How Can Online Customer Care Feel Personal?

How Can Online Customer Care Feel Personal? www.sociallysupportive.com

How Can Online Customer Care Feel Personal?
www.sociallysupportive.com

We know from recent customer surveys that a resounding theme exists in responses from consumers who want to do business with companies that care about them. “Don’t treat me like just a number,” they write. Or, “I want to feel like somebody at that company cares about me.”

We also hear that digital interactions such as chat, social media and texting are cheaper and that customers actually want to engage with brands through these avenues. But, how do you deliver an interaction that feels personal without delivering a warm and empathetic human voice on the other end?

Good question. We know that eye contact, warm smiles and an open-armed stance show people in person that we are open to what they have to say and willing to work with them. In a call center environment the visual clues are missing from the conversation, so we teach agents how to enhance verbal connection by ensuring they wait to speak until the customer has finished, being very polite and repeating what they understood the customer’s need to be. We also encourage them to smile while talking, because believe it or not, customers can “hear” a smile (it’s really true, if you didn’t know. Technically, the tone of your voice can change a bit, you can form your words differently because of the shape of your mouth, etc.).

So…then what happens online? What should we be teaching our chat agents and our social agents to ensure that these online interactions feel personal? You can’t see or hear the consumer, there are just these words on the page with few context clues to draw from.

Here are some high-level concepts to share with your reps to ensure they are providing online service that will feel warm, memorable and inviting.

5 Steps to Personal Online Customer Support

  • Research: Before an agent ever interacts with a customer online, I recommend that you provide them with data around who your customer is, generally speaking. Usually upon hire, an orientation is given that explains the services your company offers and to whom those services are provided. For example, let’s say you are a computer parts retailer. You provide online chat for your customers in case they have questions about computer parts. your internal market research indicates that your customers are primarily from the U.S. and 60% male between the ages of 21 and 50. Because you are a retailer and not a wholesaler, you know that most of your customers are end user hobbyists and not businesses using your parts to resell to others. Providing this information to your agents before they ever engage with a customer is a great idea, because it helps them understand who they are talking to. They can guess that these customers would be interested in the much talked about latest software release, new advances in processing speed, etc. If your social media team were being trained rather than your chat team, perhaps you can research your Facebook insights in Business Manager to understand additional information about the customer.
  • Prepare: Once the agent is out of training and on the floor, it’s a good idea to be ready when that interaction comes. Online transactions have a bit of an advantage over phone calls in that some sort of data is usually passed to the agent before the customer is “live” with them. Perhaps your phone reps get a customer account delivered to their computer screen with the initial call, but you’re live at that point with the customer and quickly scanning to see what’s happening. In the online chat space, typically the customer has stated their inquiry in a pre-chat survey and is in queue waiting on an agent. Train your reps to take the time to fully read and understand the customer’s inquiry before they engage the customer. For social media, because initial response time expectations are a bit longer than on chat, you can take this a step further and see how far you can get resolving a customer’s issue before you ever reach out to them. Yes, your initial response time is possibly longer; however when you reach out to the customer, it feels as if the agent is engaged, prepared, and knowledgeable about the customer’s inquiry.
  • Listen: Ok, in the digital space it’s probably more accurate to use the word “read.” Have the agent read all of the words the customer has written to ensure that no assumptions are made. This is an easy place for online interactions to go from being helpful and satisfying customer issues, to being a huge waste of time for the customer. Thoroughly reading and understanding what the customer’s issue is avoids the agent taking time to solve for what they thought the customer needed help with, rather than what the customer actually wanted assistance with.
  • Ask: A colleague of mine once shared that he would ask three questions of a person before providing a single answer. This was to ensure that he fully understood the question before providing an answer. Brilliant, right? Let the agents know that it is a good idea to ask as many questions as necessary to ensure the answer they’re about to provide is truly the answer the customer requires. This pairs directly with “Listen” above. Skipping this step, in my experience, is the primary cause for customers feeling that only very simple transactions can be conducted online, and that for “tough questions” they need to call in. When executed properly, this step ensures that very complex troubleshooting can be conducted in online channels.
  • Share: Let’s not forget this one. The agent should share with the customer what should be done and why before getting started. Now, by “why,” I don’t mean that we should burden the customer with all the technical specifications that allow that agent to do the task. That’s wasted handle time and, quite frankly, the customer is not going to perform the transaction so we can skip all that and save everyone time. What is helpful is that after all the listening and asking of questions, we share the diagnosis with the customer. This is important because it’s possible that the agent has made an incorrect diagnosis. Sharing the high-level plan with the customer and asking if they are ready to correct the problem can prompt the customer to share additional details they hadn’t known were relevant before. This extra information could completely change the diagnosis, and might send the fix into a different direction. This step of sharing can again save precious time for the agent and the customer.

