An excerpt of the original post on being called to service posted on 8/4/17.
1. I need to stop thinking about me – When I’m wrapped up in my wants and my thoughts, being of service is the last thing on my mind. Selfishness and self centeredness remove my ability to help others.
2. I need to have empathy – Empathy is the ability to understand or share in the feelings of another. I cannot be of maximum service to my fellow man if I cannot empathize with their situation.
3. I need to be vigilant – There are opportunities abound to be of service, if only I look for them.
4. I cannot expect anything – Regardless of how serious a situation is, I cannot go into it expecting to get something out of it. My reward is knowing I did the right thing. this is just like holding a door for someone and them not saying “thank you.” I know I did what was right, and that’s all that matters.
I’ve been thinking back on some of my favorite clients and experiences we have had together. One that stands out to me was a nice older gentleman from West Texas that I worked with in the oil service industry. We had a good run, and he was calm and patient when we had a big issue. After working with him for a while, my last call was a little fun. Here’s how it went:
Me: Thank you for calling the Help Desk, how can I help you?
Customer: Yeah, this is ::redacted:: calling from Odessa, and my stuff is all messed up.
Me: Well, that doesn’t give me a lot to go on, why did you mess it up?
Customer: I tried not to, but I don’t use these dang computers much. Put me back on a rig and I won’t call you no more.
Me: Then I wouldn’t get to have these good conversations with you. Let’s try and get your IP address so I can take a look.
Customer: OK, it’s 123 Main St…
I’ll spare the rest of the call as the fix and what was wrong weren’t that interesting. What gets me is the above where I asked for his IP address outright after he told me he wasn’t that good with computers. Because I missed my chance to clarify, I got different information than I expected. Although funny at the time, it led to me having to explain what it was we were looking for.
The customer in this case didn’t give up much information to begin with, so the call was very open-ended, with little room to determine the issue up-front. As we discussed (and when I got remote access) we were able to determine the failure and I could explain it to him. As I am a solution driven individual, my first instinct is to hear the exact issue up front and be able to provide an answer immediately. The problem with this is that if I haven’t established a common language with the users, I can’t get the information I need, and they might get an unintended issue from my proposed resolution.
Communication goes both ways, requiring both parties to listen and speak. For service and support people, our brains tell us in the terms we know and understand how to fix the issue, or what the issue could be. The same could be said for any specialty you may have or company you work for, leading to a very confusing situation. I believe a lot of the miscommunication in a help desk/service desk role is due to a level of comfort with the dialog we share with our co-workers and other technical people. But to be truly effective in these roles, we must be open-ended and attentive to our customer’s language.
Customers have a way of describing things that may not make sense in a technical standpoint, but are more descriptive than we could ever know. A lot of this has to do with the customer feeling that they must be more descriptive or use more technical terms to explain their current situation, otherwise they may feel as if they will be talked down to.
So to keep things moving more smoothly in customer communications, I’ve divided up the ideas for effective communication below in no particular order:
1. Be general – Technical terms can be frightening or confusing. Try to get the customer to describe their issue or concern in their own words. Ask for descriptions or workflows to get a better idea of what is happening and how they speak. Use their words to help define some of the basic technical terms and educate the user on what those terms are. This will increase comfort in the discussion.
2. Empathize – Feel for the customer. If the person you are helping is having a bad day, pick up on where they are and be appreciative of what they provide. Let them talk and get it out. Sometimes all it takes is just someone who is willing to listen.
3. Be happy with the customer – If your customer is in a good mood, share in it! Positive people feed on further positivity. This will be a great exercise to find gratitude in life.
4. Stay away from definitive statements, if possible – Customers don’t like going on a journey to hit a dead end. Giving a solid “No” for an answer is difficult and loses all of the previous hard work to get to this point. Try instead for “This wouldn’t work in this fashion, but we have an alternative that may help.” This provides a by-path for the customer, and increases the feeling of having a resolution even if it is somewhat different than they expected.
5. Have a vested interest – One thing that bugs me about calling most service desks is that I’m just another ticket for them to fall into some category. Take interest in the customer, even if the ticket is routine. This will sound like making small talk, but the difference is that you continue to build an interest in the conversation. Don’t just stop at “How’s your day going?” read a little more into the customer based on what they provided. Is their e-mail address HarleyDavidson2017@somewhere.com? Ask if they ride and where they went recently. Know a story about the city they are in? Share it with them briefly and get their take on it. People love to talk about themselves.
