How to Improve Your Customer Service Using Radical Candor

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Kim Scott radical candor

Customer service teams deal with difficult, sometimes emotional situations. That’s where a good dose of internal radical candor can strengthen your team communication and improve service.

The key here is “internal.” Radical candor doesn’t have to be part of communications with customers. But inside your team, radical candor can reinforce trust, improve group problem-solving skills, and increase service levels.

But how do you get there?

What is radical candor?

Odds are you’ve worked with jerks who don’t miss an opportunity to tear down anyone they can, and in doing so create unproductive work environments full of suspicion, stifled innovation, backstabbing, and high turnover. Odds are you’ve also worked with people who are so gentle they can’t bear to so much as constructively criticize anyone’s performance—even though work, productivity, and the bottom line suffer as a result.

For author and entrepreneur Kim Scottradical candor is a simple yet profound mixture of frank directness that maintains kindness and support, in the service of helping teams continue improving and succeeding.

Her 2017 book, Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, doubles down on the notion that the best teams and bosses simultaneously “care personally” and “challenge directly.”

Balancing these notions builds teams that can help one another improve without tearing each other down. It’s a notion echoed by the research of author, speaker, TED presenter, and consultant Christine Porath, who is also an associate professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. 

In her ongoing research on incivility and rudeness in the workplace, Christine has been proving empirically the old notion that when it comes to working with someone, only two things matter:

  1. Do they know what they’re doing?
  2. Do I want to work with them?

Colleagues who are both competent and likable can deliver sincere praise and constructive criticism. Their interactions also consistently demonstrate respect for team members and reinforce that each member’s value to the broader department.

In a front-line customer service team, that can make all the difference in decreasing turnover and improving customer satisfaction.

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Radical candor builds trust within your customer service team

As Kim explains, most people have been told since they were young that “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.” On the flip side, sometimes people equate being a professional with being a certain body part that everyone has.

When you are part of a professional team, sometimes you have to offer criticism, and it might not always be nice. Kim sees a middle path, a third way. Radical candor isn’t about deriding someone when they make a mistake. It’s also not about suppressing criticism. Those concepts—care personally and challenge directly—might seem to contradict each other. However, balancing them is at the heart of how radical candor can build trust within your customer service team.

“You have to bring your whole self to work,” says Kim, and that’s the core of being tough while also being supportive. That’s also essential to building a trusting customer support team that gives better customer service. If your team knows that team members and management trust each other, model healthy communication, and give each other support, then customer service can more effectively solve customer problems and make insightful decisions that balance satisfying the needs of the customer with working within the bounds of company policy and resources.

Building trust also makes the team more effective at problem-solving because team members know they can rely on each other for help. After all, if a team’s culture is toxic and hostile, people won’t turn to one another when dealing with a difficult situation. That can easily result in unhappy customers, poor response times, high turnover, and a drag on the bottom line.

On the flip side, teams who are civil with each other can group problem-solve, resolve customer issues with higher satisfaction rates, and are more likely to be satisfied in their job. All these results can add up to improved retention both for customers and employees, which can decrease costs and raise profits.

Improve service by improving in-team communication

Building trust and performance through radical candor takes ongoing, consistent effort, constructive communication, and sincere camaraderie, such as:

  • Decrease passive-aggressive interactions by directly yet kindly critiquing performance issues.
  • Encourage confrontation of difficult situations by acknowledging the problem and making it clear that the focus is on the team improving.
  • Orient toward clear business and department goals that guide the direction for how your team can work together to improve.
  • Model constructive communication in your interactions with team members and other departments.
  • Be kind while making it clear that performance improvements are expected.
  • Discuss issues as a team process that identifies where something went wrong and what can be changed for better outcomes.
  • Make it clear that team members can try different approaches, take calculated risks, or fail without needing to fear abuse or ridicule.
  • Nurture trust so team members know they can depend on each other.

Kim also believes that candid feedback is best served hot—and, as much as possible, in person. Instead of scheduling a later one-on-one meeting, discuss feedback face to face. Skip email or Slack, where context might not come through. Discussions can also include past challenges overcome, current situations, how the team member contributes to the broader organization, and how the organization has the team member’s back.

The end result is sustainable performance, where more satisfied employees are motivated to be consistent high performers:

Respectful candor can be a big enhancer for how teams perform—and therefore for how well the overall organization is doing. By balancing civility with critical feedback, teams know they are in a safe, trusted environment, where they can be assured they will have the opportunity to learn from and improve after failures, and where they can feel motivated to do their best.

Ultimately, team members can only improve if they know where they need to improve. Kim considers that the responsibility of both team members and management—to point out where someone needs to improve, as well as when they are performing well.

Internal radical candor can impact your customer relationships positively

The benefits of radical candor can come through in how your team works with customers on fulfilling support issues too. After all, when you know that your team has your back, it’s much easier to be constructive, caring, and compassionate with the customers you are trying to help.

What radical candor comes down to is basic human decency—the sort of truthful kindness that aims both to demonstrate help via sincere consideration and a focus on constructive criticism. It’s a notion that can sometimes seem lost in society, but on your customer service team, ongoing effort and a good dose of radical candor can indeed what makes basic decency common—and effective.

The benefits can a high-performing team with low turnover and more satisfied customers who want to continue doing business with you. And that’s exactly the sort of thing that doesn’t have to be radical, and can just be part of your organization’s day-to-day.

Posted in Company Culture, Customer Service

Anthony St. Clair

Anthony St. Clair

Anthony St. Clair is a business copywriter, author of the Rucksack Universe travel fantasy series, and a craft beer writer specializing in Oregon. Learn more at anthonystclair.com.