8 Pillars of Great Customer Service
Photo by Olha Ruskykh
Customer service is among the most valuable skills a person can learn. You can use it in any field even if you do not have direct contact with customers. It can assist in better communication between the people in your life. These tips will provide you with skills to practice and learn. They will immediately improve your customer interactions and bleed into other relationships.
Two months out of high school, I went to work for AT&T, doing long-distance billing. This was the late 90s during the long-distance wars between providers. You may remember it going from 10 cents down to 5 cents over months. It was a brutal year, but it started me on the path to being a customer service expert.
It required me to take up to 120 calls daily from customers who had a problem with their bills. Over many years, I have held several positions in sales and service. My favorite was training agents on customer service skills. Over the last 20-plus years, I have trained, coached, and managed hundreds of people in customer service.
Over these years, I learned how to speak to everyone from farmers to Wall Street Brokers. I learned more from training and managing agents. I learned how to talk to people from any background, temperament, and situation. From experience, I offer you these pillars of communicating with your customers and prospects.
1. They need someone to listen.
I have had people threaten to kill me, rape me, and do unspeakable things to my mother on the phone. There have been callers who called me every name in the book, including words I do not believe exist. I have also had a lot of these same people thank me and call me an angel by the time the interaction was complete. Do you know why? I listened to them. I allow them to vent for as long as needed.
When someone is fuming, it is because no one is listening. Listening to them and letting them vent will deflate their anger. They are like a pressure cooker which has built up. Let the customer know you are listening. Once you have given them a chance to vent, you will find their bluster is gone. You have given them relief. You can work towards a solution together without anger getting in the way.
Listening is not the same as hearing. Nearly everyone can hear someone speak; listening is a skill that takes time to develop. Hearing is taking in the sounds of their voice. Listening is comprehending, processing what they are saying, and identifying what they need.
I had a customer who got on the phone calling me names from the time I introduced myself. He was angry because he submitted a request for a trade on his mutual fund account, which was processed late. This negated the gains he expected to receive. Everyone he spoke to was not listening to his problem. They repeatedly told him they processed correctly without explanation. I listened to his story, asked some questions, and found his advisor submitted the late trade. This was the first time the customer had been told. The other agents were technically correct. But they didn’t handle the call correctly. Details and nuance matter.
By the time I listened and gave him the detailed information, he was no longer angry. Even though he had gotten the same result, because I listened, he stopped being angry. Listening is the number one skill you can use to provide excellent customer service. You cannot provide the result the customer wants in every interaction. But you can still create a better situation for them by showing you care.
2. Know who you are talking to.
No matter what industry you work in or where you are located, you are going to get people of all different backgrounds and cultures. People communicate differently and you will not be effective if you talk to them in the same manner. Some people want to be treated formally and others want to chat like you have known each other for 20 years. It is important you take cues from the customer and figure out what style will work best.
If you are talking to a farmer in Alabama, you need to speak to them differently than you would to a finance executive in New York City. When talking to the executive, you will speak more formally, more quickly, and get down to business. With the farmer, you will speak more slowly, casually, and engage in small talk. While this guidance digs into stereotypes, they provide good examples. With practice, you will know within 30 seconds how to talk to the customer.
Back before the 2008 recession, I did the financing for commercial trucks and heavy equipment. I had to place sales calls to dealerships all over the country. A vast majority of these places were in rural areas. I speak quickly and am direct in my day-to-day communication. This wouldn’t work, I learned quickly. I had to slow my pace down, speak less formally, and even add a bit of a Southern twang to my voice (this is a sales skill called matching and mirroring, which is also effective in customer service and I discuss below). Once I did, the leads started coming through. I had to realize who my audience was and follow their lead.
3. Matching and Mirroring
To know your audience, salespeople are an excellent source of skills. They use a tactic called matching and mirroring. If the customer leans forward, they lean forward. If the customer crosses their arms, they cross their arms. You can do this in person, on the phone, or in written communication. You can do it with your speaking pace, word selection, accent, formality, and more.