6. Ask questions – Customers will tell you what their main issue is, but may leave off something you may have familiarity with. Ask them if they had any questions even outside of their initial call or request. This opens the door for a more complete experience where they can say you were all about taking care of the customer.
7. Listen! – You can talk a good game, but listening is where it’s at! Pay attention to what the customer says, they may answer their own question and don’t even know it. If you have a hard time understanding what they are asking, repeat back to the customer what you think you heard, and they will either clarify or agree with your interpretation.
8. Have pride in your work – Remember when you were a kid, coloring a picture or making a Lego house and your parents telling you how nice it was? Take that sense of pride into what you do. Even if you aren’t doing it for work, take pride in it. Doing the dishes? You’re being of service to others in the house. Wash those dishes and be proud as if you won a gold medal for washing dishes. This pride will lead to confidence in your ability to help, and will be founded on actual work done. This takes time and mastery in communication, but it will come if you work for it.
9. Take care of yourself – If you aren’t feeling well or haven’t been doing what is necessary for you to feel comfortable, you can’t be of any help to anyone else. Go to the doctor, take your time in your morning routine, feel good about what you wear and how you look. When you feel good, your work is good and the effort you put into it is your best. Half-effort won’t win over a customer.
10. Do the customer’s homework – Most times, a customer will rely on you to tell them something and be honest. If you don’t know, find out. It never hurts to ask someone if you don’t know something. Better to ask and be told no, than to never ask and never know. This will also benefit you in being considered trustworthy as you are stepping outside of yourself to ensure you have the right answers for the question. For example, I worked in retail for 5 years. We sold service plans to cover repair or replacement of items. In each brochure I gave to a customer, we read through pre-highlighted areas that answered all of the most common questions they had, leaving no stone unturned.
I don’t believe this is a comprehensive list, but for now, this is a great start to building that relationship and foundation with the customer or anyone else you interact with daily.
From what the news shows, people don’t like to be lumped into certain categories, be it actors being typecast or stereotypes being used in airports or police profiling. But has anyone looked at marketing demographics and what they mean? I would surmise that demographics are another stereotype for marketing purposes to determine what you will buy, watch, consume, or vote. With bell curves and fancy equations, sure we could say a certain percentage of people are predisposed to buy a certain way, but who can you trust with those numbers? Looking at survey trends from all of my help desk experience, our return rates were in the low 20-30 percent, leading me to believe that most people wouldn’t submit to being asked to take a survey, especially with all of the robo-calls, spam e-mail, and scammers sounding very similar. These methods would more than likely be ignored.
Demographics in retail
I worked for a large retail chain for about 5 years, specializing in computer sales and support for individuals and small businesses. During this time there, we had team meetings monthly to discuss numbers and overall business practices and changes from upper management. Some of these changes were operational and informative on how to better serve the customer, others appeared to be directed marketing to people of specific demographics as set by the company and marketing trends.
We had a set of people in mind when selling products and services so that we could try to tailor the experience based on assumed tastes. It seemed easy enough to understand how certain folks may not opt for in-home services and others would buy a service plan for everything. The math was there and appeared indisputable. For example, a young man between ages of 18-30 would probably be in the store to buy a video game and caffeinated beverage or the latest and greatest console or gadget. People of the age 55 and above would be looking for practical items and warranties for a sense of ease and comfort. There would be families who would be on a tighter budget, but they would always buy the service or replacement plans.
Fast forward about 10-12 years, and I take a walk into the same retail chain. I look at the people buying items from the store and what is in their hands or cart. I listen to the conversations and how guarded these people are. Demographics have shifted. No more is it the “Empty Nesters” that I can count on for large appliance purchases. The young man in the previous paragraph spends most of his time online as he is savvy enough to know better than to buy something from a big box store. And the family that used to be tight with their budget now spends more and more on electronic devices than before, not limiting themselves to a low level laptop or smaller LCD television.
