John Ragsdale is vice president of technology research for the Technology Services Industry Association. Ragsdale recently spoke with the SmartVan about his new book, Lessons Unlearned: 25 Years in Customer Service, which addresses everything from the increasing importance of service during the past two decades to how to deal with techs’ body odor problems.

Managing people is a big part of what you’ve talked about. In your book, you discuss the different service tech “types.” What are those?

Ragsdale: In the chapter about managing employees, I talk about the four personality types that I feel constitute most of the people working in support today. Each of those employee types has positives and negatives, and I talk about how to manage and motivate each one. First we have the slammer. The slammer is the type that does anything possible to get the customer off the phone. They tend to have great productivity, but not-so-great customer satisfaction scores. We have the geek, who is the technical guy who knows everything, but who sometimes has a tendency to drag the customer through the glass and make things more complicated than they should be. And then we have the socialite. This is the amiable “people person” who loves to talk, but who tends to have long talk times. The final is the creative.

The creative is the genius type, who tends to make connections that most people don’t make. I realize this in my early days managing support at J.C. Penny, when I was supporting point-of-sale equipment in the stores. One of the big stores had their entire point-of-sale system go down, and after a lot of work and diagnosis, it turned out to be a failing power supply, which is really unusual. It’s a huge failure when it goes down. The entire store is offline. We solved the problem, and a month later the same problem happened again. The third time it happened, a couple of months later, the genius creative-type in the group happened to notice while re-reading case notes that the tech was late on site because of the heavy rain. And they mentioned the heavy rain the third time the power supply went out. The creative person put two and two together, and it turned out that water was wicking its way through the wall, and that was causing that equipment to get damp enough that the power supply was failing.

So the creative is able to make connections that other people can’t make. So they’re a little difficult to handle because they don’t follow normal procedure, but they sometimes discover really interesting things, and they have a lot that we can learn from them.

What’s your favorite story from the book?

The title of the book, “Lessons Unlearned,” came from a problem that I think a lot of managers deal with, but it’s never covered in any book about management: It’s dealing with people with body odor. The first time this occurred to me, I followed my correct procedure: I documented everything. I had HR involved. We had a formal counseling session. We solved the problem, but we really embarrassed the employee. Maybe I protected myself from lawsuits and made sure I handled things legally, but it really wasn’t right for the employee.

The second time this problem occurred, a few years later, instead of involving HR or making a big deal about it, I pulled the employee into my office on their way back from lunch, and said, “Hey, I’m really happy to see you’re playing polo on your lunch hour, but Americans are really weird about body odors, and we don’t think people should smell like people.” This was someone we had just hired from another country, they had just moved to America, they weren’t used to the weird deodorants and colognes we use. So I let him know to wear a little deodorant, to take a shower before he came to work and that his employees would love him. We both laughed about it, the problem went away and the employee was very content after it. So it just goes to show you that sometimes some of those lessons that we learn over the years, you have to unlearn them as things and people evolve.

From your perspective, how has service changed during the past 25 years?

When I first started in service in the ’80s, when you had a technical problem, you called the developer. There was no support operation. There was no call center. That grew pretty unscalable, and by the ’90, we had big support operations.

In the ’80s, we had an incredible one-to-one connection between the customer and the expert. By the ’90s, we had diluted that with all of these channels. And then 2000 comes along, and we open up communities. We have customers supporting other customers, you’ve got partners involved, you’ve got third-party experts who are contributing to your communities.

And what I’m seeing moving forward is that companies have stopped worrying about deflecting calls and getting rid of those customers, because now they’re realizing that every interaction with a customer is a possibility of reinforcing the brand, of up-selling and cross-selling. Field service is a perfect example. We know field service calls are expensive, over $1,000, but you’ve got a live person in that office or in that person’s home, and the up-sell or cross-sell potential is almost 100 percent successful. I think that we’ve spent the last 20 years trying to figure out how to get rid of customers and, moving forward, I think we’re fighting to get them back. We want to touch them. We want to talk to them. We want to shake their hands. And we want to sell.

More: How Much of Field Service Can Be Virtualized? Q-and-A with Denis Pombriant.

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