The CAO of a municipality where I was delivering my Trusted Advisor seminars exclaimed, “Customer service isn’t rocket science. We just need employees to focus less on what they can’t do for customers, and more on what they can do.” Sounds simple doesn’t it? Yet one of the most common frustrations for customers phoning in with a concern is getting the runaround. An employee transfers them to someone who isn’t in, or to the wrong person. Unless the caller asks to speak to a specific person, then before transferring the caller, check to ensure it is indeed the correct person, and he or she is actually available. Five minutes of your time can save hours of a customer waiting and becoming increasingly frustrated. It’s the difference between employees who think their job is transferring calls, versus those who understand what their job really is – taking care of customers.
Customer Service Blog
Observing social media feeds, tweets, and posts it sometimes seems the rest of the planet is leading fabulous lives. People post updates on their awesome outings accompanied by selfies showing just how popular and perfect their lives must be. We don’t hear about their typical, run of the mill days that the average working person actually lives. One unfortunate result – in an effort to make things seem more interesting – is our tendency towards hyperbole. We describe things in extreme terms: amazing, spectacular, hilarious. As you know, most people; especially customers who are making significant buying decisions, are not fools. They tune us out and become skeptical (often subconsciously) when our word choices exaggerate – another word for lie. Everything you say and do either advances or reduces your customers’ sense of trust in you – there is no neutral. To be valued as a Trusted Advisor, remember that less is more. Resist the temptation to overuse extreme expressions.
Working with organizations for over 25 years to transform customer service culture, I’ve discovered that some employees – who would describe themselves as solid performers – actually have a habit of delivering more excuses than results. Unfortunately, your customers don’t buy excuses – literally. The more your team members rationalize poor service, the more they’ll cost your organization in trust equity. See if your employees use any of these six common customer service excuses. We’ll start with the worst offenders:
1. “It’s against policy”
Customer service policies must make obvious sense to customers. If not, overly restrictive and outdated rules practically invite customers to argue with employees or rant about your brand in social media. Set your policies around what’s best for your brand and best for customer loyalty. Don’t let lawyers establish your customer service policies. If you must have an unpopular policy, ensure that your employees understand it, can get behind it and can easily explain it to customers. More importantly, train and empower frontline employees to overrule policies when common sense dictates.
2. “Our shipping people messed-up”
Customers have zero patience for service providers who blame foul-ups on someone else; be it on co-workers in another department, or external suppliers/contractors who are part of your supply chain. Blaming others makes customers assume that they’ll get the proverbial run-around and intensifies their aggravation, making a bad situation worse. So take the opposite approach – accept responsibility. Say, “Looks like we messed-up. I’m sorry about that.” Most customers realize it wasn’t actually you who made the error. And they’ll respect the fact that you are nonetheless stepping-up to own it.
3. “We’re swamped this time of year”
This excuse is similar to the recorded on-hold phone message you hear from call centers: “Due to high call volumes…” Essentially this excuse tells customers that the organization has experienced this problem repeatedly, but (since they don’t really care that much about customer experience) hasn’t bothered to do anything to fix it. That’s better left unsaid. Best to simply thank the customer for their patience, and get on with what you can do for them.
4. “I’m not authorized to do that”
In my customer service seminars we talk about employee status, and how it’s a mistake to put a customer at a higher or lower status than the service provider. Instead, you want employees to be viewed by customers as their trusted advisors. So when you need to ask higher-ups for input, explain to the customer that you want to look into this further to see what you can come up with. Then discretely discuss the matter with your supervisor. When afterwards you report back to the customer, tell them, “Here’s what I came up with.” That makes customers feel like they’re dealing with an equal; not wasting their time.
5. “I assumed you wanted…”
Customers want service providers to help them make decisions. And in the case where customers view you as their trusted advisor, they even want you to make decisions on their behalf. But that only works when the service provider has discussed the customer’s needs and overall objectives. We earn the right to make assumptions after talking with the customer and gaining their respect. Paraphrase your understanding of their needs with the words like “sounds like”. For example, “Sounds like you’d like to…” After you’ve done that, customers will be much more comfortable and confident with your assumptions.
6. “Sorry, I’m new here”
Actually, in this case customers will accept this excuse, which is why I put it last. Customers can be wonderfully compassionate when a newbie, who realizes something is taking longer than it should, apologizes for the delay and explains the situation. Tip: rather than saying bear with me (which sounds like an order), instead say I appreciate your patience. For example, “Sorry for the delay, this is my first week here. I appreciate your patience with me.” Now the customer feels like a hero for being nice.
Bottom line – in every organization things will occasionally go wrong that put customer relationships at risk. The key to preserving the customer connection is ensuring frontline employees are trained to recover trust. As for managers, revisit your policies to ensure they don’t force employees to automatically say no to customers when instead they should be looking for ways to say yes. After all, if you don’t satisfy that customer, your competitor will. Then you’ll have in bigger problems where excuses won’t matter.
(hint – it’s not ‘yes’) If you’ve attended my Trusted Advisor seminars, you know how by just changing a few words you can improve how others perceive you and your organization. For example, check out this short video where I reveal one word that creates a better experience for employees and customers.
