Good Customer Service - A Guide for Companies, Organizations, and Agents
Happy Customers Come Back!
What Is Good Customer Service?
After 15 years in member and customer service, I am still surprised by the number of negative customer service interactions that could have easily ended differently. Good customer service is a balancing act, with the needs of the company on one side and the needs of the customer on the other. At the end of a good customer service interaction, an agent has not undermined the credibility nor reputation of the company, and they have left the customer with the feeling that their concerns were addressed properly and with respect. Customers do not have to leave an interaction with the exact outcome they desired to continue doing business with a company. However, a bad customer service experience could lose that customer and any chance of good word-of-mouth advertising, even if the customer got what they originally asked for.
Good customer service has become even more important in the digital age as there are so many avenues for customers to both complain about bad customer service and to create good word-of-mouth advertising. Many people have the mistaken impression that only negative customers give feedback, but if that were true online reviews would always result in overall negative ratings. Gone are the days when a negative or positive experience meant a few people in the neighborhood and some family members heard about it. As you may have seen with reviews or bad experiences that have gone viral, millions of current or potential customers can hear about a company within days.
Actively Listening to Customers
Active listening is one of the most important features of a good customer service interaction as it reiterates with the customer that the agent cares that they are saying. Agents should never assume they know what a customer is going to say, or already have scripting ready without listening to the entirety of what the customer says. Consider the example of a customer who opens a call with, "I really have a problem with your product I just received in the mail." It would be entirely inappropriate for an agent to then respond with, "Thank you for calling today, what is the nature of your call?" Any scripting for agents should allow them the flexibility to respond in a manner that is appropriate, in this case with something like, "Thank you for choosing (company name) I'm sorry you had a bad experience, can you give me some more detail regarding the problem with the product you received?"
I cannot stress enough the importance of active listening in a customer service interaction as it can make or break the entire experience for the customer. I have a friend who recently cancelled his subscription to a local newspaper because he had proposed to his girlfriend and they were moving in together (both had subscriptions). Upon hearing the reason for the cancellation, the agent who took his call responded with, "I'm sorry to hear that." My friend shared this experience with a group of people, who all laughed at the poor customer service provided by a brand who depends on customer loyalty to stay afloat.
The newspaper was of course not sorry to hear that my friend was now engaged and moving in with his fiancé. There are several ways the agent could have responded, for example, "Thank you for being a loyal reader of Newspaper XYZ, and congratulations! For the subscription you are keeping do you already receive daily service or weekend service only?"
The Importance of "Thank You"
I am always shocked by the number of customer service agents who do not regularly say "thank you" to customers. The first thank you should be right at the beginning of the interaction and the language used should reflect the specific role of that agent. If an agent is assigned to interact only with existing customers, they should always open with something like, "Thank you for choosing Company XYZ, my name is Susan, how can I help you?" It may seem like a small distinction as compared to, "Thank you for calling today, how can I help you?" but keep in mind that for the customer every word of the interaction counts, and it is meaningful to be thanked specifically for already choosing the company.
A good agent can always fit in a thank you, and do it often but not so often that it seems disingenuous. Agents at an in-store customer service counter with a line or on a phone line that is backed up should be greeting every customer with, "Thank you for your patience..." Following that should always be something specific to the role of that agent, so in the previous example, "Thank you for your patience and for choosing Company XYZ, my name is Susan how can I help you?" An agent on a phone line that is backed up and receives many types of calls can start with, "Thank you for calling Company XYZ, my name is Susan, how can I help you?"
Acknowledge What the Customer is Saying
As discussed with active listening, it is very important that customers know that you are paying attention to their concerns. One of the best ways to do this to acknowledge what they have just said before replying. This can take some getting used to but may be as easy as repeating back what the customer has said. Take for example an interaction where the customer feels they have overpaid for a service or product. The customer opens the interaction by saying, "I will never use your company again, you overcharged me!" A good agent will respond with something like, "I'm sorry you feel you have been overcharged, let's review your account together so we can figure out where the misunderstanding is."