There you have it. Five Steps to Personal Online Support. What.. what’s that? Oh, right. Those steps above seem to be outlining how to have efficient and effective troubleshooting with a customer online. So, how is that personal, is that your question? Let me explain.

The reason customers report feeling disconnected during online interactions is because the agent isn’t listening to them, doesn’t share information, or doesn’t explain what they’re doing. Chat and social media interactions seem challenging to customers because there isn’t an ability to say enough words to get the agent to understand what the real issue is. The agent is trying to finish the transaction expediently since it’s an online channel, and this can cause a rush to figure out the customer issue. This rushing causes incorrect diagnosis, which, then, leads the agent to perhaps solve the wrong problem or be ineffective at solving the right problem. The customer feels like the agent doesn’t care because the agent isn’t sharing any information and doesn’t understand what they’re trying to convey. (phew, did you get all that?) Time and time again, reviewing thousands of online interactions over the years, this is what we see.

What does  feel like caring, personal interaction to people is, of course, saying hi, how are you, how is your day going, etc. And agents are already doing this. But what really, truly feels like caring is when people listen and people help. We’ll of course assume that your agents want to help and wish they had time to listen. By providing them with these steps above and the assurance that it’s ok to take their time to ask some questions, I believe your agents will thrive and your NPS scores will improve.

Have a look at your chat or text transcripts, or review your social media interactions. If you find this to be relevant to your situation, but are concerned about an increase in handle time,  I recommend you try a pilot with just a few agents. The handle time impacts will then be contained, and you can compare the results of the pilot group against those in regular population. Happy trials!

How Will Instagram’s Contact Button Impact Brands?

Contact Buttons on Instagram via Benefit Cosmetics. www.sociallysupportive.com

Contact Buttons on Instagram via Benefit Cosmetics. www.sociallysupportive.com

Who’s been watching the new Instagram “Contact” Button? I have! Brands certainly don’t appear to have run straight toward these little gems just yet, and that’s why it’s a perfect time to talk about what they are, what they do, and whether you need one.

Let’s back up to discuss Instagram. Instagram is primarily a visual social media platform. when you open Instagram you will find a few words on memes or as text over pictures; however it is largely just images and videos. Images are a great way to stimulate the senses and evoke an emotional reaction to your brand. Photos of nature can take people away from their urban grind and instantly bring them to a place of calm and beauty, while a photo taken of the winning team at the moment of victory can arouse tremendous joy (or great pain, if that wasn’t your team who won!) And a picture of a huge plate of nachos from your favorite restaurant can get your stomach growling in no time flat. We’re talking about desire here. What we’re doing is invoking desires.

Invoking desire and associating it to your brand is a powerful thing. Marketers know this, and that’s why brands are all over Instagram, getting into the visual “conversation.” It’s a powerful thing to create positive emotions and associate them directly to your brand. And, as great salespeople know, once you have customers all wrapped up in those positive emotions around your brand, you’d like them to take action… right now, please! Hence why the Contact button on Instagram can be so powerful. What if you see a picture of the brand new Nikes and you’re a huge fan and you have your wallet out right now! Wouldn’t it be neat if you could just push a button right from Instagram? Yes, yes it would. Or, what if you need tickets to the concert immediately, but you aren’t quite sure about the seat map? What if you could just push a button directly from that Instagram app and get the answers you need so that you could spend your money a little faster? Yes, now you’re getting the picture.