Look at car salesman as well. I walk onto a lot in my work clothes (i.e. dress casual), and I’m swarmed by salesmen who want me to jump into the sporty new car. Regardless of what I want, they bring keys to cars outside of my budget (they don’t know that), and far from what I asked for. All this is due to the immediate need to decide what I will like for me all based on how I look and what I drive. If you want your needs ignored, go to a car dealership and suffer through all of the lack of care and consideration. See how they go in the “back office” to “talk with the manager” about your requests only to come back empty handed and smirking inside thinking you have no idea how much of a ride they’re taking you for. Now apply that same mentality to the service industry and let me know if that gets you anywhere.
Considering the topic of this blog, do these demographics apply to customer service roles, and should we apply them at all?
Relationships in Service
From what I’ve experienced working in call centers of multiple sizes, I can say for a fact that demographics of users in the traditional marketing sense don’t work. A phone call from an internal user or external user is still just a phone call asking for help. So why should the user’s age or race dictate what issues they may experience? We can run metrics on items such as what site has more frequent calls, which floor of the building has the least user training, and centralizing outbreaks of large scale problems, but calls will still come in from all walks of life.
I know for my age and background, places will try to market to me like crazy for the newest gadgets and overpriced services. What they fail to understand is that I do my homework, I’m thrifty, and I’m realistic with my expectations of what I buy. Why should anyone use my race, age, and background to market to me without even giving me the time of day to get to know me? For large scale companies, the answer is always “there are too many people for personalization.”
In service roles, we do not need demographics, we need relationships. What these corporate giants and marketing strategists fail to understand is that the seemingly insurmountable number of relationships are all driven by the front line. No one can build a proper rapport like the salesman or service representative who understands that these generalizations of cross-sections of America do not work in every case. The relationship we build with the user/customer/client in that short time, even if we only speak to them once, should be a good experience no matter what. I want to be the person that user calls and asks for because they have had a great experience. I also want the user to be happy with the company I work for, mostly because the company is reflected by my performance, but also so that I can evenly distribute some of the calls!
The beauty of each interaction is that I have a new experience most of the time. I don’t know who the user is, why they called, or where they are, but I can find a new way to relate and build that rapport so that no matter what news I have to deliver, they can be satisfied with the experience. Granted, this skill takes time to develop, and will continue to grow the more it is in use. This also has the pitfall of being a skill to lose such as those of French, Latin, or Spanish classes taken in high school, so take care to use it frequently!
Along with reaching out to the user and relating to them is empathy for their situation. I can easily relate to people who have lost everything they worked hard for, as I have had a similar experience in my life, as empathy is the heart of the relationship. If I can empathize with the user, their problem is now my problem, and I will take ownership to help resolve it. Alternatively, if I fail to empathize or try to force it, it will come off as though I’m indifferent and the tone is set from there.
This delicate balance is what we strive for in our home relationships as well. We sympathize with our kids and empathize with our partners. We should seek the same style of relationship with our customers, because they are people too, people who need a support system for their concerns just like you and I. The unexpected support can go a long way.
I can definitely say that I have had an experience while working in retail that fits this perfectly:
She walked in with both hands bloody and a cracked Windows laptop with dried remnants of tears on her face. She asked if we could fix her computer, which was definitely beyond my ability in store, and needed to be shipped out. I looked up her information and gave her some time to relax and breathe. When it came time to ask the normal questions (did you back up your data, do you have a service plan), I could only ask if she was okay. She choked back her feelings and explained that she had recently been in a rough relationship at home, her fiance locked her out of the house and smashed her laptop, and her hands were hurt and bleeding from breaking a window to get into her house.
I immediately took her hard drive out of the laptop, plugged it into our backup station and verified it could be read. I then asked her to come by and tell me what she needed from the computer. Once I validated we could retrieve the files, I had her sign the appropriate forms and pay for the service before we shipped it, with the promise she could have that data in her hands shortly. When all was said and done, she gave me a hug and thanked me profusely. I never saw her again after that. But I know that she got what she needed and was happy enough with that.
You might say this was a special case, that each situation differs. I feel otherwise – every customer, no matter who they are, is a special case. Each must be treated as a person and not a mark for our profits. If we take care of the person, the profits take care of themselves.
