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The Ultimate Guide to Teach Your Team Stellar Customer Service

Season 2: Episode 21


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Stellar customer service is the core of every successful business. But the journey to get there is not always the easiest. How do you balance the resources, time, and methods to ensure that your employees are going above and beyond to provide customers with what they need? In this episode of Behind the Review, Jeff Toister, a service culture guide, shares his tips on teaching employees how to offer a service that keeps customers coming back.

On the Yelp Blog: Get Jeff’s quick and easy three-step process for customer service training success.

Bonus: Sign up for Jeff’s Customer Service Tip of the Week for more ideas on how to work through common business challenges and improve customer service.

EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Behind the Review features conversations with business owners and customers who wrote one of their Yelp reviews. In our discussions, we talk about lessons they’ve learned that can be used by other small businesses to improve their own reviews…and their bottom line. Occasionally I talk to industry experts on topics like digital marketing, social media, and leveraging technology. Today is one of those expert episodes, featuring Jeff Toister.

Let’s give our conversation a listen.

EMILY: I’m so excited to be here today with Jeff Toister, a guest who has already been on Behind the Review with me before. But Jeff, for those listeners who maybe haven’t met you in the works we’ve done together, could you introduce yourself and let us know a little bit about what you do?

JEFF: Sure. First of all, the only challenge I think with the podcast format is you cannot see that I’m drinking coffee from my Behind the Review mug right now. I’m very excited about that.

My name’s Jeff Toyer. I am a service culture guide. I help leaders get their teams customer focused, and I do that by researching and writing about customer service.

EMILY: So every business owner that I work with deals with customer service and that is core to their business. Whether they’re a one-person shop, they have a dozen employees or a couple of hundred and across the board for those different businesses, the real challenge with customer service is training and how to make sure your team knows how to provide that customer service that represents you and your business.

You’re so good at talking about that, Jeff. So let me hand the mic over to you. Talk to me a little bit about how you see this challenge come up with different businesses and maybe how we start to attack it.

JEFF: Well, I hear small business owners share a few challenges with me. One is “I don’t have resources.”

Customer service training, I think there’s a perception that it costs a lot of money. Not just for the training, but you have to pay people while you’re training them and margins are thin. I don’t have the resources to do that. So that’s one challenge.

Expertise is another challenge. Small business owners say, “Hey, I know how to provide great customer service, but how do I communicate that to my employees?” And a lot of times, a small business owner has a deep passion and understanding of their business, but the people they hire might be new to that industry, might even be new to serving customers. So they’re starting at square one. That’s tough.

And the third challenge: time. I’m running a business, I don’t feel as though I have the time that I need to train people. I was talking to a friend who runs a small accounting practice and she knows she needs to train her employees. She understands this and she tells me, “I just don’t have time. So I’m stuck because if I don’t train them, they won’t perform at the level that I need them to in terms of taking care of our clients. But I don’t feel like I have the time to train them because I have so much other work to do.” And business owners tell me about that same problem all the time.

So it’s really the cost, it’s the expertise, and it’s the time that prevents a lot of business owners from giving employees the customer service training that they both need and deserve.

EMILY: And I think the reason this is such an important thing to uncover and talk about is the business owners who lived and learned that I’ve met often tell me, “Emily we hired because we knew we had work for them to do.” But to your point, [they] didn’t have the time or the structure to train them appropriately. And then they lose these great employees. That is more loss of time and money than if we took some structured time in the beginning, we dedicated it to getting them prepared and onboarded, then we have an investment in the long term of working with that person.

Something else you mentioned that really made me think is the time required to pay and train them before they’re giving you a yield, before they’re actually helping you. And I was reading this article about Jersey Mike’s and how it went from this single tiny mom-and-pop to this huge brand and they still require three months of training before an employee gets on the slicer for the meat and I thought that was wild. We think of that as like a big chain. Maybe we see, oh, you know, they just put that guy through training and it’s no big deal because they’re a big company. Really, when we’re talking about these independent franchises, they’re just like any other mom and pop, but they know that three months time is going to have that person more than ready when they step into that role.

So this is a big thing to tackle. What do we do to get started? Where do we even begin as a business?