How does the contact button work? Brands activate the button and can choose to allow customers to call, email or text the brand. If you choose to have customers call you, then your impact would be some percentage increase in overall call center volumes to either your sales or customer care departments. I’d recommend a fresh toll-free number to ensure you’re tracking this all the way from the Instagram app to completed calls. For big brands, emails can be sent to your current group handing email interactions, however I would inquire with your chat and social care platform vendors whether these can be routed into your social care or chat tool. Also, when considering whether email is the right option, remember that you have excited customers who want to take an action right now, and email is a disconnected and sometimes slower vehicle.  Think about that customer who is all charged up, then sends an email, and slowly… slowly… loses that fire you created in him and returns to the regular grind. When you return the mail, he may not remember how excited he was an hour ago. If you’re already offering support via text, you might want to route through your current tool. Right now text service is being offered via both popular social care and chat tools, so you likely have your pick here.

Another nice thing about the Instagram Contact button is that it is a way to engage privately with customers on a social platform. Many large companies are still concerned about having specific customer care conversations out in public. These Contact buttons let you broadcast your message widely in a very emotional way, and then privately answer customer inquiries on an individual basis. That’s reminiscent of consumers watching a TV commercial and then picking up the phone to ask you questions about your product, which has historically been a very comfortable interaction for big brands.

So, what do you think? Should your brand use an Instagram Contact button?

Customer Experience Rules in 2015 Social Customer Support

Flash of Happiness. image by Kyrill Poole. www.sociallysupportive.com

Flash of Happiness. image by Kyrill Poole. www.sociallysupportive.com

As I briefly mentioned in 2015 Predictions for Social Customer Support, current thinking from research firms indicates that customer experience will be more more important than ever. Let’s take this apart and have a look at why and how.

We know, as consumers, that dealing with companies can be much more complicated than it needs to be, and take much more of something everyone has less of these days: time. We have to wait on hold, we are transferred a million times, and we just want one teensy thing. In recent years, thanks partly to the increase in social forums that allow customers to talk back, companies have caught on that we want things done faster and easier. This has resulted in companies receiving fewer reviews that indicate customers find them truly awful to deal with. Which is great. One side effect for companies is that the competition is also getting better.

Think about the advertisements you see on TV or the internet. Brands mainly pick one thing that differentiates their product from the other guy: they claim to be either 1) cheaper 2) better quality or 3) have better service. Apple (or Samsung, I wont’ judge your camp) have great quality and a focus on user experience. Costco aims to provide the best prices. Southwest is known for its service. So, if you’re not the best gadget in town, or the best available quality, chances are you need to be focusing on your customer service/experience. And these 2015 predictions are telling us that efforts to be just a little better than the next guy won’t keep customers coming back.

So, what to do? Where to go? It’s All In The Details with Social Customer Support provides a few tips for getting started, such as asking customers what they want, improving the quality of your outputs, and using proper etiquette (this last one will likely get you much farther than you imagine.) What if you’ve already done those things, and you want to do more? See if some of these suggestions help.

Improving Customer Experience

  • Provide a Full Service Experience – In your customer’s journey, do they have to move from station to station at your store or be transferred several times on the phone or online chat? If so, do everything in your power to make that stop. If the transfers can’t be stopped, try a personal handoff. This will reduce customer effort and create a “wow” moment. I recently called USAA with an unusual financial question, and though the first rep couldn’t help me with my concern, she handled the details of explaining my needs to the next person on the phone. The next thing I heard was the new rep calling me by name and restating what he understood my question to be. That feels nice.
  •  Surprise Me – Is there some way that you can anticipate a customer’s need? It could be something simple. In E-Trade Nails It with their Customer Support I shared that they proactively changed my mailing address after being alerted to my move by the United States Postal Service. Nice, right? How much does it cost to link up with USPS and make that happen? I haven’t looked into it, but it made me stop and think about how smart E-Trade is.
  • Make Exceptions For Me – Ouch. I know, deviation from process can cost time and money. But I do believe customers that are shown compassion and understanding tend to develop positive feelings towards that brand. I remember several years ago a promotion took me from one city to another. I panicked as I realized at the airport that in the midst of the move, I forgot to pay the credit card bill. And, this was a big deal, because it had that nice zero percent interest associated with it. I remember telling my sad story to the customer service rep on the phone. She could have been snarky, or acted superior, or given me a lecture. Instead she chose to show compassion, and her company had the (uncommon at that time) policy of forgiving one late payment and thereby not immediately causing your interest rate to skyrocket. I clearly remember that, to this day.

