Two More Ways to Make Service Feel Less Sorry

Last week’s post, Two Practical Ways to Fix the Sorry Side of Customer Service, focused on two key aspects of service that consistently create negative experiences for customers and reps. But once you get past those elements of infrastructure, there are some deeply human aspects of service that should be addressed.

After you’ve established structures and processes to eliminate as many errors or problems as possible, the next step should be to ensure that reps are competent to use those structures and processes to represent your company effectively. Service reps should know what it takes to help customers get the goods and services they want, both as a first round of interaction and in case some form of resolution becomes necessary.

Training: Take Two

Even if you’ve provided a comprehensive initial training, though, it’s vital to continue providing updated and enhanced product training to your reps to continue refining and enhancing their product knowledge. Customers now research comparisons and ratings online, and become enthusiasts and experts in their own right, steeped in product details via social media and online forums, so your reps will have to work at keeping up.

But you can’t assume that reps are up to speed simply because they know the products well. Service people also need to develop what many folks in the industry mistakenly call “soft” skills. In addition to knowing the product line, the requirements for data entry and system look-ups, and company policy, customer service requires that reps have interpersonal skills that are actually hard to learn and perform (and teach).

Communication skills are a necessary and beneficial investment because they improve the experience for both reps and customers. You can screen for these skills during the hiring process, but you’ll always need to train reps further and coach them in the crucial areas of listening and responding. If natural instinct were sufficient to provide satisfactory service, then more people would be good at service delivery, but that’s just not the case.

Reps’ intuitive responses (like most people’s intuitive responses) are usually insufficient on their own to keep the customer calm or elicit the information they need from customers. When reps show empathy to customers and help resolve their problems they actually make customers feel better — and they’ll feel better themselves.

Your reps may need better language, responses, or probes. At a minimum, teach them how to greet, exit an interaction, manage expectations, and make an apology. These may be simple things, but they are not easy. (See Are Your Customers Going Unheard? and Customer Experience Review, Part IV: Are You Coolheaded Enough for Irate Customers? for more examples of how to work with your reps.)

Acknowledging Everyone’s Emotions

Caring won’t trump competence. An upset customer won’t even notice whether a rep is warm and fuzzy if that rep is not also knowledgeable and competent. But a wide range of emotions — from mild to strong, from enjoyment to disgust — is the natural outcome of the pressures and occasional pleasures of customer service.

Reps need to be able to express — and with support, if necessary, to resolve — their anger, frustration, and fear of being yelled at or scolded by customers or management. Talking with sympathetic coworkers about difficult customer experiences helps reps release cortisol and adrenaline, so they can move on comfortably to the next customer. Otherwise, they’re likely to bring their suppressed negativity into their next interaction.

Because people tend to pick up on suppressed emotion, particularly of the negative kind, reps who try to squelch their negative emotions can actually trigger perfectly neutral customers into arguments. This can even happen with customers who only had innocuous inquiries.

Reps Are People Too

Make sure there’s an opportunity for frustrated or stressed reps to blow off steam during the day. I once had a client company that forbade its reps to ever disparage customers, even off the phone, because it created a “negative” environment. Reps were forced to hold their emotions in all day, went home upset, and eventually came to resent both the job and their management. Turnover rocketed until management came to terms with the reality that reps need to bring their whole selves to the job.

Service reps are real people. If you’re expecting service people to act like service robots, you’ll get rote and robotic behavior. Not only does that put your reps at risk of losing their ability to express empathy to customers but it puts your organization at risk of losing those reps altogether. So be sure to show your reps that you value their being able to handle their own emotions as well as other people’s.

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