I have worked in call centers and support roles for quite a few years in different positions, including team leadership. With this experience at hand, I place a high value and set of expectations on the teams I support, or those that support our customers and clients. It is with this mindset that I find when I require support of some type from a call center, I never seem to get the level of support I would give. I ask that this not be confused with the level of support I deserve or want. If you’ve read my last post on “defining customer service” you will see what I mean.
The complaints are numerous when researching any large company regarding their customer service levels, lack of knowledge of the staff, and extreme hold times. I have even been in a small scale battle with an internet provider for over a year regarding their inability to deliver on the level of service and support they agreed upon in the contract. Thankfully, that is all over, and I hope they have learned something from the experience (although their continued dismal ranking in public customer service shows otherwise). I won’t tell you who they are, but I think you can figure it out.
In the aftermath of this little fandango with the ISP that shall not be named, I decided to investigate their hiring and business practices for phone support based on their support line, direct contact with a recruiter, and their job board postings.
Over the course of a year, I made at least 75 phone calls, sent over 40 e-mails, and wasted countless hours trying to get appropriate notes added to my account and verified by the company representatives. Based on my findings with speaking to almost every phone based support department at this ISP (billing, retention, billing for another service, executive support, tiers 1-3 support, even an e-mail directly to the president of the company), these folks never communicated with each other or notated accounts with any information regarding the issue at hand. They acted as if Tommy from tier 2 support had a thing with Rhonda in billing, and now they don’t talk to each other, just on a larger scale.
I found it irritating the immediate attempts to read solutions to me from a book, solutions I have heard time and time again on each call, that did not apply to my concern. Along with this was the limited knowledge of the staff to think on their feet, step outside of the robotic responses and diffidence to my concerns. And then the inevitable lengthy transfer time to a person or department took place, and they walked blindly into this issue due to lack of communication from their own teammates.
In this day and age of support, there are collaboration tools that can be used, even at a low or no cost, to at least communicate and get the right person for the job. Something as simple as notating a ticket in the company CRM or sending an e-mail to a management team could have helped in this case – even a simple quick recap with the person I was being transferred to would have helped! Instead, I had to reference recorded call dates, make my own notes of employees and badge numbers, and re-tell the same concern to every person I spoke with until the issue was resolved.
During the issue with the ISP, I received a phone call from a hiring manager at that very business asking if I was interested in a position on their support line. After stifling some laughter at the premise, I said I’d entertain his call. He apparently glossed my LinkedIn profile and saw experience in retail support and some help desk work in a previous lifetime, which he thought I’d be a great addition to the team. He then started to go into specifics of my work history and found out soon that I had more experience than he had noted.
The requirements for the job are pretty simple: an H.S. diploma and some minimal technical knowledge. When I asked about the details of the position and requirements, he was looking for someone who can be trained over a 6 week period and reference a manual of common issues with the customers. I politely declined and explained the recent issues with their company to which he made a hasty retreat.
I then decided to look online at the job posting, long since removed now, to see if I could validate what was shared with me. I was not disappointed to see almost the exact same information on my phone call was in the posting. They had very minimal requirements, only asking for an H.S. diploma, and stating technical knowledge was a plus. The job was essentially for front line support for their products with “room to grow and train within the company.” So, can you tell me what is wrong with this?
With this extremely long story comes the reason for writing this post: this company is filling chairs with warm bodies expecting a call center to just work. In theory, the job description sounds nice enough with blurbs about being solution driven and customer facing, but when you take away the fancy talk and buzzwords, the job is simply answering the phone with a script for all interactions, turning this “opportunity” into “programming.” Deviating from the script is liable for termination as all of the calls are recorded for “quality and training purposes.” With micromanagement of that caliber, it is easy to understand the high turnover rate for these grand scale call centers.
It could be said that in this pool of employees some real talent may exist. That is true, there are some very good technical people who started at such a place, but wouldn’t the practice of scripting the calls stifle individual growth if the answer to every question was fed to the support staff with no explanation as to why these things happen, how to prevent issues, or explaining how things work?
If you are a company looking to add a call center or the company I used in my example above, I invite you to ask yourself the following:
What customer wants to call in to a company where the employee has no real understanding of the issues the customer is describing?
What does it say about your company when your front line employees aren’t confident in their job?
Do you think the customers are mostly the problems with the service or equipment?