Can you find a way to work one or more of these ideas into your organization?

2015 Predictions for Social Customer Support

2015 Predictions for Social Customer Support. Image by Pixabay. www.sociallysupportive.com

2015 Predictions for Social Customer Support. Image by Pixabay. www.sociallysupportive.com

Ah, what a year! As I prepared to write this year’s predictions, I looked back to my 2014 Predictions for Social Customer Support. I can say that from my own experience and in speaking with colleagues it seems that my predictions were accurate. Measurement is getting more precise and KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) are becoming easier to find. Many more customers are looking to social media before attempting to use more traditional contact methods. Companies are striving to respond faster, and when they can’t, customers are voicing their dissatisfaction. This has driven more volume, and additional staffing is required to keep up with this volume. Integration of data is easier to achieve, though still potentially costly.

As 2014 went along, I noticed something that you may have noticed as well: a distinct lack of new material being published about customer support on social media. From 2010 through 2013 there were articles and infographs and videos everywhere touting the importance of providing customer service in the social media space. Everyone was looking for the ROI, selling the ROI, selling tools, and convincing firms to join the movement quickly. Then, content seemed to decelerate in 2013, and slowed to a trickle in 2014. This led me to wonder, has the shine worn off of social media customer support? We had plenty of information explaining the benefit, urging action, and even providing some information on initial setup of a social customer care team. But the next wave of data, including early metrics and findings, was absent. Then I realized that the companies that started social customer support teams were busy learning and scaling and trying to understand the new data they were receiving.

So then, what now? What can we expect to come in 2015? Well, we know from other predictive data that companies will continue to add more funds to digital advertising budgets. We also know that customer experience is still top of mind for businesses, and they are using that data to inform internal product and process information, customer desire, and any opportunity to gain advantage in the marketplace. And there has been no visible slowdown in the number of requests for assistance coming through social media channels, or shortage of new platforms online where two-way communication is possible. Knowing that, here’s what I see coming our way in 2015.

5 Social Customer Support Predictions for 2015

  • Specific Metrics – Companies will learn from the data collected over the past few years and be able clearly glean traditional call center metrics like cost per transaction, response time, and handle time.
  • Large Scale Buy In (or Out) – Concrete facts in the form of traditional call center metrics may reveal a hard ROI based on costs to deliver social service, calls avoided at call centers, and the like.
  • Social Selling – This has been a touchy subject in the social customer support space, with most deciding that selling has no place in social media. But we may be ready to start offering suggestions for products and services where customers would truly benefit.
  • Staffing Trials – There has been discussion in the industry around whether it’s time to call social “figured out” and put it into general call center population, where reps can be added or removed from social media as volume occurs. This would make the companies that create listening and engagement tools who charge per seat very happy. It could also answer questions about staffing challenges and overhead costs. The risks can be high though, as less specialized front line reps are given access to represent the company on a very public stage. Companies may also find that when call volume spikes, social media volume spikes at the same time. This would limit the benefit gained from all that additional tool licensing and training expense.
  • Change – Yes, that’s right friends. The data we have been feeding to the C Level and other departments is powerful and has been getting noticed, if you’re doing it right. Companies will be making faster, customer-directed change to improve products and services. This should help improve customer experience and reduce customer efforts. And that, my friends, is what it’s all about in my book.

There you have it. I hope to see more of those infographs and articles that share specific insights on how social media customer support has really made a difference because consumers finally have a way to voice their opinions. But social customer support may not get the glory for these changes. For one thing, it’s not the only vehicle providing this feedback in many organizations. Customers are filling out online surveys and paper comment cards and those are working as well. For another, social media is really just a big magnifying glass that shows all the flaws a company has in product, service, policy and process, and provides opportunity for improvement. But if you have a front row seat like I do, you can have a great view of the change that social can bring about. That’s exciting stuff.

E-Trade Nails It with their Customer Support

E-Trade logo. Property of E-Trade. www.sociallysupportive.com

E-Trade logo. Property of E-Trade. www.sociallysupportive.com

Customer experience is clearly still all the rage in business these days. We’ve gone from the age of making as many widgets as possible, to making them as BIG as possible, and then trying to get them as small as possible to selling experiences more than the widgets themselves. For some, making the transition to this experiential push is tricky, because it shifts shape and form and is different from person to person. That personal effect makes it challenging to mass produce.