Matching the Pace of the Customer
It is very important that customers can understand clearly what a customer service representative is trying to communicate. Matching the pace of the customer doesn't mean mimicking them exactly, it means that agents should get their cues on how to communicate from how the customer communicates. A customer who speaks slowly will likely have difficulty understanding an agent who speaks very quickly. They may ask the agent to slow down, but may also simply get frustrated and not bother.
Be Conversational and Use the Appropriate Tone
It is very important that agents use a conversational tone so as to avoid sounding fake, and thus like they are just reading from a script and aren't listening. A situation may call for a highly scripted exchange, but agents should still work on making it sound like they are not reading, or repeating back what they were told to say. Agents should also avoid using slang that the customer may not understand, and avoid instantly adopting the customers use of words, phrases and accents unless it comes naturally to them. If an agent sounds like a New Yorker for example, they will likely come across as fake to a customer in North Carolina if they suddenly start saying "y'all" and speaking with a southern accent. Customers don't have to feel like an agent is their friend, but feeling like the agent is someone they can communicate with will give them the confidence to explain exactly what the problem is and the willingness to work toward a resolution.
Along with being conversational, a good agent can also match the seriousness of the customer's tone. One customer may call about being overcharged and open with how they are sure it was a mistake, another may be livid from the beginning. Many of the calls that were escalated to me as a supervisor were those where the tone of the agent upset the customer. If a customer calls to complain about a service, the last thing they want to hear is a peppy, upbeat answer. An agent can say all the right words but with the wrong tone a customer will only hear that they are not being taken seriously.
When to Avoid Open-Ended Questions
There are situations where open-ended questions are appropriate, for example if trying to get specific information to help a customer solve a problem. However, if not used properly open-ended questions often lead to very long interactions that are off-topic, and to customers get increasingly upset before the agent has had a chance to try to help them. While it may be polite in a casual conversation to ask someone, "How are you today?", that question should be avoided in a customer service interaction. Keep in mind the person is likely calling or in front of an agent because they have some type of complaint, or need more general help. Take for example a customer who feels they have been overcharged. If a customer service agent opens with, "How are you today?" they are likely to get an earful about the loss of money and how it has led to a myriad of other problems. Now the customer is upset again (or even more upset than when they started) and the interaction has started off on the wrong foot. An agent can sound welcoming and pleasant without inquiring about the customer's overall well-being.
Avoid the Word "But' in Customer Service Interactions
The word "but" is used often in customer service interactions and the use of that single word can turn what might have been a positive experience into a negative one. The word "but" sounds combative, and a customer is likely to forget everything else they heard other than what came after the "but".
Consider a company that sells products with a warranty and the customer makes a service request beyond the period covered. Many agents respond with, "I'm sorry you are having a problem with our product but unfortunately your warranty has expired." As an alternative, the agent could have said, "I'm sorry you are having a problem with our product, I see that the warranty coverage has expired, is there a problem with the product that you feel should be covered outside the warranty period?" In the latter case, the agent has acknowledged what the customer said, acknowledged that the warranty has expired, and has moved the conversation back to the customer to explain why the company should fix the product outside the warranty period.
The Proper Way to Interrupt a Customer
As a general rule, agents should never interrupt a customer but there are situations in which it is merited. Some customers enjoy the interaction and want to keep talking, or are lonely. An agent should not interrupt this type of customer as soon as they sense the conversation is going off-track or that it will be lengthy. By the same token, an agent should not let the customer go on and on as that agent is not providing good service to everyone else who is waiting for help. I worked on a technique for this situation for many years and what I found was most effective was, "I'm sorry to interrupt you Mr. Jones, thank you so much for being a customer of Company XYZ. I would love to talk you all day but I would not be a very good customer service agent if I didn't help the next person." Most customers will then thank you and end the call as they understand what it means to have to wait for an agent. This response can be tailored to fit most situations in which an agent needs to get a conversation back on track or end the call.
Keeping Your Cool From One Customer to the Next
Moving on From a Negative Customer Interaction
One of the qualities that is present in all of the most effective agents I have worked with is the ability to build on positive customer service interactions and "shake off" the negative. Conversely, many of the agents who were least successful just could not get over a negative interaction and move on. The easiest way to get past a negative interaction is to tell yourself that the customer you are currently assisting has no relationship with the person with whom you had the negative experience. They did not meet outside or email each other to gang up on you, they don't know each other, and they don't know you personally. The best way to get over a bad interaction is to do your very best on the next one. When that next customer thanks you for your help the negativity will be behind you.