One of the most common challenges I hear from managers and business owners is how to get staff to want to provide better service. After having trained literally hundreds of customer service teams for over 25 years, I’ve observed that the organizations who nurture the best service behaviors use these five strategies…
1. Educate towards Empathy
It’s easier to get employees to care about customers by putting them in the place of customers. That’s why when clients bring me in to conduct customer service training seminars for their teams, I ask participants to create a list of what they expect when they are customers. Then we reveal tips on how, by simply changing a few words, staff can demonstrate that they understand the customer’s perspective. Compare: “I’ll have to check our schedule” vs. “I’ll be happy to check our schedule for you.”
2. Send Grumps to your Competitor
Pay attention to how each of your employees responds when a customer casually asks, “How are you?” If an employee uses that small-talk question as a license to complain about how he or she feels (tired, busy, or ready for a break) it’s time for a chat or a training review. That employee needs to make a serious choice to either a) stop burdening customers with their problems, or b) consider working for the competition. That might sound harsh, but the last thing today’s harried customers need is to be forced to listen to the soul sucking lamentations of a service provider who over-shares. The bonus of sending toxic talkers to work for your competitor is your remaining staff will appreciate the more positive atmosphere with the purging of just one negative person.
3. Catch them Being Good!
That message was pasted on a banner at a daycare across from a fitness room where I was working out. It was meant to remind the staff to pay attention when toddlers are doing the right things; not just correcting them when they misbehave. Similarly, managers foster better customer experiences by catching employees when they provide exceptional service. The key then is to ensure all team members learn from the positive behavior. That leads us to…
4. Stage CAST© Meetings
Getting employees to care requires more than a onetime event; it requires ongoing nurturing of your customer service culture. To make the process more efficient, consider staging CAST© meetings. CAST© stands for a Customer Service Team Meeting. It’s where leaders and their teams talk about how to make the experience better for customers, employees, managers and other stakeholders. CAST meetings take as little as 90 minutes a month and you’ll find that in as little as six months they transform your customer service culture. Essentially they involve reminding team members of your service mission and standards, providing a coaching moment, disseminating customer service feedback, discussing ways to enhance the experience, and celebrating your service legends – examples where staff went above and beyond for customers. I detail the step by step process in my book, Becoming a Service Icon in 90 Minutes a Month
5. Turn Service Stars into Owners
As the expression goes, owners care more, and it shows (particularly to customers). Employees who have a vested financial interest in ensuring customers are happy over the long term take a different approach to service than those who are just waiting for a paycheck. That may mean putting your money (actually your equity) where your mouth is. At some point high performing frontline employees, who presumably don’t earn as much as managers, are going to want to create a more secure financial future. One of the most effective ways to involve them – literally – is to offer share ownership to your star performers.
Bottom Line – Cultivating a customer service culture isn’t complicated. It does however require training and support. Some managers claim they’re too busy for this. My question: in today’s hyper-competitive marketplace where your service is increasingly the only significant differentiator, what could possibly be more important to managers than ensuring your team provides outstanding service that customers notice, pay a premium for, and tell others about?
Here’s an easy way for employees to be remembered when thanking customers. Avoid the amateur routine of giving the customer their change, receipt, or bag and saying, “Thank you,” as they leave. Instead, consider the approach used by a clerk when I was the customer. Before handing me my change, she held on to it until I looked her in the eye. While maintaining eye contact she smiled, nodded, and said, “Thank you.” Then she handed me the change. Result – she appeared more sincere. And her store seemed more deserving of my patronage than the average business.
Whenever one person gives someone else a task to do, there’s always the risk that the other person might “go-through-the-motions” to get it done. Whether you’re an employee doing something for a customer – or for your boss, your choice of words can instill confidence or foster mistrust. For example, if you respond to a request with, “I’ll do it”, it sounds like you’re forced “to do” something. Instead use the phrase, “I’ll take care of it.” That response implies that you’re complying because you care, and that you’ll see it through until completion.
When influencing others, two little words get big results. A Chicago restaurateur had problems with people not showing up when they made table reservations. So, the hostess added two words when people phoned for a reservation. Instead of saying, “Please call us if your plans change,” she changed the wording to, “Will you call us if your plans change?” The result, adding “will you” and then waiting for their answer dropped the percentage of no shows from 30 to 10 percent. “Will you” has the effect of turning a suggestion into a subtle request for a commitment.
Harvard Psychologist, Ellen Langer discovered a surprising way to gain cooperation. In her study, researchers would interrupt someone making photocopies; asking if they could make their copies first. Only 60% of machine users would comply. Next, researchers would interrupt another user, this time adding a phrase beginning with the word, “Because…” Apparently, it didn’t matter what came after the word. Even saying, “Because I’m in a hurry,” resulted in 95% compliance – a 57% increase! The lesson – anytime you’re asking a customer, co-worker, or family member to do something, remember to add, “because…” and you’ll gain greater cooperation. Not bad for remembering a single word!
There are times when dealing with dissatisfied customers that you may not be able to repair the damage or inconvenience that they were subjected to. A common error when attempting to salvage the relationship is to ask, “What would you like us to do?” That phrase sounds too much as though you won’t do anything unless the customer gets you to do it. Instead use the phrase, “What will work best for you?” That wording sounds much more like you’re willingly going to do whatever it takes to make it right.