JEFF: Well, I think there’s a few things that business leaders should consider first to make customer service and customer service training much more manageable and easier. So there’s three places.

The first thing is definition. We need to define what outstanding service looks like so that we can give all of our employees a clear and consistent picture of “This is what we’re trying to do.” I’ll give you an example. I’m based in San Diego, California. If I’m looking for the best sliders in town and an ice cold beer, I am going to the Hills Pub. They have over 1500 reviews on Yelp and a 4.5 star rating. They are awesome. And on their website is this really nice tagline: “The Best Neighborhood Bar in San Diego.” So think about that as a compass point or a North Star for every employee. And you could tell any employee who works there. “We’re trying to be the best neighborhood bar in San Diego.” So it gives them definition. This is what it looks like when you think about your neighborhood bar. They’re friendly, they’re welcoming, they have good food. It’s a good atmosphere. It’s casual and relaxed. All of those things help people understand the service they’re trying to provide. So definition’s the first step.

The second step is you need procedures. If you train people without procedures, you’re just giving them a bunch of generic advice to follow. But once you have procedures, you have specific steps that you’d like your employees to take. And so at The Hills, for example, if you walk into the Hills Pub, the first thing you’ll notice is anybody who’s working there who sees you come in immediately says hello. The first interaction you have with anybody at the Hills Pub, they introduce themselves, they’re creating rapport and they get to know your name. They have procedures for how you place an order where you go to go to a certain station if you want to place an order for food or beverage. It helps improve their operational efficiency, and it’s another touch point where you get to chat with people. So they have procedures that help them deliver the brand of service that they’re trying to provide.

The last thing –this is the third step– resources. You have to be able to provide your employees with the resources necessary to deliver the type of service you want them to provide. It doesn’t make any sense to train employees to let’s say serve the best beer in San Diego. If you are out of beer, for example. So you need to have the resources for them to succeed. Once you have those three things, then your customer service training becomes far easier. And that upfront work, I think, makes it a better business and it should be stable table stakes for a business owner because now it allows you to communicate to anybody. You hire exactly what you want them to do.

EMILY: Mm-hmm. So that’s Definition, is that the first one? Definition? Yes. Procedures, Resources. What I really like about this is, it sounds like it’s work, right? Each one of those things sounds like, “Okay, I gotta create something or make something.” But we’re talking about doing this one time and then maybe slightly tweaking it throughout the years of your business.

But even as an independent operator, you should have some of these, the things coming together for your business. And by putting them down somewhere, it’s going to help you succeed as well, because we know why we got started. Many business owners feel that drive in what they’re doing on a daily basis, but to have it written somewhere really does make an impact, when we’re able to say, “Here’s how we treat our customers. Here are the things we do at every stage of interacting with them.” It makes it easier to go into auto mode, right? Once these employees are a part of the team and they’ve been trained and they’re embedded in the culture, they don’t have to think about that smile and greeting the person when they come through the door because it’s just autopilot for them.

Let’s talk a little bit about the resources part, because what that makes me think of sometimes is, “Alright. Do we need to hire a trainer? Do we need to invest in courses? Is this something we’re building on our own?” What’s your advice there? How do you approach that part?

JEFF: I don’t think you should hire an external trainer to tell your employees how you’d like them to deliver customer service.

I’m saying this as an external trainer, don’t hire me. Don’t hire anybody else. Don’t waste your money on that nonsense. If we take a step back and think, okay, you’ve done your homework, you’ve defined, this is what great service looks like. You have identified the best practice procedures your employees should follow to provide that service and you’ve provided the resources necessary.

Who is best equipped to train them? You, the business owner or your management team. So I don’t think that you should invest in a course, perhaps resources. For example, if you have access, and I know a lot of small business owners go to LinkedIn Premium, that comes with LinkedIn Learning, a lot of great customer service courses are on LinkedIn Learning.

