The Power of Connection

Brenidy Rice, Court Programs Analyst, Colorado Judicial Branch

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Recently Grays Peak Strategies had the opportunity to work with MAXIMUS and their staff at the Baltimore City Child Support Enforcement Office.  For this project we were asked to deliver an innovative, fun and energetic customer service training to raise the bar for their staff. I had the privilege of being creative with my co-trainer, Maureen Leif. We spent months brain storming ideas and developing a plan of how to deliver the best training possible.  When people typically think about training, the image of a dry lecture with half-asleep students comes to mind (or everyone on their phone).  Fortunately, Maureen and I had the same vision of an interactive and exciting day where there was an exchange of ideas and best practices rather than a stale one-way lecture.  Because training should be fun and maybe even an incentive.

Whenever I am planning a training I like to visualize a funnel.  I start at the top with the largest amount of information and number of ideas and then work my way to the bottom to fine tune the focus of the material and approach.  Planning for this training seemed to neatly follow my imagery but what was surprising to me was what ended up at the end.  Maureen and I spoke to several key leaders about what they wanted to see in this customer service training.  They gave us really great recommendations to build on and develop.  We also spent time talking about context as an influence to high quality customer service.  We heard from leaders from MAXUMUS that the Baltimore office had experienced a lot of change in a short period of time including changes in leadership.  Any change, even good change, requires energy and can take a toll on people.  So we asked ourselves, “What if we use part of the training to allow them to talk about their passions and the importance of self-care?”.  What?!?  How is this related to customer service?  What will they think?  Will they stand up mid-training and leave?  Well, we took the risk.  We took the risk to go off script a little and tune into the people.  

We arrived in Baltimore the day before the training and spent the evening going over our outline and filling in the last of the details (over crab cakes and oysters of course).  Having trained many years, the one thing I have learned is to be flexible.  Being flexible means changing mid-course if necessary to make sure the audiences’ need are met.  We were ready.  We had our plan and backup plans.   

One thing was immediately obvious when Maureen and I started the training.  These people had passion.  They believed in what they did and genuinely wanted to help people.  Their energy was infectious.  They dove deep into each discussion even when it meant disagreeing with each other. 

Now for the risky business: active listening.  Why was this risky?  Well, because instead of defining active listening and then using bullet points to further describe the key characteristics of active listening…we asked them to do it.  We asked people to get in groups of four and one person in the group was assigned to speak for one minute, uninterrupted, about something they are passionate about.  The role of the other three group members was to listen.  Just listen.  The room came even more alive for that minute.  People shared openly about their passion for comic books and creating community through gaming, mid-wifery and real estate. 

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So how is this related to customer service?  One woman shared her passion and love for her home country’s food.  She loved and missed authentic Caribbean food.  It just so happened that earlier in the training this same person had a strong disagreement with another person.  This person, that disagreed with her earlier, exclaimed he never knew how much she loved Caribbean food, and then said, “I’m going to remember this the next time I see you.”  This is why connecting to others is at the very heart of high quality customer service.  One minute of connecting to someone through listening to their passion extends to understanding, patience and compassion when conducting business. 

So the next time they disagree on a professional manner, perhaps they will work together from a different place to resolve the issue that then extends to improved problem solving and resolutionwith the customer.  This is powerful connection.  And it took one minute.  Training is an investment in your organization by investing in people.  I am convinced the return on this investment is significantly more when we focus on personal connection.