Do many of your call center employees already have disdain for the customer?
Should you implement a vetting process and really invest in those employees that can perform exceptional work?
Does your support line empower the customer to self-resolve the next time, or continue to rely on the textbook methods until you lose said customer?
Are your training methods to use those exceptional employees’ expertise?
Are the employees hungry for more knowledge?
If you can answer these questions and understand the positive results you could get with practical application, you need but find the right people.
All of this being said, here are the takeaways:
Communicate with each other and among teams.
Be real with your customers.
Take ownership of the issue if it really is yours.
Train people to be service oriented, not regurgitating robots.
In many roles today, customer service is listed as a necessary skill. This can be applied to so many job titles as the increasing number of ways social media can be used to describe and document events and experiences reaches far beyond the initial customer and line-level employee interaction. Thusly, the customer experience applies to all roles now more than ever as expectations are high.
I take issue with this approach though, as perception and reality of customer service are two entirely different things. Before we break down this skill, we need to be able to define it appropriately.
Customer service is defined in many ways, but let’s define the terms individually (from Google):
Customer – a person or organization that buys goods or services from a store or business.
Service – the action of helping or doing work for someone.
So together, customer service can be defined as a person or organization that buys the action of helping or doing work.
Synonymous results for these words provide a much better term, which I prefer to use: kindness to the customer.
There have been some blurry lines on what customer service really is, as it is misconstrued by the reviewing public during purchases. The issue is, that is not what we are talking about. What is being thought of are consumed services. Let’s take a better look at both:
A consumer service/product/good is one that a customer will purchase and has an expected result. For example, if you go to the mechanic for an oil change, the expected result for your payment of that service is the oil change.
Customer service is not paid for, it is a mixture of empathy, kindness, acceptance, and assistance. This would be more in line with the mechanic being polite, explaining the process and costs up front, warning you of possible concerns, and ensuring timely turnaround or proper expectations for the service to be completed.
So where is the rub? Most reviews of businesses I see online are negatively speaking of the poor customer service at the business in question while providing only information about the lack of an item availability, failure of an item to perform, or a discrepancy in costs. What these reviews fail to mention are the way the employees handled the situation. To better understand this, here is an example situation:
You have an older computer and the “hard drive crashed.” You take it to a technician to repair and retrieve your data. As you enter, the technician is polite and appears to be helpful. As they quote a rough estimate of costs, you agree to a consumer service. The technician then places your hard drive into a reading station to try and review what data will need to be backed up, only to find that there is a burning smell coming from the drive. The technician tells you that your hard drive has some serious electrical concerns, and traditional methods of data recovery will not work. The whole time, the technician is focused on providing you the best experience they can while delivering the bad news about your data and the state of the hard drive. You are then presented with costly options which have no guarantee of if you will get any data back.
With this example, the customer could be very angry and demand a refund while shouting about how awful the customer service is, all the while seeking some form of recompense for this transgression. These customers will ultimately go to social media to wail about the event. Alternatively, with an understanding and grounded approach to the situation, the customer has the opportunity to be grateful for the information and either request a refund or apply the cost to a higher tier service.
I won’t go into details of my own experiences, but I have seen this very example go either way with a customer. In this case, ask yourself:
What happens when you receive a response that was not expected?
Was the customer service to blame, or the inability of the consumer service to provide a wanted result?
What if the customer service isn’t to blame, and the situation is just frustrating?
Did you get what you needed?
Would you consider this a good experience with customer service?
You’ll notice I mentioned needs up in #4. Need is a very difficult word, because we could say that we “needed that data,” but did we not need the careful eye of someone to properly diagnose the situation? Did their knowledge of the next steps to take fill a new need created when the failure appeared to be greater than initially thought?
Again, we go back to definitions to determine our immediate perception:
Need – Require, necessity
Want – A desire to possess or do (something)
Customer service is on a different level than products or a consumer service. The customer service skill must be at the forefront of whatever role in business you take. As a customer service representative, I live and breathe on helping people. I don’t feel that my job is done when the immediate concern is resolved, I seek to provide further assistance if available, and to be of service in any capacity I can. This is what keeps me going daily. If I cannot provide you with the answer you want, I will definitely work to give you the information or assistance you need.