Passing the Buck in Customer Service
As I mentioned earlier, good customer service is a balancing act and the best agents not only handle customers properly, they do so in a way that does not have a negative impact on the company.
Handling As Much as Possible Without a Supervisor - There are going to be situations that as per company policy an agent should immediately pass to a supervisor. Other than those specific situations, agents should do whatever they can to assist a customer on their own. It is very frustrating for customers when an agent hasn't even really determined what the issue is before passing them along to someone else. It is also very important in all cases that may result in a transfer of the situation to a supervisor that the agent first acknowledge what the customer said and explain why a supervisor must be involved.
Using the example of a customer who wants a refund, an agent may not be authorized to make this decision, or needs to get input on the amount of a potential refund. An agent should never be so abrupt as to say for example, "I can't authorize that, I will have to get a supervisor for you." Instead, the agent could say, "I want to be sure that your request for a refund is handled as quickly as possible, let me get a supervisor for you." This should be followed by a thank you for the customer's patience and if true, letting them know that they may be transferred back before the end of the call. Customers appreciate knowing the process and it shows that an agent (and the company they represent) care about their experience.
Do Not Agree With Everything the Customer Says - It becomes a habit for agents to use the phrase, "I understand" with customers, in fact many have been trained to do just that. However, when a customer or member is making derogatory comments about the company the last thing an agent should say is, "I understand." For example, if at some point the customers says, "Your company steals from people!" an agent should instead say, "I'm sorry you feel that way" rather than "I understand."
Similarly, agents should not take the customer's side in a dispute with the company in order to make a call go more smoothly, even if they agree with what the customer is saying. For example, a customer may call customer service because they found a similar product for a cheaper price, and then accuse the company of charging too much. An agent should never say something like, "You're right, we do charge more than other companies, we shouldn't do that." Instead the agent should point out what is different about the two products. If the customer is still unhappy the agent should consider escalating that call to a supervisor.
Do Not Make Promises Beyond Authorization - This is a common problem with agents who perform poorly because they fail to recognize that unless a decision is theirs to make they should not agree with customers, let alone lead them to believe that a decision will go in their favor. Take for example the agent that is not authorized to provide refunds. If a customer calls asking for a refund, the agent should never indicate that a refund will be forthcoming, even if they believe one is due the customer. I had many situations that ended badly because an agent transferred a call to me after making promises to a customer. If I was not able to uphold that promise the customer inevitably was even more upset and brought up the promises made by the first agent. The company is then in the unenviable position of possibly losing a customer forever, or setting a precedent of making exceptions to company policy in order to appease that customer.
The Proper Way to End a Customer Service Interaction
Regardless of the overall result of the interaction it is very important for agents to end things on a positive note. Beyond my own experience in the industry, I have become very upset as a customer when I felt like a call ended without all my needs being addressed, or when the agent just seemed eager to get to the next customer in line. Another "thank you" should be included in the close of an interaction, and unless the customer is very upset the name of the company should be mentioned again as well. Agents should also remember to always ask if there is anything else they can do to help the customer before ending the interaction.
Keep It Positive!
Feedback between Customer Service Agents and Supervisors
Customer and Member Service agents are the face and voice of a company. Having held every position from agent to director of a large call center I saw first-hand how communication between agents and management can make or break customer service. Managers who refuse to accept feedback from their agents are missing critical information from people who spend their working day with customers. I am not suggesting company scripting or policy should be changed every time an agent makes a suggestion, but there should always be a method by which agents can track and pass along common problems. A shared document or use of tasking software are a couple of solutions.
There should also be regular meetings between customer service agents and management, and if at all possible these meetings should include the entire team (or at least all members of a given shift). In these meetings management has the chance to inform agents of changes, new products, etc. and agents can voice issues specific to their position or to their overall job satisfaction. Many managers feel it is not their job to make sure their employees are happy, but it is especially important that customer service agents at least feel that their opinion is being heard and that they are part of the larger organization. Agents should be treated with the same level of respect that they are expected to provide to members or customers, otherwise their frustration may be passed along.