The world’s all-time top car salesperson was a man named Joe Girard. People know him for mastering this technique. He set the world record for selling 1,425 cars in a single year totaling 13,001 in his lifetime. If a customer leaned down to look under the car, he would do the same thing. If they were at the table and the customer leaned back and crossed their arms, he would slowly follow. The same tactic works in customer service.
When I started working in financial services, I spent a lot of time talking to people on Wall Street. They are short of time and they make sure you know it. You learn how to speak quickly, often in clipped sentences, and deliver information as efficiently as possible. I do this by following their lead and matching my customer. I got so proficient, some brokers would only speak with me because they knew I spoke their language.
4. Never start a sentence with ‘No’.
The ability to use positive language even when you are delivering bad news will go a long way. There are always different ways to phrase the information you are delivering. How you phrase it and how you say it will generate completely different reactions from the customer. You can say the same thing with the same result, but get a different response. I once had a manager who taught me you can damn near cuss a customer out and have them thank you for it if you phrase it properly. This is hyperbolic, but she is not wrong.
For example, a customer may ask if their plan comes with a certain feature. You could say, “No, it does not.” While it is technically accurate, it is negative language. This will change the tone of the conversation even if the customer is not aware of their reaction. Instead, you say, “I’m sorry, that plan does not offer that feature right now, but it offers [insert feature].”
With this phrase, you steered the customer from what they do not have to what they have. It is like when you take a TV remote from a toddler. You need to replace it so they focus on the new item. We can use the same tactic speaking with our customers or prospects. You can even use it in your everyday life to have more positive experiences with others. Point the customers toward the positive. Instead of focusing on what you can’t do for them, tell them what you can do for them.
When I did escalations in telecommunications, a common problem was a customer not having a certain feature on their plan. I could hear co-workers constantly tell people no and focus on what they did not have. I had more success because I always geared the customer toward features currently available or what I could do for them.
5. Express genuine empathy and flip your interactions positively.
If listening is the top skill, empathy comes at a close second. You are providing customer service because a customer has a problem. It may be an issue with your company or it may be the customer is having a hard time in life. Showing empathy right out of the gate can go a long way in building a positive relationship with the customer.
Whatever it is, you have likely experienced a similar problem. Even if you have no empathy for a particular customer, dig deep and show it. There is nothing worse than trying to solve a problem with a person who appears to be emotionless. Remember, there is a clear distinction between sympathy and empathy. Empathy is letting the customer know you have felt how they feel and can relate. Sympathy often comes across as a condescending and empty gesture from a stranger.
While you should never take abuse, do not respond to rudeness. As Buddha said, “Don’t respond to rudeness. When people are rude to you, they reveal who they are, not who you are. Don’t take it personally. Be silent.” While you cannot be silent, you can show empathy, and once you let them rant, they will be far less hostile. An angry customer is an opportunity to seize. A customer who had a problem resolved is far more likely to offer repeat business, leave a positive review, and be a source of referrals.
We are often quick to judge people and are prone to making assumptions. You never know what a person is going through. David Foster Wallace made a fantastic commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005. You can listen to it here or read the transcript here. In this speech, he talks about how our default mode is to think about ourselves. We fail to recognize everyone is living their own life, fighting their own demons, and having their own issues to work through. You will provide far better service if you show empathy. Even if a customer is being hostile doesn’t mean they are a bad person. It could be one of the worst days of their life.
On 9/11, it was my first day working at Sprint, taking cell phone insurance claims. By the time I was out of training, I was taking calls from people who had lost their phones running from the crumbling towers. These people experienced the unimaginable, and empathy was paramount. I heard some recordings from people who failed to show empathy, and it was ugly. Those people likely never used Sprint again for their mobile phone service.
6. If you don’t know the answer, don’t guess or give false information.
It is okay not to know something; it is not okay to make it up. When I managed customer service agents, a problem I always ran into is people not admitting when they did not know. They felt like they should be the expert and it reflected poorly on them if they did not know something. What did they do? They would guess or make up an answer. That won’t bite you in the ass later, will it? You have created a mess someone else will clean up. You may have lost a customer. No one knows everything and it is okay to admit you are not sure.
