Customer Service Representatives Are Your Public Face When a customer is unhappy and ready to write off your company, you want them dealing with the best people you can hire.
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This is one of the hardest articles I've ever written. In this age of neo-xenophobia and socially acceptable open bigotry what I have to say will be tough to pull off without sounding like the knuckle dragging brutes thirsty for the blood of "job-stealing foreigners."
I used to be a partner in a global firm with offices in 42 countries and, as such, I understand the very real advantages of having jobs sourced to the most qualified team in the most logical location. All that having been said, far too many companies ignore the reality that their customer service reps are their public face and typically are encountered when customers are seeing you at your worst. It's important to get things right from jump street vis-à-vis customer service; a man (I make no claim to his wisdom, he may have had the wisdom a closed-head-injured orang) once said "if you don't have time to do it right, when will you find time to do it over?"
I guess wisdom is where you find it and I found some there. Anyway, there are some things to avoid when you are establishing your customer service organization, and chief among them is to stop erecting barriers between your customers and the people who can help them address their concerns.
The higher the profile the entrepreneur, the more likely there is will be dozens of barriers thrown up between him or her and the customers. Some household names worry that if their customers could get them on the phone it would be a nonstop party line. In some cases, the top of the proverbial food chain at the tropical sweat shop where some companies quarter their customer service reps is an often imaginary supervisor who apparently doesn't do anything except spend all of his or her in meetings with God knows who, discussing God knows what.
It doesn't really matter if you get a "supervisor" on the phone because, as likely as not it, is merely another customer service rep posing as a supervisor. There are good business reasons for outsourcing customer service work to off-shore companies, but the unintended consequence is a customer service representative who doesn't speak English fluently, struggles to understand the customer's concern and rigorously follows a script all the while communicating the message: your concern is your problem, not ours. Seriously we literally couldn't care less.
Another tactic that frustrates already angry customers is keep them on hold for 20 minutes or more while peppering them with commercials, reminding them that they could complain using the website, and repeating the phrase "your call is very important to us. Please stay on the line and someone will be with you soon" in the same voice Jim Jones urged his followers to have another guld of Kool-Aid.
Some companies have perfected "the customer is always an inconvenience" message by avoiding phone calls altogether and only providing a form that the customer is expected to fill out with the vague promise that someone might get back to you.
Is this really the face you want to show your customers? I don't think so. One of the best examples of responding to a customer complaint was shown to me by Delta airlines. I will spare you the gory details, but sufficed to say, the service I received from Delta at O'Hare (seriously, Chicago, it's time to build at least one decent airport) was less than stellar. I fired both barrels of the Phil La Duke complaint machine squarely at Delta -- email, complaint form, customer service line, office of the executives, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Delta's customer service team was astonishingly prompt and decisive. Here are some things that they did that anyone who is serious about putting their best face toward an angry customer should adopt:
Deal with the emotion first: Mya Angelu once said, "people won't remember what you said to them or did to them, they will remember how you made them feel." Feelings are ugly, gooey messes but if you ignore the emotions you end up wasting time and usually making matters worse. Mentally identify what the person is feeling and literally tell them that you empathize with what they are saying. "What a horrible experience, I can understand why you are angry."
Acknowledge the inappropriateness of the behavior in question: Even if you are dealing with someone who is upset about something that you think is petty, you most likely will agree on some level that the way the customer was treated was inappropriate. By acknowledging inappropriate behavior on the part of your employees, you position yourself on the side of the customer.
Don't take it personally: Typically the customer isn't angry at the customer service rep per se, they are mad about how they were treated, and unless you were the one who behaved inappropriately you have no reason to take offense to the complaint.
Don't give the person permission to do something that they can do without you: Few things make customers angrier than a customer service representative who responds to a customer's threat to never do business with the company again by saying, "well that's certainly your choice." Oh yeah? Really? I don't need your permission to not buy your products or use your services. Customer services should retain customers and build brand loyalty, not drive customers into a frothy rage.
Avoid saying "what can I do to make this right?": My response to questions of this ilk is to say, "I didn't break this so I feel no obligation to fix it." I am not looking for something for nothing, and in general if I have been treated badly I want assurances that meaningful actions will be taken to ensure that if I do business with you again, I won't be treated so shabbily. Of course, labor laws and privacy concerns prohibit disclosing too much detail, but at a minimum the customer service representative should outline the disciplinary process without revealing any specific actions that will be taken.
Make a meaningful gesture of contrition. Many companies see an admission of wrong doing as somehow losing the customer service battle. In other cases, companies are too quick to offer coupons of some sort. Sometimes kindness, courtesy and a simple apology for the negative experience is all that's necessary. If, after doing these things, you are in a position to offer more, than do so.
Brand loyalty is built or lost by the performance of your customer-facing personnel and your customer service efforts can be a means to deepen that relationship or forever drive away customers who then evangelize your shortcomings.