Do you experience a mild sense of dread when you need to call your cable provider to resolve a problem? If so, you’re not the only one. We’ve grown used to expecting less than stellar experiences when it comes to interacting with customer service representatives, and receiving a timely, helpful, and courteous resolution to our problem tends to be the exception rather than the rule.
We all know that it shouldn’t be this way—and it doesn’t have to be.
Throughout my career in the field of customer experience, I’ve seen it done extremely well, and I’ve heard stories that should make service reps around the world hang their heads in collective shame. I’ve also probably heard every excuse in the book from companies who believe they have don’t have the technical or financial resources to consistently deliver great customer experiences. But serving your customers is always, first and foremost, a matter of human relationships. If you get that part right, you’ll already be far ahead of the curve.
There are a few things that every organization can do to ensure that the human beings at the other end of any given service interaction receive the help and care they deserve. Here are five of the best:
1. Empower Your Front Line
In this always-on age, your company’s door is always open, and customers may choose to contact you through any support channel you’re willing to provide—including email, phone, web chat, social media, live retail venues, and self-service support forums online. These “multichannel” options aim to make things easier on the consumer side of the street, but for businesses some of today’s biggest challenges are a direct result of this newly added complexity. That’s why you have to empower your customer care staff with the training and autonomy they need to cut through that complexity and do their jobs well.
Customer care representatives also need to be empowered with the right tools, which might include software that provides a 360-degree view of customer interactions across all of your service channels. But the use of any tools or training starts with your front line staff—the people in your business who interact most directly with your customers. If either a frustrated customer or a confused service agent is forced to escalate an interaction to a supervisor, you’ve already lost the battle. So take a tip from Nordstrom, a brand renowned for their exemplary customer service: Give even your most junior employees permission to use their best judgment, and then give them everything they need to follow through. If your front line of customer care already knows everything they need to know within the first minute or two of a conversation and, most importantly, are empowered to act on that information—with sufficient knowledge and latitude to resolve the most common problems on their own—then you’ll soon see a lot more happy faces all around.
2. Play to Your Workers’ Strengths
It’s always good to remember that your customer service staff consists of human beings, too. And that means that every single one of them is different, no matter how hard your streamlined corporate protocol may strive to iron out these differences to create a fleet of 50 or 5,000 service-rep machines. The best customer care teams find ways to use these human idiosyncrasies to their advantage. If you understand the different skill sets your agents possess, you can then best match those skills to the appropriate customer or situation—whether that means assisting a customer in a different language, upselling a customer on a new product or service, or dealing with a particular technical issue that some agents have more experience with than others.
But most importantly, because every interaction between you and your customers is a human interaction—no matter what channel it happens through (even most autoresponder emails and FAQ lists are written and read by real people)—it pays to understand and appreciate your different employees’ strengths, temperaments, and empathetic skills. If your company has a billing and collection department, for instance, you’d be wise to staff your department with individuals who are particularly adept at helping customers who are angry and upset. Certain people can defuse tension, respond to objections, or deal with emotional intensity more effectively than others. It’s just human nature. So finding ways to treat your customers as the individuals that they are, routing them to the most appropriate individual service reps as quickly as possible, is another sure way to streamline the experience for everyone involved.
3. Arm Your Team with the Right Script
In the normal course of business, there’s an ebb and flow to the rate at which customers make contact with your company, and it’s smart to staff your contact centers accordingly. Perhaps more calls come in on Wednesday evenings than on Fridays, or maybe more people contact you through email on the weekends. Week after week, these patterns become predictable, and you can take steps to ensure that no customer’s attempt to contact your support team is ever ignored. But then there are the special occasions—a big product release, a marketing campaign, or even a natural disaster. All of these can affect your business and your frequency of customer contacts, and dealing effectively with a sudden onslaught of new inquiries starts with giving your front line employees the right script.
If your customers received an email about a special promo offer and called in to request more information, the situation would be far from ideal if your call center staff didn’t know what your customers were talking about and, instead, just continued to read aloud a rote, scripted response to a customer’s “unusual” request. But it happens all the time. You need to find ways to give your front line staffers a seat at the table before the new inquiries come flying in, so they can respond appropriately and not sound like robots who forgot to download the latest software update. Perhaps this translates into setting up a special call center to field concerns about how the latest Bay Area earthquake affected homes’ electrical service, or putting together a social media team specifically to deal with the response to a limited-time MacBook sale. It could also take the form of a daily standup huddle with your staff, briefing them on everything they need to know to meet the challenges they can expect that day. By doing this, you’ll be making sure that everyone—customers and service agents alike—are already on the same page before an interaction even starts.
4. Take Out the T’s and C’s
The previous three points are all about eliminating any potential friction between your front line staff and your customers, ensuring that any questions and concerns your customers may have can be resolved as efficiently as possible. But nearly every aspect of your brand today is a potential customer experience “touchpoint,” and your behind-the-scenes IT staff and legal team need to begin keeping your customers in mind, as well. If the T’s and C’s—the Terms and Conditions—for your product or service are only comprehensible by your lawyers, then you’ve already set up another barrier in front of your customers before their experience with your brand has even begun.
This also applies to your company’s websites and mobile apps. If they’re confusing or difficult to navigate, delivering a user experience that makes more sense to your web design team than to your actual customers, maybe it’s time to rethink your strategy. Try applying the so-called Grandmother Test. Ask yourself, “Would my grandmother understand this?” If she wouldn’t understand your Terms or Conditions, or your product instructions, or wouldn’t be able to intuitively use your app, then you’ve just identified another obvious source of friction to eliminate. This doesn’t mean “dumbing down” or pandering to your customers; it merely means communicating as clearly and simply as possible. Just a little extra sympathy for the human beings at the other end of your brand—adding the quality of attention that distinguishes a traditional customer service environment from what we now call customer care—will go a long way.
5. Provide the Customer Experience You’d Want to Receive
Of course, customer experience professionals must always bear in mind that they can’t choose which customers are going to contact them or enter their store. One needs to be attentive and available for anything. If you work in a dedicated service role, you may get unhappy customers most of the time, demanding your help to resolve their problems. To make your own life easier, I suggest you take the Golden Rule to heart: Whenever possible, offer customers the same care and courtesy you’d hope to receive—because you and every other customer care rep in the world are also, at one time or another, customers yourselves.
By the same token, you don’t need to overdo it. As customers, we can trust that our own experience is often the best guide, and we aren’t necessarily looking for five-star, white-glove treatment when we call AT&T to report that our internet speed is running slower than what we’re paying for. We simply want it fixed, as quickly and professionally as possible. This suggests that to the extent that companies go out of their way to provide unparalleled customer service, they may not get much ROI. A recent study indicates that the managers of call centers who staff their departments to reduce customer waiting time to zero seconds are definitely pleasing their customers, but they may also be wasting money by overstaffing. Customers naturally expect to wait and be put on hold for a little while. And yet, the study also showed that many companies tend to grossly overestimate how long their customers are willing to be put on hold—predicting 6.6 minutes when the reality is under 90 seconds—so it’s a delicate balancing act.
In the end, providing great customer care is an evolving art, not a science. By applying any model, statistic, or technique, your own mileage may vary. What works well for one company may backfire for yours. But to the extent that best practices like the ones I’ve described here are at least considered, we’ll be endeavoring to find new ways to humanize both our support staff and our customers, treating them with the respect and care that all individuals deserve.
Could there be a better foundation for a great relationship than that?