The original blog site is being migrated. Reposts of some of my favorites will be posted on the blog page with some updates and edits for clarity. This article originally posted 7/13/17
While perusing some news stories recently, an article came up about a young man who was employed by the Great American Cookie Company. I’m paraphrasing here, but I’ll go over the details as I see them:
The story goes that the employee used his own money to pay for a cookie for a police officer who visited the franchise with the intent buy his own cookie. The officer was grateful for the action and left. A second customer came up and asked if he could get a free cookie as well, and became irate when he was denied. The employee explained that he purchased the cookie for the officer as he had a badge, and that this customer did not. Both this customer and his wife then verbally assaulted and threatened the store employee calling him multiple names stating they (the customers) would get him fired. When the unruly customers contacted the company, the employee was suspended. Now, after backlash from the internet, the company has rescinded the decision. Further reading shows that the employee in this case has a positive view of police, and is a good employee. It is even noted that he received a raise for his good work just before this incident.
Before I get into my analysis of this, I want to point out one important item:
The customer is not always right.
This might come as a shock to consumers who have not had the luxury of being employed in a service industry (but let’s face it, all jobs are to be of service). Harry Gordon Selfridge is one of the men attributed to coining the phrase “the customer is always right.”
[Image credit: Google Wikipedia synopsis]
What is failed to be mentioned by those who tout this phrase, is the later writings in 1914 by Frank Farrington which show the inevitable losses if the customer’s concerns are taken at face value. So after a 5 year testing of this theory that the customer is always right, two articles were written to state otherwise due to fallacious claims and outright abuse to the system.
I make this claim and post this information as a foundation for my analysis of the Cookie Company situation listed above along with other similar fiascos for other businesses that have had the most rude and unruly make unfounded claims and threats for what, 15 minutes of fame? Is this a power trip? Or is it that the customer is always right?
Social Media and the advent of the social marketing platforms has allowed for this type of “Let me speak to the manager” customer to abuse their position towards the company in an attempt to extort their preferred or wanted solution rather than the right solution for a situation. Fortunately, the employee at the Cookie company had social media on his side to thwart the efforts of those awful people, but this is not always the case.
For a company to knee-jerk the moment a customer complains and try to make things “right” with unfounded information from a social media platform shows exactly how in tune with the customer base the company really is. And it is no secret, they aren’t. What the company in question fails to understand is that:
Not every customer is important.
Having a tactful response with factual information is enough to give any company an edge on limiting impact and stopping this nonsense before it comes to a head. Many companies are taking to yelp and other platforms to root out incorrect and unfounded negative reviews with video tape, server testimony, and first hand experience. If the company continues to immediately bend over backwards for the customer, they are enabling bad behavior instead, and catering to the entitled.
Another item for review would be context. Many videos online show poor Uber experiences and only show during or just before the recorded “incident”. What you fail to see is the actual issue at hand, the customer behaving with an entitled attitude, and the driver unleashing pent up fury from the entire course of the ride. This video of a supposed “poor experience” goes viral and damages the image of the company and the driver, but no one asks for context. This is another item created by the technological advances I like to call the “pics or it didn’t happen” effect. The only companies who have come back from these viral videos have a tactful and ready response, not some form letter of apology for the videotaped outburst.
In the case of the main example from the Cookie Company, we see that the context was provided in the article, but did not seem to matter to the company. As a manager of a company, pay attention to your employees and the context of the situation, respond in kind and with facts, and never apologize for doing the right thing. For the consumer, understand that you don’t keep the lights on at every business you visit. Have a more realistic understanding of your place in the service transaction and refuse to accept the failed adage of always being right. We all have something to learn, and opportunities to be wrong can teach us more than we could ever expect.
I’m not doing this to beat up on the customers or the companies, but to point out the fact that misinterpretations of an old phrase has led to an entitled behavior in certain people. And this entitled behavior is enabled by companies failing to hold valuable the most important resource, their employees.
As my hosting provider has decided to cut ties with the previous administration tools, I was afforded an opportunity to revamp the site in a way that was less cluttered with half-baked ideas and installed software that never saw use. I’m hoping to maintain a more updated look and feel to the site, with better organization for photography and blog posts/journals. Please keep checking back as content is migrated over and new content becomes available.