It is okay not to know everything. It is more than okay to admit to the customer you are not sure. I can assure you the customer would rather you admit it instead of feeding them false info. You can put them on hold to check or call them back. You can get someone else to assist or you can do some research. Do not give false information or guess.
When I worked in group insurance, my company lost a large account because a member of my team made a guess on certain coverages. An insured had medical services provided, thinking it covered. The recording of the call showed us that the agent gave false information. The procedure was an uncovered experimental procedure. His policy covered another similar, more established procedure. He should have been referred to another doctor.
My company had to shell out thousands to pay for an operation outside their coverage. The agent found themselves unemployed, and a customer had to deal with unneeded stress during a health crisis. They did not like being lied to and lost faith in our company to provide accurate information.
7. Figure out what the customer needs even if it isn’t what they want.
You talk to the customer because they want something from you. Maybe they are making an initial inquiry about your products and services. Perhaps they are trying to figure out how to get your product to do something specific. They may have technical difficulties. Whatever their reason is, they need something from you, even if it is reassurance or verification.
What they want is not the same as what they need. You are a professional and know far more than they do about your products and services. This is where listening and empathy can help. You need to figure out the result they desire, but also figure out what they need. They may have in their head a particular way to get a result that is not available. This is where you take charge and lead them to what they need (without using negative language, as previously discussed).
For example, people always want either the newest Samsung Galaxy or the newest iPhone. In my years working in telecommunications, it amazed me the amount of money people spend on smartphones they did not need. Most people can get by with a phone at a fraction of the cost and they would not notice the difference. So, I focused on what they wanted the phone to do and recommended phones far less expensive and within their budget. In the opportunities I had to follow up, not a single person regretted their decision.
The entire point of business is to add value to the world by fulfilling the needs of consumers. They have problems to solve, obstacles to overcome, things they want someone else to do so it frees up their own time. They usually know the result they want, but what it takes to get there is your job to determine. You may or may not be an expert, but you know more than them, which is all that matters.
8. Deliver Information With Confidence
Like sales, knowing your business is vital to providing great customer service. While it is important to admit when you don’t know and find the answer, it is also vital to deliver important information with confidence. If you show hesitation, your interaction can quickly go the wrong way. Customers can sense when you are not sure or if you don’t know what you are talking about.
Another underrated skill of providing good customer service and sales is word economy. If you try to explain things too much or get too wordy with details, you will lose them. You want to use as few words as possible, so that what you say has an impact. If you explain too much, the customer will hear your first words and last words, and everything in the middle might as well be gibberish. I have had to coach many agents who tried to explain every little detail. If you overwhelm the customer with too much information, it is usually the same as giving them no information. The average customer knows very little about your field, job, products, and services. Therefore, it is also important to avoid using the company and industry lingo. Be direct and share what they need for their particular situation. If you need to dig into the details, you can do it when the need arises.
In my years running a mobile auto glass business, my agents would explain too much. People would ask about our location and they would go into unnecessary details, fully explaining how our mobile service works. They would dig deep into distances, areas, and scenarios right off the bat. I had to coach them to reply, “Yes, we offer free mobile service.” They can discuss details later if they apply. You only need to go into details when they apply. The customer only needs information that pertains to them.
Being great at customer service takes time and practice. You need exposure to many people. Over time, you learn to expect what customers are going to say and how they are going to react. You often know what they are going to say before they say it. Predicting who will and who will not buy is possible. You will learn how to lead conversations. You will learn how to defuse customers who are a ticking bomb.
The skills I have listed will help you get there. Many of these skills transfer to other areas of your life, such as relationships and management. It will help you deal with vendors or. business partners. In some ways, you are always providing customer service, even to your friends and family. This applies in the workplace as well. Your co-workers, managers, and other stakeholders are also your employees. Try practicing some of these skills in your interactions with them.
Learn how to listen. Figure out what kind of person you are dealing with, adjust yourself, and mirror them. Learn how to phrase things positively even if you are giving bad news. Show people empathy and admit when you don’t have an answer. Finally, figure out what the customer truly needs. It isn’t always the same as what they want. They have come to you to solve a problem, guide them to what is best for them. If you can do these things, you will be a customer service and sales rock star.
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