Is A Customer Service Perspective Integral to the Role of the Executive Assistant?

In this article, author Jan Jones, discusses whether a customer service perspective is integral to the role of the executive assistant. 

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FlyPrivate: Our readers are interested in comments you’ve made that having a customer service outlook is integral to the role of the executive assistant and assistants should view it that way. Would you explain what you mean by this?

Jan Jones: Yes, I’m happy to elaborate. We all know the saying “customer service is everyone’s business,” or “customer service is everyone’s job.” Business owners, CEOs all know how vital customer interaction is, so they can deliver on their customer’s needs. They also know that they don’t spend nearly enough time with their customers. Aiming for 10%, it turns out to be about 3% according to an HBR 2017 survey of 1,000 CEOs. Where is that percentage now as a result of Covid? Data is still scarce so we don’t yet know definitively.

For our purposes here, let’s define first of all, what is a customer? A customer is everyone with whom a business interacts, whether they are internal or external to the organization. In my book, CEO Tom White provided a comprehensive outline of what he looks for in an executive assistant. One of the traits is someone who has “an internal and external customer service perspective.”

My take on how a customer service perspective is integral to the role of the EA is twofold. Because the executive assistant serves as their executive’s deputy, they have the important responsibility of representing the organization on behalf of their executive. Assistants are their executive’s frontline for interacting with customers, so they must approach the role from a customer-serving mindset. For example, when customers are unhappy with a service they receive and aren’t getting any satisfaction from the customer service department, what do they do? They contact the CEO or a department head to complain. Who takes that call? Who gets that email or letter? Typically, the assistant does.

How does the assistant respond? As a true self-starter with problem-solving skills you take the first steps to rectifying the situation by speaking with the customer, listening, getting the details. When you have the facts from their perspective, assure the customer you’ll follow up and get back to them. Now, you use your troubleshooting skills. You do an internal investigation to get further information and hopefully arrive at a swift resolution for the customer. If the situation has escalated past the point that the assistant can resolve, then they hand it over, along with all the facts, to their executive. But always, the EA should be that solution-oriented, first line of defense in dealing with the customer who wants to complain to a company’s higher-ups.

This is not something new. This has been a role the assistant plays for as long as smart executives have had competent assistants, who quickly take charge and wrap things up. You represent your executive. You serve the customer on their behalf. Let me suggest to assistants that in such situations, you should make use of the phone and speak directly with the customer. Make that human-to-human contact so they feel heard directly. You can use whatever razzle-dazzle technology you want to after you’ve made that initial person-to-person contact that conveys ‘I care about you and I’m going to help you.’ Email is impersonal and should be avoided as the initial response to an unhappy customer. If they are on the phone, speak with them. Don’t send them to voicemail, you’ll only inflame the situation.

I was discussing this idea with a group of EAs, that the executive assistant should bring a customer service approach to the role. A couple of assistants said they don’t like the comparison “to customer service people.” Others felt it was an appropriate analogy, especially those who embrace the concept of servant leadership for assistants, which I’ve also written about for FlyPrivate’s audience. Assistants should understand more clearly that they provide a customer service, and connect those customer service skills to the emotional intelligence skills EAs are known for. The combination of these prized interpersonal skills will increase an assistant’s value in the workplace. They are called “employability skills.”

The other part of a customer service perspective being integral to the EA role, is seeing your executive and the team members you serve, as your “customer.” My executive is my internal customer, somebody to whom I’m providing a service. I make sure their experience of working with me and interacting with me exemplifies an outstanding customer service experience. I don’t go around calling my executive my customer; that would be silly. But the job I do shows that I treat them as a business would treat a special customer. As an executive assistant, you are providing a service to a wide range of customers. It will be helpful if you take a broader perspective on who your customers are. Here’s what I wrote in a recent article that resonated with many assistants:

“The executive assistant role is a high-touch customer service one. Who are your customers? Your immediate executive, their direct reports, your team members, the wider organization, and your company’s clients. You are in service to this business ecosystem. Executives cannot ‘touch’ everyone they should, so they rely on you as their deputy, to help them do exactly that. You are an extension of your executive and you ‘touch’ that extended world on their behalf.”

So, as your executive’s deputy you are squarely showcasing your customer service expertise, reaching out on their behalf, initiating or responding on their behalf. You have to be courteous, professional, articulate and well-presented. You have to be well-informed. That means you have to know your product (the business), just like you would expect someone in a store to know the product they are selling.

This ties in directly to how assistants view themselves in the role of “gatekeeper.” Understanding that your role encompasses customer service sensitivities helps you to listen better, and engage more empathetically with those who are making requests for your executive’s time, or for information that you control. If you approach it from a customer service perspective, you will listen better and try to be truly helpful, instead of trying to get rid of the inquiry as quickly as possible so you can get back to doing something you consider more important.