Maybe there’s a book that you wanna invest in. Even listening to this podcast is a resource in terms of getting great ideas. But who should do the training? I think it’s you, the business owner. I love talking about small businesses. In. Calgary Canada, there is a chain, just, I think it’s five stores now. They’re expanding, called Village Ice Cream, 4.5 stars on Yelp. They’re crushing it, but their owner, Billy, is hands-on with training every single employee and his management team as well. And I’ve talked to him about this. It does take extra time. It takes extra effort, but he looks at it as an investment, making sure that his business is running successfully and profitably. And so it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should invest in hiring a trainer. I just don’t think you should do that. As the business owner, you are the person who’s best equipped to do it. You just need to have those other steps in place first.

EMILY: Absolutely. And I wanna circle back a little bit to the defining customer service part of this because, like, you’re even telling stories of places that stand out for you as customer service. We all have seen those experiences, right? There’s certain big brands or chains that we consistently know where they hit the mark.

There’s also places in all of our local communities that do that. And so as a business owner, compiling those examples is a really great way to create a training module, if you will. And I’ve even seen some business owners say, “Okay, go to this business and observe X, Y, Z thing.” If you’re a restaurateur or a bartender, you’ll go to other places in the area and get inspiration for drinks or you know how they do their customer service table touches.

And so really looking to others as a great example and then becoming that great example yourself is an easy way to not have to come up with it yourself. There are people who are great at customer service. Use those as great examples and training and use those as ways to create your own processes sometimes too, right?

JEFF: I think you have to be careful with that because on one hand, you wanna draw some inspiration from best practices. But on the other hand, your business is and should be unique. If you copy too much from other organizations, then you risk not being special. I’ll give you an example. I walked into a patio furniture store. I was looking for… wait for it… patio furniture. And the first thing that the person greeted me that the first thing she said to me was, we are the Nordstrom of patio furniture stores. Nordstrom doesn’t sell patio furniture. I didn’t understand the connection. How about you be really good at patio furniture?

That’s what you should focus on. So there is, I think, some validity to, let’s find out maybe the secret sauce that makes these other businesses great and apply the principles. But you should focus on what makes your individual business special. And here’s the nice thing about it. This isn’t a customer service training exercise, you’re probably doing this already as part of your marketing. You’re telling people on your website, on your Yelp profile and your social media, here’s why we’re special. Here’s what makes us unique, and now you just need to share that with your employees so they know what that means and how to deliver it. I love that.

EMILY: I’m really glad that you gave that advice because we actually just worked on something with Entrepreneur Magazine about what that unique competitive advantage of individual businesses and mom-and-pops are. And so I think you’re totally right. You need to lean into that and you definitely wanna have things that are uniquely you and you want your customers to feel that, so I love that. Thanks for correcting that advice and making it a good, useful tip. Talk to me a little bit about the skills to train, because I think sometimes business owners think, “I don’t know, can I do this? Do I like, What do I need to do to be a good trainer?” Let’s talk about the actual content that we need to train our employees on. What do they need to know to be successful? And I think this is probably across the board, you have good advice that can be applied to any employee in any type of business.

JEFF: I do. There are really three universal skill sets when it comes to customer service. So the foundation is that definition. What makes your business unique and special? What’s that great experience that you’d like every employee to provide? So that’s the part that’s unique to your experience and your business.

When it comes to skills, there are three universal skills. The first is rapport. Rapport is simply a process of getting people to know and trust you. It’s that greeting. It’s getting to know customers by name. The challenge is rapport has to be genuine. It’s not just, did you say hello? “Good morning. I am a service robot when I walk into the Hills Pub in La Mesa.” It’s genuine, it’s heartfelt. I feel like I’m Norm from Tears. (?) It’s amazing. And so that’s genuine rapport and there’s a set of skills that you can train your employees to use, but I think you should be hiring people who are already good at that.

Second skillset is listening. We’re in the customer service business and how do we know what our customers need? We listen to them. They tell us their story or their problem or what brought them in today. My wife and I recently remodeled our fireplace and we walked into a shop called Ferrell’s Fireside in San Diego, 4.0 stars on Yelp. So again, they’re crushing it and we didn’t have all the facts when we walked in. We said, “We’re looking for a fireplace, because that’s what we think we thought we wanted, and the person who assisted us did a great job of listening and asking clarifying questions. “Tell me more about your project.” I didn’t realize a fireplace literally meant the entire thing. What we really needed was an insert and a door. So those are the technical terms, and there were so many options under the sun, but he did such a wonderful job of asking questions and showing us examples and getting us to a point where we could say, “Oh, this is what we need and this is what we like, and then he could help us out.”