I had an experience with E-Trade last night that nailed it, in my mind. I’m still floored at the simple genius of it all, and the mass-production potential for other companies. My family has recently moved. If you’ve moved lately, you know how big of a task that can be. Things get broken, take longer than you think, and seem to drag on forever. And where is your magazine? I know I’m showing my age, yes I get the digital subscription too, but you can’t smell the fragrance samples from the tablet just yet (dear iPad/Android app developers, save some trees and work that out for us when you get time? Thanks.)

Anyway I went to the mailbox last night and saw an envelope from E-Trade with one of those yellow forwarding labels and I thought “Oh great, I forgot to change my mailing address with E-Trade. Yet another chore to do tonight. When I sat down and opened the envelope, I was amazed. E-Trade was reaching out to let me know that the United States Postal Service indicated I had changed my address, and so they went ahead and changed the address on my account for me. They just wanted to let me know, in case that’s not what I wanted them to do. Imagine my surprise and delight! One less task for me!

So, let’s look at risks here. Some percentage of customers (I would think a small percentage) may find this creepy and complain. It could smack of big brother. Some other percentage (I’m still thinking a vast minority) might not have wanted to change the address on their account, even though they forwarded their mail with the USPS. And, yet another small minority may have had their address changed in error, but this should be caught with the notice to the previous address.

I love this. I’m often caught saying at work and in life that our customers don’t work here. We do. So do as much for them as possible. This appears to be one low-risk strategy that could benefit more companies. I know I would appreciate it. Feel free to use this example as starting point for similar ideas. Are there things you can do to take care of the details for your customer?

Get To Yes in Social Customer Support

Get to Yes in Social Customer Support. image by pixabay.com  www.sociallysupportive.com

Get to Yes in Social Customer Support. image by pixabay.com
www.sociallysupportive.com

Let’s talk about merging. You know, good, old-fashioned highway merging. The concept is (as I understand it) that as two lanes become one, the people in those two lanes keep a normal pace of traffic until such time as the lanes come together. When this happens, the cars should come together, like a zipper, one and then the other, to form a single line. This takes cooperation from both parties, but it seems simple enough. I was driving to work this morning, trying to wake up and drinking my coffee, listening to some upbeat music on the radio. As I approached this merge point on the highway, I stayed in my lane that was going to merge with the lane next to me, and followed that white line to edge over. The person next to me must have a different concept of merging, because he sped up from behind me to get even with me, and blocked this merging action, forcing me to slow down. He basically entered my universe and said, quite clearly, “NO!” So, what can I do but slow down, and slow down the person behind me, and slow down the person in the lane behind him? Not much. Because he said “NO! I’M FIRST!”

His action came from a place of no, of not accepting what was happening around him. This can happen in customer support too. When we come from a place of “no,” whether it’s subtle or right out loud, it causes discomfort and things don’t flow easily like they could. It also creates negative feelings that, by the way, attach themselves to your brand. If that guy on the highway had a brand or a logo on his car, you can bet I’d associate his actions and my subsequent feelings about those actions with his brand. Anytime we tell a customer “I can’t do that,” or “That’s not the process,” or “You need to…” we are coming from a position of “no.” Perhaps today we can take some time to ask ourselves what it would take to get to “yes.” How far, exactly, are you from yes? Is there a small process or policy you could alter that could get you to “yes”? Are you missing something that could get you to “yes”? Certainly we must all say “no” sometimes, but I think after review you might find a few occasions that could easily be changed. The guy running me off the road to be first this morning was really probably much closer to “yes” than he thought, and I bet he could have made his own day a bit brighter by saying “yes” to me because he would have already gotten a good deed out of the way.

Think about how you can get to “yes” today. Would a few little steps help your brand be associated with positive experiences rather than negative ones?

Review: Ashley Verrill’s “How Experts Would Fix 8 Twitter Missteps”

Recently, Ashley Verrill of Software Advice wrote an article titled Social Support #Fail: How Experts Would Fix 8 Twitter Missteps. I’ve included a slideshare for your convenience.

