Last August we added a new article about customer service and how to look beyond just a quick response. However, we didn't touch on training yourself and/or your customer service people to listen beyond the words being said.
Willow: If everyone could clearly state the problem or issue, calmly and concisely, then we wouldn't need to talk about it. The truth is that it seldom happens. Often a customer doesn't use the same vocabulary for any one of a number of reasons.
Gail: Unless it is a business to business issue, it is unlikely that the customer knows or understands the industry "lingo" which is meaningless to them. The problem may be that they will pretend to understand just because they don't want to appear stupid which leads to more confusion and frustration on both sides.
Willow: Regional use of words and slang can also complicate communications because everyone defines the same thing differently due to tradition, culture or other reasons.
Gail: A great example of that is chili. In Texas, a true "bowl of red" is made with coarsely ground or chopped beef with no tomatoes or beans and is thickened with masa harina or cornmeal. In the north, chili is usually a thinner soup with beans and tomatoes. Cincinnati chili has cinnamon in it Then there are the vegetarian beans only or chicken chili for the health conscious. Lastly there is traditional green chile stew made with pork. Talk about confusing.
Willow: Then there are separate issues about the knowledge base of a customer. For example, they may barely be able to turn on a computer, have just enough knowledge to be dangerous or could be an expert. Just because they may use the correct terms doesn't mean they actually understand what they are talking about.
Gail: It takes a great listener to be able to quickly determine how best to communicate successfully with a customer and on what level of knowledge.
Willow: All of these issues are, of course, further complicated by the fact that a customer is in some stage of anger from annoyance to being absolutely furious. The higher the level of anger, the less able they are to explain clearly and succinctly. You can suddenly be dealing with an adult acting like a 2 year old having a tantrum.
Gail: When someone is that angry it is hard to calm them down enough to talk to them. So often anger actually masks fear; fear the problem is their fault, fear it will cost too much to fix or resolve, fear they will be thought stupid or be patronized and, very commonly, fear that they will be ripped off.
Willow: Unfortunately, the customer service person is often on the receiving end of all the other bad customer service experiences the customer has had in the past. If you are like both of us, we almost have an attitude and anger when we have to deal with a customer service rep.
Gail: Of course, meanie that I am, I will try to talk to one rep and if they can't resolve the problem, I talk to the first level of supervisor. If the matter isn't resolved at that level, I give up talking to them on the phone. I then simply write detailed letters of complaint to the appropriate company officer and let the issue roll down from there to the level that can get things done.
Willow: In big companies, the lowest levels of customer service also have the least power to resolve anything. Their hope is that you will give up and go away. Small companies or large ones that actually care, will have a hierarchy but the lowest levels have considerably more flexibility to resolve the problem or can transfer you to the appropriate person who can resolve it.
Gail: Sometimes you need to address the fear, spoken or unspoken, before you can effectively address the basic issue. I recently was brought into an emergency meeting at the offices of a current client because of a serious complaint that was quickly escalating to a point that there was a possibility of serious damage to the company which is in the commercial cleaning industry.
Willow: You told me that a new hire went to clean a medical office and locked herself out of the janitorial closet. Fearing that if she didn't do the cleaning she would be fired, she went through the office manager's desk looking for a key. Needless to say, that was absolutely the wrong thing to do.
Gail: It turns out that no one had a key to that closet; it had been missing for years. Note: if you have a door or cabinet that locks and the key is lost, call a locksmith to get it rekeyed or replaced or disable the lock completely.
Willow: Then the cleaning lady left a file out on the desk. The next morning, when the office manager found the file on her desk she opened it and found the first sheet of paper was a police report she had filled out that had all her personal information including Social Security number on it. She claimed it had been the bottom sheet in the pile.
Gail: Her anger over the situation was totally understandable and the fact that she felt violated was all too real. However, her anger was inappropriately high and she would not be calmed down. She threatened to turn the company in for violating the HIPPA (Health Information Privacy and Portability Act) laws.
Willow: Since police reports will become public documents and there was no health or patient information on the report, the threat of a HIPPA violation made no sense other than the fact that those laws are drilled into the heads of people even remotely involved with patient information.
Gail: The office manager was convinced that the cleaning lady had made 1 or more copies of the information and would use it herself or sell it to others for ID theft.
Willow: Later the office manager said that she had been a victim of ID theft about 3 years ago and it had taken her 1 ½ years to get it straightened out and it had been a nightmare. Her anger was covering her terror at being a victim again.
Gail: It became very obvious during the meeting that people had heard her mention about being a victim of ID theft but they weren't listening to her. She had threatened to file a claim with the company liability insurance carrier as well as a police report.
Willow: The entire meeting became a discussion of how to deal with the issue, the legalities and an insurance claim. There was some finger pointing and a discussion on what to do to the employee.
Gail: I had kept my mouth shut except to ask a few questions before finally stating that they were looking at the problem backwards and for the wrong solutions. They had not listened to what the office manager told them.
Willow: I am sure they looked at you like you were crazy, which you are. But you saw that immediate and main problem at the moment was not what the cleaning lady did but the office manager's terror.
Gail: That is absolutely right. Obviously, you are as crazy as I am. If they dealt with her fear then it was very likely that the rest of the problem could be dealt with appropriately. My suggestion was that the company offer to pay for 1 year of ID theft insurance from the provider of her choice. It would likely be a very effective solution to calming her fears and showing we understood her fears and respected them.
Willow: I know that it turned out the office manager had purchased the insurance for herself that morning so the company simply reimbursed her for the cost. I bet she appreciated the offer and the thoughtfulness in that it addressed her specific issue.
Gail: Her entire attitude changed and all the threats disappeared. She said she would file a police report although nothing was actually taken as far as she knew. That was perfectly acceptable to the company and it also gave the office manager an extra layer of protection in case the employee had stolen her information.
Willow: It certainly resolved a potentially very serious problem for the company as well as showing them that listening and understanding what someone is saying can give insight to providing a more personalized and appropriate solution to at least part of any problem. That is real customer service.
Gail: It isn't always that easy to get to the root of a person's fear but just the understanding that a person's fear may be masked by anger, can go a long way to resolving the matter calmly without escalating the anger on the part of the customer as well as create frustration and even anger in the customer service rep.
Willow: You can't always provide personalized solutions when one person may be representing several others at a company with complaints over a product or service. For instance, if a company has purchased a number of new computers and they all have issues, you can't offer an immediate replacement, a free loaner or to promptly dispatch a tech dispatched for only 1 person. In that case you have to appease not just the users but also the client company.
Gail: The most important factor can be listening and understanding, not just paying lip service by saying their problem is understood.
With the holiday season about to start we want to wish you a very happy Thanksgiving. Remember to be truly thankful for what you have and don't forget those less fortunate and share your bounty.