So listening skills. Again, if you’re hiring right, your employees probably come in the door with some good listening skills. Your training should help them go to that next level in terms of what questions to ask, what to listen for, how to read each customer. Those are those next level listening skills that you should be helping your employees develop.

The final skillset: problem solving. Problem solving is why we’re serving customers to begin with. I want to be careful with problem solving because we always think about problems as being bad, but they can be good. When I went to the fireplace store, my problem, if you will, was getting what I thought was a fireplace, but it was really, I was trying to remodel my living room.

So that isn’t a bad problem. So it’s understanding “How do we help the customer get what they want?” So, I’ll give you another local example and if you’re in another part of the country besides San Diego where I am, I bet you have a local business that excels in these areas too. So I’m talking about the places where I’m a customer.

I just finished a kitchen remodel, so I’m doing a lot of kitchen remodeling and one of the companies I know we talked about in a previous episode is Ideal. Ideal provides HVAC, plumbing, electrical, and they also do kitchen and bath remodels. And they just finished remodeling my kitchen and it looks gorgeous.

But with any remodel, there’s problems that happen along the way. As an example, our countertop was installed and the measurements were slightly off so that the drawers in our kitchen were just grazing the top of the, or the bottom of the countertop. And this could have been a real issue, but they have such great craftsmanship, they were able to find a solution where they were able to lower the drawer heights just a tiny fraction of an inch. Now the drawers look beautiful and they glide smoothly. Your customers will experience different types of problems, I’m sure, but if you can truly listen to their needs and find ways to solve them and help your customers feel better, that is one of the best skills that anybody can have in service.

So those three universal skills, rapport, listening, problem solving. They might look different from business to business, but those are core, fundamental skills every employee needs to have.

EMILY: Absolutely. And I think when we talk about what we’re teaching our employees combined with what they bring to the table, when we hire them on that personality and that rapport, it takes time either way, right? You can hire the most incredible person, but they’re still going to need to learn some of those nuances of your business, maybe how to do the specific role they’re doing. What’s your advice for making this training? I don’t wanna say quick, because we’re not trying to rush it, but efficient. How about we use that word? How can you make training happen in an efficient manner?

JEFF: I think there’s a couple of ways to look at it. And first, I want to go back to that example you gave earlier about Jersey Mike’s, where you said that you need three months of training before you start getting on the slicer. People are probably picturing like three months, like in a classroom or like, what’s going on, but let’s reframe that.

I don’t know for sure, but I would wager that three months really means three months of experience, three months of on the job training, three months of doing your job, day in and day out, until you’ve achieved a level of proficiency where we can finally trust you with slicing the meat. And so if you think about experience as being one of the best ways for people to learn as long as they’re learning lessons from every customer they serve. That’s a big part of your training, but where else can you nudge them? We have to take our mindset away from this kind of formal long training program that’s resource-intensive, time-intensive, and let’s think about the things you’re already doing as a business owner where we could connect that to training.

I think I see three places, very specifically, new hires. You have to train them on procedures, you have to train them on policies, you have to train them on products, and make customer service a big part of that. I was in a retail store – one of my favorite places to shop, REI. And if you like the outdoors as much as I do, you go to REI and one of the amazing things they do with training is they don’t just throw someone out there and say, “Hey, good luck.” There was a new employee who was actually shadowing a seasoned associate and walking through different departments, learning exactly how you interact with customers, how you greet them, how you engage with them.

You have to do the training anyways. You might as well throw customer service in there. So new hire training, huddles. A lot of businesses do pre-shift meetings or huddles. I know in hospitality, in restaurants, often in retail, this is something you do. You gather the team before you open for the day or before the shift starts, and you spend five, ten minutes just talking about what’s important. Customer service is important, so throw that into your huddle and each day, each shift you’ll have touched on customer service. Also training in the moment is the last place. How many times have you seen an employee just nail it? In the moment, you can come to them and say, “You did so great. Let’s break it down. What did you do? Because you should do it exactly that way the next time.” How many times have you seen an employee struggle a little bit and they needed just a little nudge or a little coaching? That’s training. So all those places where you’re already helping your employees understand how to do their jobs better, should be part of your customer service training program. No long boring workshops required.

