The biggest mistake your agents are making in bill explanation: the Memento problem.


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For almost all major companies who outsource customer service, “Bill explanation” in one form or another is a top call driver to their centers. (For those that just want to know where Memento comes into play, see #4).

How do you get this pivotal service right?

1. Listen very carefully to the customer and ask questions

There are generally only a few reasons the customer needs their bill explained: unexpected charge, or first bill, or new customer on an existing account (i.e., hubby calls in to make a payment when it’s usually wife’s job, or vice versa). Your reps will answer the same questions over and over. For most bills, I would say about 75%, a standard scripted explanation will be sufficient.

However, the remaining 25% will age you before your time and make you face your own mortality, because they are so challenging to understand, let alone script.

This is why it’s key to listen to all the information coming from the customer, ask targeted questions (list below) and pay attention to what the customer says at all stages of the game.

Generally, customers are the worst source of information about their own account—I mean, they’re calling you for information, right? If they knew, they wouldn’t be on the phone with you! But in the case of the double bill, the missing bill, or the bill that keeps coming in the wrong name, they usually have valuable information.

– Targeted questions to ask (nicely!!!)

o Have you had this issue before? If so, and if it was resolved, what was the resolution?

o When did you first notice this issue?

o What is the outcome that you would like to see here? (This may help with people who rant, ask questions, rant, go on a tangent, and then rant some more.)

o Before I explain this, would you like me to refer you to our Self Help page (or other resources they could use to resolve the issues alone)?

2. Use active listening to paraphrase the concern before commencing with the explanation

With outsourced agents who speak English as a second language, it’s a fact that nuances can be missed. With billing questions, especially tangled events like a promise for a % off that never happened, it’s very important to double check with the customer before “solving” the issue.

– Paraphrase1: “So, you’re seeing a charge for $41.95 over and above your normal charge of $21.99, and you’re wondering what happened there?”

– Paraphrase after catching the miss from paraphrase 1: “Oh, your entire bill is $41.95. Okay, so there’s an additional $19.96 that we need to find somewhere.”

3. Match the speed, pacing, and comprehension level of your customer

I’m sure I don’t need to explain this advice in detail, but let me fill it out a bit by suggesting how you can determine the comprehension level of your customer.

– Vocabulary. One of the easiest ways to determine the “reading level” of your customer- do they use industry jargon (such as “billing cycle”)? Do they seem familiar with billing practices at all? (It happens that we do get callers who’ve never seen an e-bill or even a checkbook!)

– Question frequency- are they asking a lot of questions or are they just giving you verbal nods? A lot of questions usually means they aren’t following your level of conversation and it’s time to take it down a notch.

– Type of question- pointed or targeted, or “huh? What?”

– Verbalizations other than full words. “Uh, eh, oooh, mmm” etc. Listen to these to tell if the customer is understanding you or is lost

– Total silence. You’ve usually lost them.

– The structure of their explanation upon calling:

o Example A (low structure): “Uh, yeah, um, about my bill? Okay, what happened is, I signed up for $29.99. And that was like, last year, or whatever. And now I’m seeing, I dunno, about $60.00 or something! So, uh, yeah.”

o Example B (high structure): “Hi, Lorinda, you can help me by telling me what this charge is in the amount of $61.97 on my bill of June 1. My account number is…”

4. Explain it as if you were telling a story: beginning, middle& end.

This is the biggest single mistake agents make: they start with the issue, not with the origin of the issue. Factoring in challenges with grammar and sometimes cultural expectations (“Don’t give bad or upsetting news directly, it’s better to talk around the issue and let the listener draw their own conclusions.”) and you have a vague, muddled, hard-to-understand bill explanation.

Most agents start with “Okay, so if we take 295 and minus out this month’s bill for 49.95, we have 250 dollars, right? So then we go back to August, and we see that there is a charge for 25.99, right? Okay, well that is 10% of 250 dollars.” WHERE DID THE 250 come from???

It is VERY HARD to think backwards for most people. It’s like watching the film Memento. Memento is a really cool film, but its limited audience and cult status are in place for a reason: it’s a brain buster.

Don’t try to challenge the intellect of your customers by making them think in reverse. Tell the story in the order that it happened, *starting with the origin of the issue*.

– The steps in telling your bill story:

o The precipitating event- the domino effect-the current state:

“Okay, back on July 7, we were expecting to receive your old cable box. That was the end of the 30 day cable box receipt grace period. Since we did not receive the old cable box, a charge for 259.00 was generated. (The precipitating event) This charge then appeared on your August bill. Since you mentioned that you sent in a check from your vacation home for the usual amount of your bill, the additional 259.00 did not get paid in that cycle, leading to a finance charge of 10%, of 25.99. (The domino effect) So your September bill is now…” (The current state).

5. Follow up with a test close and actually answer any concerns that you receive

After you’ve explained the source of the questioned items on the bill, (or solved whatever other concerns they may have), make sure that you ask “Is there anything else we could help you with today?” Sometimes customers don’t want to interrupt a very clearly earnest and trying very hard agent, but they couldn’t capture the explanation. This is their chance to ask again, or ask for more information. It’s also your last chance to have First Call Resolution, or to ensure that they won’t call back a few hours later on the same issue, because you didn’t really explain it well the first time.

6. Guide them to resources where they can find answers on their own or through a community if they would like

Personally, I would suggest doing this after a good, solid “solve” and really at no other time—not before, not after a half assed solve, and certainly not after a no-solve! (Unless company mandates it, in which case….all I can do is shake my head). After a solid solve has been achieved, the customer is in the glow of happiness—you fixed their problem!

Now is the time to offer the vaunted value- add! Now is the time to ask them to “join the conversation” at #cablebillsmakemetingleinside. Now is the time to gently ease that baby bird of a customer out of the nest of the call center and into the welcoming arms of the community! Fly, baby customer! Fly!

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Naomi Kelsey
Naomi Kelsey has 10+ years of progressive responsibilities in the customer service industry, and 3 in the BPO training field, with an Instructional Design focus. She specializes in creating custom-tailored training programs in Language, Customer Service, and US Culture for both internal and external call center clients. Her vision is to bring "supernaturally human" customer service to all customers through innovative training methods and materials, great coaching tips, and true expert advice.


  1. I liked that you pointed out that it would be smart to pick words for the bill that is easily understandable. I wouldn’t want to get a dictionary to understand a bill. So, that seems like a good way to make sure that everyone is on the same page.


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