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The Angriest Customers

Working with angry customers is a part of customer service that can’t be avoided. I write about working with angry customers fairly regularly and have a category devoted to it, but it is still a challenge to work with angry customers. A reader named Nancy emailed me today expressing the frustration she feels when she works with extremely angry customers who just won’t let her talk. Her frustration is certainly called for and it is a common one at that.

Out of all the challenges in customer service, working with customers who scream, yell, and curse is probably the biggest challenge. Most companies don’t tolerate the worst of these customers (they hang up), but what about the customer who is just really angry and isn’t necessarily doing anything wrong? How do you work with that customer?

Back in December 2007, I featured a two part guest post from Jennifer Harris, an employee at Ruby Receptionists. Her (great) advice is as follows:

  • Lower your voice. This will force the customer to lower his or her voice to hear you.
  • Provide a plan of action. Let the customer know what you can do and make it clear if you are doing anything special or going out of your way for that customer.

These are two great tips. I also find it useful to apologize to customers about the inconvenience and tell them that you are going to work with them to get their issues resolved. Ask them what they would like to happen to get the issue resolved (this works really well when customers are going on and on; simply ask, “Okay, what would you like us to do to get this issue resolved for you?” and go from there).

It’s unfortunate, but sometimes you just have to talk while an angry customer is talking. If you lower your voice, you will usually be able to gain some control over the conversation. Once you have the customer listening, use your best active listening skills and positive language to come to a solution.

In almost all companies, angry customers are a fact of customer service life. It is important to not take the customer’s anger personally (it isn’t directed towards you specifically) and to do whatever you can to get the issue resolved. Even though some customers can’t be pleased, it is possible to work with a majority of customers who can start off angry and end up satisfied.

Let me show you.

I was in a store the other day and asked where something was. The sales person said “Let me show you.” and walked with me to the part of the store I needed to go to. He then offered to get the item for me and helped me check out at the cash register closest to the item. I got what I needed within 5 minutes and the customer service experience was simple and easy.

Are you training your employees to go the extra mile and show customers where to go instead of just telling them? Even if you don’t have a business where you can or need to show customers where things are, you can apply the general thinking to any business – the customer asks a question, you go a step above when answering.

The challenge is half cultural, half procedural. Some companies have developed an “overachieving” service culture where that sort of service comes naturally. Others have developed a service culture of mediocrity where going the extra mile is unheard of and maybe even discouraged. In addition to the culture, you also need procedures in place. Encouraging employees to actually lead customers instead of just telling them is a step in the right direction (no pun intended).

What are areas of your business in which you can show the customer where something is instead of just telling them?

Get Engineers Involved

This post idea came from reader and fellow-blogger Alan Hart. His question is “how do you get engineering groups to think abotu service while they are designing products?”

Communication between engineers and customer service people is essential and is something I have written about in the past (see here and here), but there is always more to talk about regarding this topic.

  • The best way to make engineering groups aware of the challenges involved with customer service is to ask them to do customer service. Even if it isn’t that frequent (have each engineer answer support email one day a month). 
  • Some companies require that all employees (engineers included) talk to customers or respond to customer feedback on a daily basis. 
  • Another simple solution is to submit copies of customer feedback to engineers at the company. Let them review what customers are saying and call those customers if they have questions. 
  • A less common, but still very feasible solution is to “embed” a member of the customer service team in the engineering team. Have the customer service representative participate in the product design meetings and provide feedback from a different perspective. 

All of these methods will provide an often needed “reality check” to people who might not talk to customers very often. The methods help engineers a feel for what customers are thinking and what the challenges are. Getting engineers involved means letting them know what’s going on.

Call for Post Ideas

For me, the hardest part of blogging is thinking up a topic to write about.

That’s why I’m asking for your ideas on what to write about. Suggest whatever you think is remotely relevant. Customer service, hiring and training, culture, etiquette, etc. are all things I write about on a regular basis, but don’t let feel restricted to those topic areas. Even if I don’t use your exact idea, your suggestion might lead me to think of something else that would be interesting to write about and hopefully to read. 

Please leave your post ideas as a comment to this post or send them to me in a quick email. The people who post submit ideas that I end up using (or end up leading to more ideas) will most certainly get my appreciation and  some link love.

I’m looking forward to seeing your post ideas.

Make it easy for everyone.

