Other articles in this collection have referenced the classic book by John Gray, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Although written about the differences between men and women, it is directly applicable to the challenges faced by customer service personnel every day. As a significant over-simplification, some of us are “thinkers” that operate in “our heads” while others are “feelers” that rely on our hearts. There is, of course, no right or wrong with this statement and most of us fall somewhere between the two absolute extremes but do, by nature, favor one over the other. Unconsciously, we often switch from one state to the other based on circumstances. Customer service representatives have the unenviable task of dealing with individuals in both groups simultaneously. Typically, customers that call into customer service are frustrated or even angry regarding their current issue. Internal company resources, although they may be caring individuals, will be attempting to objectively deal with the issue. Interactive skills that are effective with one group may be totally ineffective with the other.
Virtually all of us have operated “from our hearts” with emotions ruling our actions when faced with a product or service issue when we call customer service. Based on our past experiences or the current frustration that we are dealing with, our normally rational behavior (in our heads) can be replaced with highly charged emotions. Obviously, some of us, due to the current circumstances, react differently. The labels that we associate with customer satisfaction levels are a good example of how “feelings” not “logic” define our grading of customer satisfaction. As an example, the article in this collection, “Customer Satisfaction Levels” provides a list and characterizations that have been developed over the years. The list is shown below:
Clearly, these are emotional terms. On the other hand, consider company surveys that ask customers to rate customer service. Rarely (really never) do they use descriptive terms. Instead, they ask for ratings, typically on a numeric scale of one through ten. To bridge the gap, many surveys ask specific questions and provide various discrete rating “buckets” ranging from “Strongly Agree” to “Strongly Disagree”. Those agreement buckets can be numerically analyzed with an overall score calculated. No matter how much analysis is performed on the “numbers”, the nine terms listed above are far more indicative of customer “feelings” and that is all that counts.
The challenge that customer service reps face is that they need to convert the customer “feelings” into useful information. This is not an easy task! A customer may say: “I don’t care what you have to do, just fix it.” But, a customer service rep can do nothing without facts. As if dealing with the customer “feeling to facts” issue was not difficult enough, customer service reps regularly have to deal with highly technical internal people. If there was ever a group that operated “in their heads”, it is techies; all that they want to hear or deal with are facts. Of course, customer service reps operating “in the middle” between these two groups face frustrating challenges and commonly bear the brunt from both sides.
With the apparent almost universal feeling of degraded customer service, most customers begin the process with negative expectations and following a common axiom: “If you look for the worst, you are seldom disappointed”. There are, or course, some companies that excel with customer service. However, an Internet search shows that many of the largest companies top the list for poor customer service. Although many of these companies are consumer focused companies, the ill feelings that they generate seem to flow across all boundaries.
It is a safe assumption for a customer service rep to plan on a customer’s initial demeaner to be frustrated, angry or even hostile, expecting the worse. The first few seconds of customer and service rep interaction is critical. The burden to defuse the situation lies totally on the customer service rep. Attempting to gather facts is exactly the wrong approach but is the standard method used by most organizations. Below are some guidelines to help diffuse the customer situation to allow an orderly determination of the issue. Many of these issues will meet internal resistance. The major pushback will be that some of the suggestions are “inefficient” or “will cost too much” or other similar “in the head” rationalizations. Invariably, they will be made by individuals that have no direct experience in interacting with irate customers or have forgotten the first four principles discussed in this collection (and listed at the end of this article for reference.)
- Bury the use of Interactive Voice Response (IVR) Systems. Have a human answer the phone not a machine. Quickly determine if the person does not speak English. If so, direct them to someone else. This will require a basic understanding of a few non-English words (probably only Spanish in the United States). If it is determined that the conversation needs to continue in Spanish (or another language as appropriate for the market), the customer service rep should be the person that initiates the “Press one for other than English”.
- Initially, be prepared to listen but first answer the phone with a phrase similar to “Hello, my name is XXX, my goal is to resolve the issue that you have.” Be personable and, by the phrase used, indicate that you acknowledge that they have an issue to resolve. Avoid any hint of defensiveness or being judgmental about their issue.
