In an ideal world 'we', the customers, would be calm and collected and clear when we made our complaints or problems known. 'They', the customer service professionals, would be friendly, understanding, informative and efficient.
Well, as far as we're concerned, an ideal world isn't all that hard to achieve if we stop thinking about 'them' and 'us'!
For the most part, people do like to be loyal; they like to have their special place or brand or company that makes them feel they matter. They're proud to recommend their bank or favourite watering hole or brand of cereal they'd never do without.
And for the most part, people don't set out to be unhelpful, rude, difficult, uninformed. They have been hired in a customer service role and most genuinely want to help.
So what goes wrong?
Both 'sides' contribute. Customers will, however, vote with their feet if let down too often. Customer servers, too, will be tipped over the edge if they get unreasonably harassed and badgered.
But really, we should both be on the same side, because ultimately, we want the same thing: 'we' want good service, and 'they' want to do a good job for their organisation.
So first, let's look at what the customer can do.
1) Before you go charging down to the shop or picking up the phone or bashing out a letter or email, think about why you like this company in the first place. Make a list (mentally or otherwise) about why you use them and some good things they've done in the past.
If it's a local council, they can't have done everything wrong. So what have they done recently that you think is a plus for your community?
Then, when you make the call or have a face-to-face encounter introduce some of these pluses right away as your lead in. For instance, "I've always appreciated that you've let me know when there's a change in the rubbish collection, so I was really annoyed when you didn't make a pickup this Monday and I didn't know why."
Or, "I really enjoy the benefits of having your credit card, therefore, I was doubly disappointed when you changed your billing layout and didn't let me know. I always clear my account when I get the bill and this time I didn't because the new total was in a different place."
Although you may want to hang on to the full feeling of your anger or frustration, this really will help you come across as someone without an axe to grind, but with a genuine concern about the company's slippage in standards.
2) Don't shoot the messenger!
See if you can avoid accusing the person you are dealing with for being responsible for the mistake or problem. This can be difficult in the heat of the moment, but if you follow step one, no matter how upset you are, it will help you get some perspective.
Again, you can add that to your opening gambit: "I know this isn't your fault and I don't mean to get upset with you, but I've always been treated efficiently by your company and so I'm really, really frustrated with what's happened."
3) Get as clear as it's possible to be. If need be, write out what you want to say before it comes out of your mouth. Have your facts (and figures if necessary) logically laid out either on paper or in your mind so that you can take the other person through the difficulty in a coherent and sensible way.
What you don't want to be is someone who can easily be dismissed because you are incoherent, 'mad', abusive.
Don't assume the other person has all the facts themselves.
4) Ask for their name if they haven't given it on the phone or they don't have a name badge. Avoid asking for it in a 'I've got your name, so watch your step' kind of way. This is so that you have a named person your dealing with.
Give them your name, clearly and spell any difficult ones (Jo Ellen: I have an unusual first name and a near-impossible surname for most non-Polish speaking people, so I always make a joke of it and spell it really carefully. It's a great opening ice-breaker).
5) It is OK to let the person on the receiving end know just how angry/frustrated/ disappointed you are but you don't have to blast their ears off.
Indeed, our recommendation is to use 'I' statements as much as possible: "I'm very angry that I stayed at home all day and the telephone repairman never showed up and no one returned my calls. I'd like an explanation, please." As opposed to: "Your man never showed up, you always promise and never deliver, you didn't return my calls, you're hopeless."
You might be feeling all that but it's not going to improve the situation by going on the attack, however satisfying it might feel.
6) If at all possible, suggest a solution, rather than hoping they'll come up with one you'll be happy with. You may have to compromise, but at least you'll get what you want on the table.
OK, customer server, it's your turn (or your company's turn - you might want to show them this when you've finished reading it).
It would be great if every customer you have to deal with would read the above recommendations and follow them, so your life would be better.
Unlikely. So let's see what can be done on your side of things.
1) Good, thorough training in customer service skills is absolutely essential.
If you work for a company who has given you good training, then the following recommendations will probably reinforce what you already know.
If you haven't had top-notch training, then you need to put some pressure on the powers that be to support the customer service area by giving it the right skills and tools so all of you can do your jobs better.
2) We're not going to go through our entire Customer Service Training programmes here, but here's a list of what we consider essential tools for your customer care kit:
Introduce yourself, whether you are face-to-face or on the phone. Say your name really clearly and ask for theirs.
Remember, whatever the problem, customer relations means just that: it's a two-way relationship no matter how lopsided it feels.
Listen carefully and make notes about what the problem is.
Reflect back what you've heard so you let the other person know you've 'got it'.
Acknowledge how they feel ("I can hear/see you're really angry/upset, etc.").
Avoid getting defensive (this is hard as we explained a few pages ago). If you find yourself getting defensive, apologise.
Use their name when appropriate, not parrot fashion.
Have real conversations, rather than just doing the script. See, the script sounds false and doesn't include any of your human side.
Make offers by coming up with a few solutions for them to choose from, instead of boxing them in with a 'take it or leave it' situation (see number 4 below).
3) 'Own' the customer. A lot of companies use this phrase and if they mean it, it's a good one. It means you taking responsibility for the person in front of you or on the other end of the phone or letter or email, rather than trying to get rid of them as quickly as possible.
4) Take care of yourself. After a couple of really difficult encounters it's important to let go of some of your own emotions. We suggest simple things like off-loading to a colleague or your supervisor; go for a short walk, drink some water, jump up and down and do some stretching exercises.
This is not just for your sake, but so that you avoid taking out your own frustrations on the next person you have to deal with, whether they are tricky or not.
These are just the highlights of what good customer care is all about.
We have tons more stuff, but the key for us is that outstanding customer service really is about exceeding the customer's expectations and keeping your own dignity at the same time.
We once worked with a client who said they wanted to 'delight their customers' and we thought that was a delightful phrase to describe the ideal customer relationship.
But here's a final thought to mull over:
In general, if a customer has a problem, and you deal with it with real care and grace, you'll have a champion for your company and a customer for life.
Check out Impact Factory’s Customer Service course.