[slideshare id=32041022&doc=howexpertswouldfix8twittermissteps-140307100259-phpapp02]

Verrill pulled tweets to 130 socially active brands with negative sentiment that mentioned “customer service” in the post text. She then selected sample tweets and asked experts in social customer care how they would answer differently. After reviewing the article and the slides, I noticed one common theme in the company’s responses: complete lack of a personalized response. In some cases, the companies didn’t respond at all.

Total lack of response is equivalent, in my mind, to a customer coming into your retail location, asking you a direct question, and you ignoring them as you walk away, with no explanation given. I believe this causes the same feeling for customers in person or online. We would never do that in person (I hope. Otherwise we have bigger challenges to overcome.) and so should never do it online. The only exception would be ignoring blatant trolls after initial attempts to provide resolution have failed.

Responding with an irrelevant or unhelpful comment is almost as bad, if not worse, than no response at all. At least a customer can give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you missed the post or were so busy helping others that you couldn’t respond in time. When your response is to simply say “we received your feedback,” or to direct customers to another channel for service, you are essentially saying “our presence in this channel is strictly to drive you from the channel of your choice to the channel of OUR choice.” Customers came to you for support on Twitter or Facebook because that’s how they prefer to communicate right now. Your superior customer service could mean the difference between a customer being yours and a customer being theirs. Many times, it’s just as easy to provide good customer service as it is to try to avoid providing it, so if you’re going to answer on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, providing the best possible customer service directly in that channel right from the beginning could really help you stand out among the competition.

“Regardless of whether companies want to acknowledge it, consumers are going to use social media to complain and provide feedback on their experiences. Yes, in previous years it’s true customers didn’t necessarily expect to get a response, but that is no longer the case. An increasing number of consumers today expect a response, often times within a few hours (or less). Just look at this tweet from Ann Gregory: ‘@AskTarget maybe try helping @stacyreno resolve her issue?’ I’ve seen these kind of interactions over and over again. When you consider the propensity of these messages to travel further, faster in the social space, it’s easy to see how ignoring social customer service requests can be detrimental to your online reputation.” – Ashley Verrill, customer service researcher at Software Advice.

The article shares 6 types of mistakes to avoid. Here are those mistakes and my thoughts on each:

  1. Don’t Leave Your Customers Hanging – This refers to not answering customers at all. As I wrote above, I couldn’t agree more. They asked a question or made a statement they expect you to respond to. Nobody likes to be ignored, and customers don’t want to pay you to be ignored.
  2. Don’t Tell Customers to Do Something When They’re Upset – Agreed. Providing customer support in social media began as a way to meet your customers where they are, which extends convenience to them and reduces their level of required effort. For example, if a customer says “You lost my luggage, help!” and your response is “email us at lost@lostluggage.com to let us know,” you’ve missed something. They just did notify you. Why don’t you email your company for the customer? Otherwise, you’ve created an additional layer of unnecessary complexity in your own organization.
  3. Don’t Just Respond – Tell The Customer You’re Here to Help – This one is tricky. You must first actually be prepared to provide assistance in this channel before you tell the customer you want to help. For example, if someone requests an account credit, I would recommend that you say “I’m here to help” only if you really intend to help. That being said, I think that if you’re answering on a channel, you should empower your team to resolve issues, right then and there.
  4. Choose Your Words Carefully – Yes. Especially on Twitter. I recommend you carefully consider how to let the customer know you care, you can help, and plan to do something that will help. As a customer, I want to know that sending you a DM will actually result in problem resolution. I want your request for my DM to show me it’s worth my time and you are empowered to make things right.
  5. Don’t Forget to Close the Issue Publicly – This is so important. On a telephone or in an email, dyadic (one-to-one) conversations are clear, and we know when resolution occurs. One of the benefits of social media, though, is that when done correctly, a greater audience has visibility to the issue, the support and the resolution. This potentially saves another customer from having to contact you. You can solve an issue one time for multiple customers. Also, prospective customers can see that you follow through on your promise to deliver solutions.
  6. Ask the Customer for a Chance to Rectify the Experience – When your customer is upset, try asking “What can I do to make this right?” This does a couple things: it shows the customer you are interested in a collaborative solution, and it also takes the customer from a position of venting to a position of considering options. The customer then feels compelled to reciprocate your collaboration and tries to think of something to make him/her feel whole again.

