A Practical Guide to Connecting with Customers
I consider myself to be an amateur collector of viral customer service stories. My all-time favorite is “United Breaks Guitars,” in which United Airlines broke a customer’s guitar and refused to assume responsibility for it. Little did they know that the customer, Dave Carroll, was a songwriter and he’d take to YouTube with his negative customer service experience—to the tune of 15 million views and counting.
On the flipside, there are plenty of viral stories where a company “wowed” the customer and we all get to feel good about it. Thanks to the broadcasting power of social media and to companies like Zappos, Nordstrom, and others that are setting high standards, business leaders are actively trying to trap this “wow”-level of service in a bottle and replicate it for every customer experience.
The definition of a great customer service interaction undoubtedly varies from industry to industry and company to company. As head of quality assurance (QA) at FCR, we evaluate the quality of our interactions over a number of typical components, including the welcome and closing, following proper security protocol, giving the customer correct information, solving the problem, displaying empathy, and properly documenting the case.
There is, however, another value that is making its way into QA. Some call it “wow” and others call it making a personal connection with the customer. Whatever you call it, merely following protocol and not being a jerk is no longer good enough. The modern customer service experience requires pizzazz. At face value, that sounds like a lot of work. If done right, though, it doesn’t have to be; all you need is a little strategy.
The Growing Responsibility of Customer Service Professionals
For the typical support professional, interacting with a customer might require having a myriad of programs and windows open on his or her computer. These might include the customer record in the CRM, a phone app, company website, ticket system, knowledge base, some internal or external chat tool, and of course, personal notes that ensure they don’t miss a step. All the while, they’re expected to write a 200-word internal note to document everything that happened during the interaction. With mile-long call and chat queues and exploding email inboxes, it’s inevitable that the word “multi-tasking” creeps it’s way into the conversation.
Jeff Toister, author of Service Failure, has written extensively on the correlation between multi-tasking and poor customer service. And now management wants to tack on an unreasonable expectation that agents should make a meaningful connection with each customer?
It’s not as unreasonable as it sounds. Customer service expert Shep Hyken has a nice way of putting all of this into perspective. In a recent post, he talked about the importance of consistency. Hyken defines this level of customer service as being consistently above average. Anyone can impress a customer once in awhile, but it’s a lot more challenging to perform at a consistently high level.
Here are some practical ways to consistently connect with customers without adding a bunch of extra work to your already-full plate.
- Start and end each interaction the right way. A proper greeting and closing seem like common sense, but I’m amazed at how often I email customer service and they respond without a proper “Hi” or “Hello.” These small salutations are easy to overlook but so powerful in starting the conversation the right way.
In the same way, it drives me crazy when the email signature doesn’t include the name of the person responding. Signing your name to the email is a great first step in helping customers feel like they are interacting with a human being and not a faceless organization. As an added bonus, make sure the customer feels validated in sharing their problem and that you are grateful for their business.
- Use the customer’s name. I can’t tell you how often I catch myself asking for someone’s name and then not listening to the response. When meeting new people, I make a conscious effort to use their name in a sentence, and I’m much more likely to remember it at that point.
In the book How To Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie said, “Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” In text-based interactions like email, the key word when using the customer’s name is “naturally,” and it’s unlikely you’ll find a natural way to use it more than once. In cases when you are speaking with the customer, aim to work their name naturally into the conversation two or three times.
- Look for connection cues. Empathy is a super power possessed by all great support professionals. It’s the ability to recognize the emotional state of the customer and respond in a way that shows you understand how they feel and you will work tirelessly to resolve their issue.
In the book The Pursuit of Social Business Excellence, Vala Afshar and Brad Martin perfectly capture this by saying, “Your problem is our problem until it’s no longer your problem.” Responding with empathy requires that you recognize emotional cues from the customer. When speaking with them, it’s easy to pick up cues from their language and tone of voice.
Picking up these cues in written communication is much more of an art form, but it’s essential to seek clues into their emotional state in their writing. In a case where they are frustrated, a simple statement like, “I’m sorry to hear that you are frustrated. I’m here to get this problem solved for you” goes a long way. Knowing that a human being understands how they feel and has taken ownership of their issue builds a bond of trust.
- Use templates carefully. Templates or scripts are a great way to save time and ensure that a correct and consistent message is conveyed to the customer.
On the other hand, a response that does not address the issue the customer contacted support about can spell disaster. The last thing a customer wants is to feel like they are corresponding with a robot. A response that is tailored toward their issue shows that a human being took the time to critically think about the solution.
Going back to the previous points, be sure to include the proper greeting, closing, and empathetic language along with the template so it doesn’t look like a template.
The Responsibility of Management
For those of you in leadership, you can help your team in their pursuit of customer connection by doing the following five things:
- Keep account notes to the length of a Tweet or less. Coach your team to only include the essential facts, leave out their personal gripes and feelings about customers, and boil it down to something that’s about the length of a tweet (140 characters). This keeps it manageable and doable.
- Invest in training. I’ve seen enough personality and strength assessments to know that some people are naturally relational and some aren’t. These skills can be learned, but that takes time and experience. When I say investment, I don’t mean send them an email with a link to this article. Spend the time necessary to design a course and then take your customer service team off the production floor to give them time to learn and practice these skills.
- Focus on tools. The market for customer service tools is hot right now, and the best part is that they are cost effective, simple, and they integrate well with one another. It’s time to ditch that homegrown phone and ticket system and get something hosted in the cloud. With cloud-based applications, companies can connect all of their support channels so customers can email, chat, or call and be easily identified. Tools like Help Scout can free up agents to focus on the customer rather than search for information about the customer.
- Recognize that there will be trade-offs. In his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown introduces us to the idea of trade-offs. It’s a simple concept: if you put a new responsibility on the plate of customer service, something else has got to go. It’s your job to help your team know what to keep and what to drop.
- Empower, empower, empower. Find ways for your agents to say yes and solve problems for customers. Sure, it might take them a little longer to resolve an issue, but it’s worth it if customers only have to call or email once to get their issues resolved. I recently polled my colleagues at FCR and found that they value the ability to solve problems more than anything else in customer service.
If I were to ask you to close your eyes and think about your last great customer service experience, you would undoubtedly say that the person you worked with was friendly and engaging and was able to resolve your problem quickly and efficiently. If I were to ask you how this affected your loyalty to that company, you’d most certainly say it sent it through the roof.
In a business climate where “wow” is becoming the standard, I couldn’t be more excited about what this means for customer service. The companies and support professionals who continually seek opportunities to connect on a human level with their customers will thrive. The ones who don’t—well, they’ll continue to fuel our hunger for entertaining stories that go viral on social media.
Head of Quality
Jeremy Watkin is the Head of Quality at FCR. He has more than 15 years of experience as a customer service professional. He is also the co-founder and regular contributor on Communicate Better Blog. Jeremy has been recognized many times for his thought leadership. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn for more awesome customer service and experience insights.