I am a big advocate of making things simple and I’m a strong believer in the idea that simplicity leads to consistency. Back in March 2008, I wrote about how to measure customer satisfaction for less than $250 and got some great feedback on the article and the idea. Since then, I’ve put the theory into practice multiple times and have seen it succeed. 

Consider a customer satisfaction survey as an example. A company I work with now uses the software the general method I outlined in my post. It takes one person at the company about 5-15 minutes to send out a survey and start getting responses. When the company used an in-house solution that was patched together, it required three or four people to be involved at different levels and still took well over an hour to start getting responses. 

The old method was put together quickly and inexpensively, but that doesn’t mean that it was the right method for the company (or for any company). As soon as the company bought the software and got it working, they never looked back. It is now simple for the company to do a survey every other week

If you make a job easy for everyone involved, it is a lot easier to get the job done consistently and correctly. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What processes at your company could you make easier? 
  • What processes at your company aren’t getting done as consistently as you’d like? How can you make them easier for people to do?

Built-in Simplicity

I proudly use WordPress to power my blog. It is the best blogging platform I’ve used and offers exactly what I need from a blogging platform. WordPress 2.7 includes a great feature called Auto Update that automatically alleviates one of the largest pains associated with any type of self-hosted software – the need to maintain the software by keeping up with upgrades.

Essentially, the Auto Update feature provides built-in simplicity. Using it, I was able to upgrade my blog to 2.7.1 in about 30 seconds. I didn’t have to download or replace files or go through a number of steps; all I had to do was click the button and wait a few seconds and it was all done. 

This is obviously a great feature and one that I am sure many WordPress users wish had been implemented sooner. The question you should ask yourself is this: can I automate any of the “pain points” in my software or service? WordPress identified upgrading as an annoying pain point and then automated it very effectively. Can you do the same at your company?

Customer Service Experience Priorities

What are three aspects of an overall customer service experience that you think are important? I’ve always thought the three most important priorities in any given customer service experience are (in order):

  1. Resolving your problem / answering your question.
  2. Working with someone who has a good attitude and is friendly, helpful, etc.
  3. Getting your issue resolved quickly.

However, what I think is not what everyone in the world thinks is important. Regardless, I will try to justify my priority list:

  1. I think resolving the problem is the most important because that is why people engage in the customer service experience in the first place. There are not many people who call customer service just to chat and kill time; the majority of the callers are looking to get a question answered or a problem resolved. That’s the purpose and that should be the number one priority of the overall customer service experience.
  2. Working with someone who has a good attitude is crucially important, though. Even though the overall goal is to get the issue resolved, no one wants to feel degraded when they call customer service. A representative with the ability to resolve the problem and do so in a nice way is the best representative. Solving the problem doesn’t count as much if the employees are rude to the customer because the end result is still an angry customer.
  3. Speed at which an issue is resolved or a question answered is also extremely important. If the service is really friendly and the issue is resolved completely, customers are typically more forgiving of longer wait times and slower resolutions, but that is only if the other elements are there. 

A customer service experience is certainly complicated. Different customers enter into different customer service experiences with their own unique priorities. As a company, it is essentially impossible to understand each and every one of these unique priorities, but you can make a judgement about what your customer service experience priorities are and then design the processes in your customer service department to support those priorities. 

Estimated Burden?

I was filling out a government form last week and noticed on the upper right hand corner there was a line that said “Estimated Burden: 85 Minutes.” Needless to say, this isn’t the best verbiage for posting how long a form will take to process at some government office somewhere in Virginia or Maryland.

Think about the alternatives the government could have placed that would make the line a little bit less confrontational:

  • EB: 85
  • B85
  • 85
  • Estimated Processing Time: 85 minutes
  • Estimated Processing: 85 minutes
  • Estimated Completion Time: 85 Minutes

That is just six examples from what is certainly an unlimited number of possibilities. Burden is not a positive word and there are so many ways to hide the true meaning on the form. Anyone trained to fill out the forms could probably figure out what EB means, but for the 99% of people who aren’t familiar with the acronym, EB:85 will mean nothing.  The government can even put just 85 or B85, both of which would give the processor the information he or she needs without having a negative tone towards the customer (the person filling out the form).

Even though these types of things are super simple to fix, you can’t seem to get away from them. Some organizations simply don’t understand that a simple change in wording can make a difference and convey a totally different (and much more positive) tone. The ones that do, though, are the ones that will likely have happier customers. (Assume, of course, that similar verbiage mistakes are made across organizations that don’t think about it and not just in one place.)

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