Customer Service at the End of the Line: How to Help Clients During Their Worst Moments


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Every customer service specialist has a story of a nightmare customer. It’s the genre that launched a million TikTok channels. But behind every Karen and Kevin is a situation that could probably use some care and empathy. Many customers need to make a purchase under the worst possible circumstances, and it’s on the customer service staff to be considerate at those times.

Besides giving a client the opportunity to solve a problem with less conflict, improving the customer experience at these times is simply good business. Qualtrics noted that customers are much more likely to forgive a company for any bad experience, provided that the customer service is top-notch. If you’re looking to foster those long-term customer relationships, you need these tips to help all the customers, even when they’re at their worst.

Start By Understanding the Customer’s Emotional State

Businesses providing services that don’t automatically touch on tragedy (e.g., hospice providers or companies selling memorial products) are often caught off-guard by these moments.

Customer service representatives may not clue into the ways that their service processes create a traumatic experience for the customer. Writing for Harvard Business Review, grief education author Megan Devine recounted the absolute rage she felt at having to ask, repeatedly and unsuccessfully, for companies to close the accounts of her unexpectedly-deceased partner.

Sometimes, the customer service line becomes a bludgeon that inadvertently beats the customer into submission. Instead, businesses need an approach that allows them to keep company policy from rolling over a grieving customer. Reps should receive training in how to recognize grief and respond to it, without overtly triggering a customer who’s simply trying to hold it together for a quick shop visit or phone call.

Work on Building Relationships and Trust

Social media is chock full of tales of customers who don’t trust businesses, and businesses that can’t trust customers. While you can infer a lot of problems arising from social media promoting these kinds of viral topics, you may also wonder how great customer relationships come to life. It starts by seeing customers as more than a means to an end or a stage in the funnel. Good customer relationships last a lifetime.

Gartnerreported that customers are more likely to stick with a company when they feel like the business adds value and makes resolving issues low-hassle. For customers going through a rough patch, you can focus your customer service training efforts in these areas:

  • Listen to what the customer actually needs.
  • Look to solve problems in a way that supports the customer at a difficult time.
  • Communicate with respect and consideration for the customer’s emotional state.
  • Follow through with offers or compromises.

Better service may not rewind the clock, but it can make it easier for the customer to cope. They will remember that.

Train and Empower Staff to Solve Problems

It probably won’t surprise you that customer service agents would prefer to focus their efforts on solving customer problems instead of repeating the same page of the terms of service over and over. Salesforce noted that agents at organizations with high performance spend most of their time addressing complex problems. And yet, only about 70% of these agents feel like they have all the training they need to do their jobs effectively.

If you’re not spending at least 4 to 6 weeks on customer service training, you’re missing a big opportunity. Once you cover your basic processes, consider adding auxiliary training, such as:

  • Sensitivity training
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Role-playing difficult situations

Encourage your customer service agents to think outside the box, so that they can find better solutions. Then (and here’s the hard part), you have to let them do it.

Tailor Solutions to Individual Needs

Some companies grow large on the premise that their products and services are a reasonable match for a wide range of potential customers. But even if you find an approach that meets the needs of 90% of your clientele, you’ll still have 10% of your clients sitting on the outside. You can program AI to help you anticipate the needs of the average customer based on their buying patterns, and most of the time it will hit near the target. You won’t help everyone that way, though.

Grant your customer service reps freedom to exercise their creativity, within a set of parameters. They can spend a little more time customizing product recommendations off-the-cuff. Reps can use the information they gain during the transaction to provide a personal service that gives immediate relief to the customer’s pain points, without forcing them to go through an inflexible process to get it.

Go Above and Beyond

Customers are somewhat primed to anticipate difficulty with any customer service experience. If you’re a company that goes above and beyond, you’ll stand out from the rest. Where your competitors are cutting back staff and limiting hours as a way of lowering costs, a little more investment could pay off big. McKinsey reported that improving customer experience to better meet or exceed your customer’s needs could increase revenue by 2 to 7 percent.

The pandemic created a watershed moment for many consumers. They are more willing to stick with a company that provides great service, even if it costs more or takes longer. And given that customer retention usually costs less than acquisition, it’s worth investing some resources. Look for ways that your agents can show compassion to customers in a difficult spot, whether they’re offering customized options or following up on a purchase.

Confirm Consistency and Quality

Once you have a plan in place, you need to be able to confirm that your customer service staff carries it out consistently. Start by making your processes clear and transparent. Focus on plain communication that your service reps can repeat in human language. Set goals to improve the timeliness and quality of customer interactions. Avoid reactively changing policies based on the feedback of one angry customer, unless that experience is reflective of the norm.

Make sure that your KPIs relate to the customer experience, not just progress through the sales funnel and fulfillment. Consider tracking escalations, time spent addressing a single issue, and the number of transactions that end without a resolution. Ask your agents about how they handle difficult situations. Read reviews that customers write when they aren’t pressured to do so. Get enough detail, so you can follow the cause to the effect.

Meet Customers Where They Are, Not Where You Wish They Were

The best customer service is dynamic. Your system and support agents can anticipate where customers are in the buying cycle and help them progress at a rate that works for them. Customers don’t like to feel led down a particular path, and they will cut a transaction short if they aren’t getting what they need. This is true for any customer, but particularly for those who find themselves at your business during their worst moments.

If you don’t already have policies in place for unplanned incidents, like the unexpected death of an existing customer, now’s the time to implement one. Follow the process all the way to the point of contact, ensuring that your agents have the education and the power to provide solutions in these scenarios. This kind of care creates returns that can improve your customer experience overall.

Larry Alton
Larry Alton is an independent business consultant specializing in social media trends, business, and entrepreneurship. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.


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