from people. And Amazon, their interface provides some of the best AI CS even though they don’t know me, they know me because their analytics are so good and because they programmed in such solid EI and SI that it’s better than 4 face to face CS from an associate at Walmart or whatever.

Rich: It almost feels more like customer service is more about the customer, it’s what they perceive rather than necessarily what you’re putting out there. Which is an important thing to keep in mind.

Do you think that customer service reps should be trained now in social media responding to complaints on Twitter or Yelp or any of those sort of things?

John: Absolutely. I think it’s huge. And really when you think about when you have something that’s written it’s something that humor…Yury made a little joke a minute ago and in the room it’s very evident. But with the written word a lot of negativity and a lot of bad feelings come up.

And so if you’re going to troll the trolls on social media, just make sure you have really good game. Wendy’s is an example of a company that has tremendous Twitter game, so it’s something if you’re good at it then be good at it. But if you’re not good at it, then try to stay away from it because you can really offend a large group of people without even thinking. And so you have to be at least a little bit aware of that.

Rich: Absolutely. Do you feel that the expectations of customer service are generational? Do boomers have different expectations than millennials, and do we need to have an approach for each age group?

John: Yeah, definitely. It’s something that now we’re at Generation Z – the group that I see in college now – and they have a very different set of expectations than I do, a baby boomer myself. And really it’s getting to know them and to understand their expectations.

And so I think looking at finding some good analytics. One of the things that we just did in the customer service class that we’re teaching right now is to look at the Net Promoter Score. That’s where you ask people if you could use a 0-10 point scale would you recommend this company to a friend or relative. And so you take all your 9’s and 10’s – those are your promoters – and you subtract out anybody that gives you a 6 or less. And then divide by the total number of people. You know 7’s and 8’s are passes, they’re good but they’re not necessarily promoters.

And so that’s something that I think a lot of companies can use to take a look at. At Saint Joe’s we just did it, I did it last fall semester with my customer service class, I did it again this fall. Our numbers went up dramatically in one year.

Rich: When you say your numbers went up dramatically in one year, I have some questions. So I’m not sure why we get rid of all those people who are 6 and below. I’m sure you don’t mean that we just ignore them, but how did you – by just focusing on the 9’s and 10’s – bring up I assume your overall reviews.

John: Mhmm. So the number of 9’s and 10’s went up fairly strongly. And also the numbers of 7’s and 8’s. So essentially the 6 and below are the ones who are on the negative side, they’re the ones who don’t like you. Because generally I think part of it is that if you give a company that you do business with a 5, you’re not really that positive about that company, you don’t really like that company. So anybody 6 and below, anybody that gives you a 0 – 6, that really speaks volumes about people not really liking you, not positive about you.

So you take the ones who are really positive about you and the ones that are really negative about you and subtract the negatives from the positives, and then divide by the total number of people including those 7’s and 8’s as well. And so that gives you a number and our score at Saint Joe’s went up pretty significantly.

Yury: Are there any additional elements that we need to focus in this study? Because that promotor score, we’re talking basically about promoting your business, but what about the quality of service or the ease of doing business with you. Are those elements part of that study? 

John: Yes. And it is definitely something where you should look at metrics and think in terms of what you’re measuring. A net promoter score connects to a number of things. It connects to user experience, it connects to customer loyalty, and it’s a good general number on customer service. But depending on what you’re trying to achieve there are any number of metrics. And every business should have the ones that it needs or the ones that are relevant, and the ones that are going to make a difference.

Rich: I guess what I’m missing here is, so you improved your score dramatically, that’s awesome. But what changes did Saint Joseph’s make? Did it refocus on the kind of people who would give it 9’s and 10’s, so you’re attracting the right kind of people? Or did you make changes within the organization within the college so that the average person would like it better? I’m kind of curious to know what the net promoter scores tell you that made you do a better job the following year?

John: I think part of it was user experience around campus life, and it was definitely something that we made a very conscious effort on campus life. But also on the academic side on really putting the student at the center and really being focused on our students. I think those two pieces as far as a school goes are very important. It’s like an army travels on its stomach. Well the same thing, we’re making sure that the food service is there, the food service is of high quality, and people are comfortable in their homes away from home.

Yury: So would it be fair to say that within that particular study you focused on a specific target group, which are the students. So it’ wasn’t focused on the parents of the students.

John: Correct. And I grant you, this was a small study. This was not something that would be statistically significant, because it was just something we were doing as an academic exercise.

Rich: If a business believes that they don’t have the time or resources for customer service training for staff, what are a couple quick takeaways that you can give them right now, just something they should focus on?

John: I think interviewing, just getting people who are positive and finding people that have that positive outlook, and just getting good people. And also trusting yourself and if there’s something you think is not quite right, trust in your gut and say you’re going to take a pass on this person.

People who are in food service are paid about the same. But if you go to a Panera or if you go to a Chik-fil-a, you tend to get a higher level of service and people who are positive. And so by populating your staff with people who do have that positivity, it can’t help but improve your customer service.

Yury: That’s fantastic. John, this is the part where we ask the most important question of the show. What one thing would you change, if you could, to improve the business ecosystem here in Maine?

John: Being in higher education I’d say keeping our best and brightest here in the state. Live and Work in Maine has done a lot in terms of getting people and hopefully reconnecting boomers and others back into the state. But if we don’t lose them in the first place that’s the best possible thing.

And I think people need to be versatile these days. Rich is a good example of that. Here he’s an author, he does Agents of Change Conference, he runs a media company. You need to be good at more than one thing these days, and it’s an absolute necessity. 

Rich: I’m also an excellent driver. Sorry to cut you off there. And that’s a great answer. Obviously I do think that keeping the students here in Maine is critical, getting them right out of college.

This has been great, John. And for the people at home who maybe want to learn a little more about customer service, about marketing, can you tell us where they should find you online?

John: You can find me online at KenneallyandCompany.com. Nobody ever spells Kenneally well, my family should have been Smiths or something, but it’s 2 N’s and 2 L’s, Kenneally.

Rich: And of course we’ll have those in the show notes as well, so go ahead and visit the website. John, thank you so much for stopping by today.

John: Thank you it’s been a great pleasure.