Monday Mornings with Madison

Open Letter to Employers: Here are the Key Skills Your Customers Really Value from Your Staff

Attention employers everywhere (that means any organization that has people in any department, any profession, and at any level providing a service to others):   What comes to mind when you think about customer service? Patience.  Attentiveness.  Knowledge.  Positive attitude.  Cheerfulness.  Speed.  Accuracy.  Intuition.  Composure.  Flexibility.  Yes, these soft skills are important in delivering good customer service.  But they don’t top the list of the most critical customer service skills.  Whether it is in working with patients, clients or customers, the most successful people are those who consistently provide clear and complete communication, are genuinely compassionate, and demonstrate real kindness.  Being ‘likeable’ is also important.  That’s right:  Communication.  Compassion.  Kindness.  Likeability.

Yet, these skills or qualities aren’t taught in vocational programs, colleges or universities.  Why?  While customer service is considered somewhat important, it really isn’t valued as highly as hard skills at most organizations.  Certainly, a world-renowned cardio-vascular surgeon is valued more for his deep knowledge and ability to perform cutting-edge surgeries with precision rather than his charm, gift of gab or bedside manner.  His hard skills are why he is paid ‘the big bucks’.  However, studies are finding a critical connection between great customer service and profitability in many occupations; even more important than hard skills.  In fact, in some occupations, good communication, compassion, likeability and kindness is the difference between a thriving business and one that is drowning in expenses, lawsuits and complaints.   If the name of the game in business is to make money, then employers need to hire nice, friendly, caring and communicative employees in order to enhance the business’ bottom line.  The good news is that these skills can be taught!


Studies in many occupations show that communication is vitally important in gaining and keeping customers.  Those who lack in this area generally end up dealing with complaints, lawsuits and additional expenses that can be costly to an organization.  For example, one study showed that 40% of malpractice claims against real estate agents involved communication errors with the client.  Good communication does pay.  This is not just true of entry level employees and mid-level professionals.  It also holds true even for those with prestigious careers.

Case in Point:  Physicians and Communication

When it comes to customer service, no indicator is a more telling or a clearer signal of dissatisfaction than a lawsuit filed against a doctor by a patient. In the medical field, studies regarding malpractice lawsuits show that unequivocally. One 1989 study of Florida obstetricians showed that 70% of all malpractice-related expenses during a five-year period were incurred by just 6% of all obstetricians.  And a follow-up study showed that one of the most significant predictors of which doctors might be sued was having been sued before.  In other words, some doctors get sued way more often than others. Now, it may make sense that incompetent doctors would get sued more than good doctors, and that would have nothing to do with being likeable or being a good communicator.  But that’s not the case.  Another study showed that malpractice lawsuits weren’t actually good indicators of incompetence.  Some doctors were more likely to be sued, regardless of whether the cases against them had merit.  So why do some doctors get sued more for malpractice?  A primary issue seems to be communication.

A study looking at the cause of malpractice lawsuits against obstetricians found that 33% of all patients who sued their doctors said that their doctor would not talk openly to them and 50% said their doctor had tried to mislead them.  A whopping 70% said that they were not warned about long-term neuro-developmental problems in their children.  The key issue seemed to be unclear or incomplete communication.

Another study looked at the relationship between patient satisfaction and physicians’ history of malpractice suits. Patients of doctors who had been sued in the past were 50% more likely to report that their doctor rushed them, did not explain reasons for tests or ignored them. Poor communication was the most common complaint.  These patients did not know that their doctors had been sued for malpractice in the past  On the other hand, primary care physicians who were sued the least often were also those more likely to spend time communicating with their patients about their care and were more likely to try to get their patients to talk and express their opinions.

Communication Skills Can Be Learned

Given the evidence of the benefits of clear communication in medicine, the University of Michigan began a program in 2000 to improve communication around medical errors. When errors occurred, the program encouraged physicians to tell patients about them, how they happened, and what would be done to make them less likely to occur in the future. Doctors were also encouraged to genuinely apologize, and offer compensation for harm if it occurred.  Since then, malpractice claims for doctors in the program dropped 36% and lawsuits dropped 65%. The cost of total liability and patient compensation dropped 59% and legal costs dropped by 61%.  For gastroenterology doctors in the program, malpractice claims dropped 58%, despite a 72% increase in clinical activity. The total cost to the health care system of malpractice in gastroenterology decreased 64%.  The program was a huge success.  Clearly, teaching doctors to be better communicators and deliver a better ‘bedside-manner’ paid huge dividends for medical practices and hospitals.

Indeed, according to Paul J. Meyer, “Communication – the human connection – is the key to personal and career success.”  However, learning to be better communicators is no small task for professionals in any field. But improving this skill will likely make a big difference in the company’s bottom line, and that is reason enough to make it a priority.

Kindness, Compassion and Likeability

The link between profitability and other soft skills, such as kindness, compassion and likeability, are also well-established. A well-known study of retailer, Sears, revealed that a five-point improvement in employee attitude and demeanor resulted in a 1.3% increase in customer satisfaction, which then drove a 0.5% increase in company revenue.

A study conducted at Columbia University showed that popular / likeable employees were seen as more trustworthy, motivated, serious and decisive than those who were liked less.  This view led to more recommendations for generous pay increases.  On the other hand, less-liked work colleagues were perceived as arrogant, conniving and manipulative, and consequently missed out on raises and promotions regardless of their experience and/or education.  So it actually does pay to be nice.

But not only does it pay monetarily, it pays in other ways too.  A University of California study conducted in 1984 found that there were significant differences identified in the treatment plan of patients, depending on their characteristics.  Likeable patients were encouraged significantly more to telephone and return more frequently than those viewed as less likeable.  Medical staff actually educated likeable patients significantly more often and in greater detail than they did unlikeable patients.  Thus, likeability is not just essential to professional success, it plays a role in most every kind of activity and interaction a person has.

For employees, while being likeable will entail giving out the very best part of oneself without any assurance of kindness coming back and it takes faith and trust to “pay it forward”, ultimately there is a powerful payback even if there’s a delay in the payout.  The truth is that long after people forget what someone did, they remember how that person made them feel.  Likeability leads to trust.  And people do business with people they know, like and trust.  That’s the principle and the power of likeability.

Indeed, in their 2008 best-selling book, The Power of Nice, authors Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval argue that being nice is not only the right way to act, it is the smart way to get ahead.  They indicated that the best-kept secret in the business world is that nice people do finish first– as well as live longer, are healthier and have more lucrative lives! They cited people such as Jay Leno, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Warren Buffett as examples of very successful people who used common courtesy, thoughtfulness, and gratitude as their approach in a highly competitive world.

For companies that want to have happy, satisfied customers and fewer complaints, expenses and lawsuits, the formula is to hire or train staff to be good communicators, compassionate, caring and genuinely likeable.  And the good news is that communication, likeability, niceness and compassion are actually skills that can be learned.  They can be harnessed and improved even in adults.

Quote of the Week

“Take advantage of every opportunity to practice your communication skills so that when important occasions arise, you will have the gift, the style, the sharpness, the clarity, and the positive emotions to affect other people.”  Jim Rohn

© 2015, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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