Have a look at the article and the slides to gain insight on how experts say they would have responded. Experts responding include Kim Garst, Shep Hyken, and Dave Evans, all of whom I follow on Twitter.  Happy reading!

Patience Pays in Social Customer Support

40+216 Faces
bark / Foter / CC BY

When a customer is upset, and needs something, expects something, is angry about something, it can be stressful. Sometimes the fiery words you are reading can cause your own anxiety level to increase. the  can also cause an urge to act quickly to squash the negative energy coming at you. This urge for quick reply is natural, but can be counterproductive.

With agitated customers, sometimes the best thing to say is… nothing. Wait. Be patient, and listen. This can be done in person, over the phone, or electronically. Allow the customer to vent and say all of the things they need to say before you respond at all. On longer form platforms like forums and Facebook this is pretty easy. The customer is typically done venting by the time the post is published. However on Twitter,  you can’t be so sure. Give it a minute to see if another post pops in. Responding too quickly there can seem like an interruption. On the phone or in person, I recommend just… being silent. Active listening sometimes suggests head nodding and little sounds that indicate you are indeed paying attention. I find that when customers are really angry, pure silence provides room for them to really get it all out. Whether we are the true cause of the angry outburst or not, it really is a nice gift to another person to just allow them room to vent and be unhappy. Another positive side effect of listening to the customer’s full monologue before offering assistance is that you get a complete picture of what the actual root cause is.  A customer may begin discussing one single issue that causes frustration, but then lead into several other events and before you know it, you’ve arrived at the bigger issue.

So next time a customer pops open a giant can of “What-for” on you, resist the urge to start apologizing and fixing right away. Try as hard as you can to just let them vent, and vent, and vent until it’s all out. Being a customer myself, I can admit (though it is a bit embarrassing) that I’ve been that customer that vented before. What’s interesting is I usually wound up apologizing to and thanking the people that allowed me to vent. You might have the same thing happen to you.

Accept Responsibility in Customer Support

Blue Angels at Rochester International Air Show. July 16, 2011. Photo by Ken Mist. http://www.flickr.com/photos/37996606796@N01/5946455173/

Blue Angels at Rochester International Air Show. July 16, 2011. Photo by Ken Mist.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/37996606796@N01/5946455173/

Picture this. You’re at a dinner party. Interesting people are there, the food is good, the drinks are good, and the conversation is going well. As a matter of fact, smart people are looking at you intently as you speak, seemingly hanging on your every word as you tell this really clever story. When you excuse yourself to get another drink, one of your business partners tells you you have spinach in your teeth. UUGGGHHH! How long has it been there? You had interesting things to say! You were witty, and clever, and had the best intentions, and… oh man, that crowd won’t remember any of that. They’re only going to remember that chick with the spinach in her teeth.

So, that happened to me yesterday. Well, kind of. See, I have all these lofty customer care aspirations. I want all customers to know that, even if we mess something up, we are complete professionals and will work tirelessly and put in that extra effort to ensure that our customers receive the best service possible. It will be real, and it will be honest. I have this amazing team working with me. I wonder sometimes if I could do what they do as well as they do, day in and day out, and honestly I’m not sure. I just remember to tell them every time I talk to them how great they are. But, even the best of us are just going to make mistakes. And we did. Our mistake? We told an upset customer that corporate (aka “They“) set the policies. ugggghhh. Spinach in teeth. Big time.

Some of you might be wondering why I’m all worried about this small thing. Well, it’s not really a small thing. And I’ll tell you why. The customer doesn’t know They. The customer only knows You, and You are the brand to the customer. Your voice, your image, your words in print, whatever. The infamous They doesn’t exist. It doesn’t matter if You, awesome customer service rep, knows that someone in supply chain messed this up, or someone over in accounting, or whatever. The customer does not need to see (nor does the customer want to see, quite frankly) the company’s dirty laundry. Know what they want? A real person to take ownership and answer them. Know what the answer is? The answer is always WE. WE here at (X company) made a mistake. Or, WE here at (X company) stand by our policy, and here’s why. It is not our intention to cause grief, but we do stand by it.