- With almost no hesitation, next ask them for their name and ask them if you can call them by that name; starting out with Mr. or Mrs. Next, ask them for a call back number by saying: “I do not expect us to be disconnected, but if we are, what is a number I can use to call you back?” Ideally, you may already have their number through an automatic number identification system. If it is available, confirm that the captured number is correct.
- Next, ask them about nature of their call. Emphasize that your first goal is to make sure they have contacted the correct person or you will connect them with the appropriate person. Say “person” not “department” or “group”. The goal of this step and the previous steps is show that they are dealing with a caring person, not a machine or fixed script robot-like insensitive person (this is not an overstated issue; think of your own experiences and how differently you react to a person that has established a human-to-human dialogue with you.).
- If it is necessary to transfer the customer to someone else, stay on the line until the handover is complete. Provide your new colleague with the customer’s name and phone number previously captured in the three-way introductory call. Make sure that both parties can hear each other and the connection quality is acceptable.
- Next, explain that you need to capture some information but first want to hear why they called. Put their issues first. After they have explained their issue, repeat it in summary form, asking if you captured their issue correctly. Only after this step is complete, ask them for the required information. Avoid, at all costs, the appearance of following a rigid script. If the customer senses you are merely filling in the blanks, the personal, caring interaction that you have established will quickly disappear. Take time to ask about the weather or their local sports team or something else that is obviously “off script”. Diffuse the situation. Do not be afraid to make a comment after they have explained the reason for their call that they can relate to. For example: “I’m sure that this situation was frustrating” or “I am sorry that you have had that difficulty”.
- Avoid giving the impression that you are more interested in getting off the phone than you are in resolving their issue. A customer rep may be asked to respond to dozens of calls every day, but for each customer, “their” call is all that matters. Always remember the third word in Principle Four: Continuously Delight EACH Customer.
- If the customer has to be transferred to another department or person, make sure that systems are in place so that the customer does not have repeat their contact, contract information and the reason for their call. Admittedly, the newly involved person may need to ask the customer for more information about the issue, but phrase the request acknowledging that it is necessary to better understand the issue to help in its resolution.
- Think carefully about the common practice of “Press one for English”. As previously described, avoid the IVR approach all together. However, make sure that the customer service representative speaks English too! It is unfortunate, but the reality is that English is a second language for many outsourced customer service representatives and their accents may make customer interaction difficult. Remember, customers that contact a customer service organization are probably already frustrated so interaction difficulties due to language barriers will only aggravate the situation.
- At the end of the call, provide the customer with the customer service representatives direct dial telephone number or email address. Encourage the customer to call that person back if the issue persists. Explain that the rep may be on other calls but will re-contact the customer. Make an effort to continue the personal, caring relationship.
- Some companies have implemented IVR systems that ask the customer to rate the customer service person after the call. Unfortunately, emphasizing the rating of the person is the wrong approach in most cases. Customer service representatives, by and large, are dedicated individuals who are trying to do the best job that they can. In most cases, except for language issues, most negative issues are not with the person that happens to answer their call but with the company’s products, services, policies, or pre-set expectations. Ask questions about the company and not just the person.
- Finally, develop a call-back program to contact the customer several days later. Ask them if the issue was resolved to their satisfaction. If not, re-address the issue. This call-back program will extend the “feeling” of caring that the company has initially established with the customer.
There is no question that implementing the above recommendations will have a negative impact of many customer service metrics such as the number of calls per rep per hour, the speed of closing “complaints”, whether the customer is satisfied or not, or the ability to outsource the entire function. As discussed in the article in this collection “A Cog or COGS”, customer service needs to be thought of as an extension of the sales process with the goal of delighting customers. It should not be considered as a cost center or necessary evil. Customers make buying decisions “with their hearts” and later rationalize them “with their heads”. Use your hearts to make customer service plans. Think about the last few experiences that you have personally had; would you have preferred to interact with the company as described above as compared to what you probably experienced? Are your customers any different than you? Treat them the same way that you want to be treated, it is as simple as that. This is not a radical concept, it is nothing more than the application of the Golden Rule. Follow it.