Those of you who’ve read my book will remember I interviewed Horst Schulze, a founding member of the Ritz-Carlton hotel company. The hotel chain is known as the gold standard of customer service. Mr. Schulze created the standards of legendary service that the Ritz-Carlton is renowned for. He says customer service is helping your customer to solve their problems. Isn’t this 100% the role an executive assistant plays in the life of their executive? You help your executives to solve their problems.

Schulze says “Meet the needs of your customer. Let them know ‘I care about you, you can trust me.’ When you provide consistent service, when you prove you are excellent at problem resolution, that will develop trust.” And that goes for whether you are serving your executive, or whether you are serving your company’s customers on their behalf. You’ve got to do your job in a way that says you care – about them, about the business, and certainly about yourself and your reputation for excellence, which you demonstrate through an exemplary customer service point of view.

Also in my book is Pat Shepherd, an outstanding exemplar of a high performing executive assistant. Pat was a trained customer service supervisor for American Express and brought that training to her role as executive assistant. She’s been with her executive, Greg Renker, for 30 years.

About her customer service training, Pat said she was trained to listen without interruption, to empathize and to provide options, bearing in mind that you might not know what the other person is going through. So, if your executive is feeling frustrated about something that is entirely out of your hands, just listen, be sympathetic and if there are any suggestions you can offer, then do so. Pat says, “Never be afraid to speak up and make suggestions, even if your suggestions may sound a little ‘out there.’ While we are gatekeepers and also the gateway, we should be problem solvers. Don’t keep your executive in the dark, but if the issue is something you can handle, definitely do so. In my case, Greg likes to know the bad as well as the good, and I try not to tell him the bad until I have a solution. I always tell him how the problem has been solved so he is not caught off guard, which could cause him to be embarrassed.”

Pat recommends that as an assistant you should prioritize what you inform your executive about and when. Understand how they work and what they are receptive or not receptive to. This is a skill that comes with experience and develops the better you know and understand your executive, as well as the members of your team whom you support. The same goes for when you are communicating a message on behalf of your executive. Deliver it tactfully and make certain you are not barging in, either electronically, or in-person, at an inopportune moment.

These are the refinements that show your level of empathy and self-awareness, that make for outstanding customer service and enhance your reputation as an exceptional executive assistant. Is this always easy? I’ll be the first one to say emphatically that it is not! People can get on your nerves. But I try to shake off annoyances and return my focus to what is the most productive use of my time in supporting my executive’s targets, or progressing my independent projects.

A word of encouragement to any assistants who are wondering how they’ll adopt this concept. Adopting a customer service perspective and understanding that a customer service outlook is integral to the EA role is a realization I came to. I did not start out defining it in this way. Even though I took superlative care of my executives, I viewed them as my boss, not my customer. If I had defined it that way earlier, I may have been better at handling some situations in which I found myself, once in a while. I’m sure many assistants understand exactly what I mean. So next time, try viewing your executive or team members as your customer and see if you shift your outlook immediately, or respond to the situation differently. I’d be interested to hear from you about that experiment.

To take your product from good to exceptional, you need to understand that your product is service and being of service. It is something that you can deliver tangibly. How you deliver that service establishes who you are. It’s your brand. Let them see it and you won’t have to make the case for why you shouldn’t be replaced by AI. Your executive will make the case for you.

What would it mean to your role as executive assistant if you found ways to deliver complete customer satisfaction to your executive, team members and other stakeholders?

How would being customer-centric improve your decision-making ability? How would it help your ability to anticipate, or to become more resourceful? How would it refine your communication and problem-solving skills? Viewing your executive and team members as your customer, how could you offer more relevant services, adapt to their needs, satisfy their priorities or satisfy their unmet needs? Dig a little deeper to find out what those needs are. Your one-on-one meetings would be a good place to start such a meaningful conversation. Imagine if after those sessions your executive experienced greater improvement from your performance. Your one-on-ones would be the one meeting they’d never blow off, because they would see the immense value it created.

Be on the lookout for new ways to enhance your customer service awareness. Solving your executive’s challenges will improve their trust in you. Make the decision to consistently offer excellent experiences for all your customers so they know you care about them. Let Ritz-Carlton-style service be your trademark to all your stakeholders. To encourage you and help you stay on track in this endeavor, remember the words of motivational speaker Zig Ziglar, “There are no traffic jams on the extra mile.” You’ll be in a league of your own.

©The CEO’s Secret Weapon. The ideas expressed in this article and any text extracted from “The CEO’s Secret Weapon” are the intellectual property and copyrighted to Jan Jones. All rights reserved. No unauthorized usage or duplication by any means is permitted without the express consent of the author.

Author: Jan Jones

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Jan Jones is the author of “The CEO’s Secret Weapon How Great Leaders and Their Assistants Maximize Productivity and Effectiveness.” The book has received widespread acclaim from executives and executive assistants worldwide. Jan spent 20+ years as an esteemed international executive assistant to well-known business people, including Tony Robbins, the world’s #1 business and life strategist. Jan continues to champion the executive assistant profession with her writing, consulting and speaking. She offers timeless, practical advice that is relevant to the day-to-day role of the executive assistant. 

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