EMILY:  I love it. No one wants to sit in that room at the desk watching videos all day. I know I don’t want to do that. I used to be a front office manager at a Marriott, so I remember that delicate balance between having to learn stuff before you’re in front of the customer and then what you’re learning when you are in front of them.

I loved what you said about the pre-shift meetings. I think that’s a great way to even acknowledge people who did great on a previous shift. Maybe give a shout out to the kinds of behavior you wanna see. And it also allows you to look at what the customers have said. You know, maybe you’re looking at some feedback you’ve gotten since that shift last worked, and you can call out some great things they’re doing and I love talking about that. Not just talking about what went wrong, but really building up the confidence of all the things you’re doing right and doing them well. In that same vein, let’s talk about how we make this last. And I think the pre-shift meetings are a great example, but how do these business owners ensure that the training sticks and it’s constantly being a part of these employees’ day-to-day lives?

JEFF: The key word there is “constantly.” Your employees know what’s important to you and the business based upon what you talk about the most often. And I liked how you framed it and because if you only talk to your employees when they’re doing something wrong, you’re creating a culture and mentality of “Stay out of the line, the crosshairs, stay away from the boss. I don’t want to get in trouble.” I talked to an employee at a store, it was a cashier, and they had some sort of awkward promotion or something going on, and the person just rolled their eyes and said, “Eh, I’m just trying to get through this until the next weird idea comes out.”

That’s not the mentality you want at all. So talk about how to do things the right way on a constant and consistent basis. Hold up those great examples of doing it right as a leader, be a model yourself. I’ll never forget my first job when I was a high school student. I worked in retail, in a retail clothing store, and my boss did such a great job not only of demonstrating how to treat customers out on the sales floor, but she also did a great job of demonstrating how to treat each other by the way she treated everybody on the team and treated them with the same level of respect and care and dignity that she expected us to treat customers. So that model I will never forget that shows you as an employee exactly what to do.

One of the things that I do, and it’s a resource that I’ve provided absolutely free, is called my Customer Service Tip of the Week. And it’s an email that comes out once a week on Monday with one specific customer service tip, and anyone could subscribe to that. You could go to

You can subscribe yourself, you can subscribe your employees and each week, it gives you one specific tip to talk about or earlier we talked about rapport and this week’s tip was about rapport skills and specifically building rapport with your internal customers who might not work in the same location as you do. We know if you have a multi-location business that’s very important. So each week, it’s just one little thing to focus on, to put in a team huddle, a team meeting. Over time, you think about it, over 52 weeks, you’ll have talked about 52 different concepts and reinforce them with your team. So talk about customer service constantly, whether it’s a great review, whether it’s something you saw, something someone does that’s really great, or even one of those weekly customer service tips. The more you promote it, the more your employees will know, it’s very important.

EMILY: And what I love about the customer service tip of the week is since they are so focused on these different elements of customer service, you can pull up a tip from weeks ago and use that advice at a meeting with your leadership. I frequently go back and read previous ones. I think it’s great to have a topic maybe that you wanna cover with your leadership. You can pull it up and see what that tip was, and it really is great content that you can come back to and use over and over again.

Jeff, can you just tell everyone one more time what that URL is and we’ll put it in the show notes as well.

JEFF: It’s, so You and anyone on your team can sign up for free, and one of the cool features about it is when you get those weekly emails, you can reply to anyone.

Your message goes right to me. Some people, for some reason, think I have an assistant or some sort of gatekeeper. That’s not the case. Your message goes right to me, and I hear from business owners and business leaders all the time who share successes. They ask me questions, they share challenges, and I respond to each and every one of those messages.So you can connect with me directly through those emails as well.

EMILY: Incredible. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat today. I’m really excited for our listeners to start thinking about how they can better approach customer service and customer service training with their teams.

JEFF: Thanks, Emily. It’s been a pleasure and I really enjoyed our conversation today.

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