Let me be clear that my team is awesome. Your team is probably awesome too. Anybody at any time can make this mistake. It’s common. As a person on the planet, it feels unnatural to take responsibility for something that we did not personally do. But if you think back to the last time you heard “it’s not my fault,” “I can’t help you,” “It’s a corporate policy over which I have no control,” or “I agree with you, I think the policy is dumb, but nothing can be done,” think about the way you felt when you heard it. Did you have faith in the company? Did you feel like the person with whom you were speaking was useful to you? I’m pretty blunt about customer experiences, and I’ll tell you the last time that happened to me (see Update: Chase Ambushes My Twitter IPO Trade with Poor Customer Service). You can tell that to this day I’m still thinking about how little faith I have in that company, and still make a point to tell at least 5 people a week all about it.

So, how does the WE factor in for me? That one team member didn’t make the mistake. WE did. I did. I own that and am 100% responsible for it. Nobody’s throwing anybody under the bus. As far as I’m concerned, Frankie did it. And we will practice together and get better. We’re in it together, and I’m proud of that.

As a takeaway,  I recommend we all make a point of reminding our teams to take ownership and be a WE with our companies. If the policies should change, by all means, change them. But we can do the customer (and ourselves) a favor by resisting the urge to separate ourselves from the company. You can also check out People Love You by Jeb Blount. I just finished it, and I think it’s a great resource on WE and many other customer service tips for both B2B and B2C.

Are You Wasting Customer Time on Social Media?

image by Tax Credits, A clock with money on it - "Time is Money" http://www.flickr.com/photos/76657755@N04/7214596024/

image by Tax Credits, A clock with money on it – “Time is Money” http://www.flickr.com/photos/76657755@N04/7214596024/

Working in social media, I find it necessary to do quite a bit of research. This includes reading tons of articles and blog posts about customer experience, social media, and customer care. That may sound boring to some people, but I find the subject really interesting. Recently, however, I noticed that I’m having a hard time making my way through some of this material. Last night, as I found myself zoning out on an article published by a very well-respected news organization on a topic I’m very interested in. I scrolled down to find out how much longer the article was. And then it hit me. That’s why I was zoning out. This article was taking forever to get to the point! I found this fascinating, because it was written by people who work in social media, for people who work in social media. And, if you spend any time around us, you know that we have relatively short attention spans in this field. But I bet if you think about most people you interact with, that trait is fairly ubiquitous these days. We want quality information, very quickly, without all those other words that are really unnecessary. How often have you started reading something that might be valuable, but then put it down because it just looked like it would take too long?

This isn’t just about reading. You can just as easily waste customer time talking to them on the phone or in person. Here’s the thing. We probably don’t need to say all those words. It would save us time, and would save the customer time. And saving time is very important to our customers. This is especially important on social media, where customers expect timely responses that are useful and easy to understand. Here are some tips to ensure you’re not wasting time and effectively communicating with your customers.

5 Ways to Save Customer Time

  • Determine your audience – Before writing or speaking a single word, I find it helpful to determine who my audience is. The point of communication is to convey information to the person or people you’re engaging with. How can you best do that? By knowing your audience and how they prefer to receive information. If you are unsure, it’s best to stay on the safe side and be a bit more formal.
  • Be clear – All those words you wrote or spoke, do they really say what you meant to say? Review your words to make sure. If you were the audience, would you have understood what you meant by what you said?
  • Eliminate all jargon – I find that when jargon (also known as business slang) is used, you wind up repeating yourself in English anyway. So, save yourself some time and skip the jargon. It helps to think to yourself, “How do I explain this to someone who is unfamiliar with my line of business?”
  • Use fewer words – Many prepositional phrases can just go. For example, “We can have discussions on our next steps for how to proceed” could just be “We can discuss next steps.” Could you have worded things better? Remember for next time.
  • Review – Before you send that email, take one last look.   If you were on the phone, think about the conversation you had. It’s worth the extra effort to make sure everything is as you want it to be.

These steps can help reduce customer interaction time, and, quite honestly, can leave the customer with a more positive view of the interaction because less effort was spent attempting to decipher the conversation. They’re in, they’re out, they feel better, you feel better.