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Expert's Angle: The Customer is NOT Always Right

(They know what they want, but not always what they need…)

Are your customers happy? Use customer satisfaction forms to find out - Learn More

Despite the incredible effort companies make to provide all the "answers" on their web site, along with a number of self-help tools, customers will always call. Maybe they don’t have a computer. Maybe they tried the web site, but didn’t have any luck. Maybe they just want to talk to somebody. Regardless of the reason, customers will always call us. And when they do, it’s our opportunity to provide them with levels of service beyond what they were expecting. We want them to be happy. We want them to be loyal to our company. We want them to tell their friends. We want them to keep buying from us, maybe right now. This exceptional service depends on our ability to help the customer with what they need, not just what they want. There are a few simple, but potentially counterintuitive, keys that will increase the odds we can accomplish this goal with every customer.

Marc Lamson at ACCE 2012:

Session 605: Selling is Service!
Driving revenue is vital for call center success, which leads to the daunting task of selling. How do you manage the metrics, enhance customer loyalty, and motivate your team to sell? This session will reveal the common myths, tactical steps, and strategies to remove the emotional barriers around selling. Learn to measure the behaviors that drive results, how to develop the three fundamental skills necessary to serve and sell, as well as coaching tools to develop even the most junior agent.

Respond to Their First Question the Right Way

Customers try to boil it down for us. Most customers make an attempt to solve problem on their own before subjecting themselves to the phone menu, long waits and expected mediocre service and care. Therefore, they typically try to condense their question into what they think is a simple question that should get a simple - and quick - answer. "I have a quick question," or "What is your return policy?" or "I just want to change the credit card I have on file."

We really only have three responses to the customer's initial, self-simplified question: 1. Answer, 2. Ignore or 3. Acknowledge and Get Permission. Consider the 3 scenarios below and think about how the rep’s response to each impacts the customer’s level of satisfaction.

1. Answer
The easiest and most common approach reps take in response to the customer’s initial question is to simply answer it. But, sometimes this initial question only seems like it is a simple one, and a rep’s intuition is to just provide a quick answer. For example, the interaction might look like this.

CUSTOMER: "Can I book a flight for two people on the same reservation and use two different credit cards?"
REP: "No, you can't. I'm sorry."
CUSTOMER: "OK, I didn’t think so. Thanks."

Many reps would argue that this was an acceptable call and that is probably true. With today’s well-deserved low expectation of service, a simple yes or no answer is what the customer asked for. The problem is, this answer doesn’t solve their problem. The customer will hang up the phone politely, but will still be confused and frustrated that they can’t do what they want to do. What will they do then? Will they look for another airline that can help? Will they take the train, or will they just book the ticket anyway, feeling like a hostage to the airline, and later complain to their friends. Who knows? Just simply answering the customer’s question will make it seem like we don’t even care.

2. Ignore
When attempting to answer the customer’s question, the rep may inadvertently ignore the customer. In the rep’s mind he or she is trying to help, not ignore, the customer. But unless you tell the customer that, the customer might not be so sure.

CUSTOMER: "Can I book a flight for two people on the same reservation and use two different credit cards?"
REP: "What is your date of travel?"
CUSTOMER: "Hold on. I don’t want you to make my reservation for me and pay the $25. I just want to know if there is a way I can use two credit cards on my own."
REP: "Yes, but I'm trying to get into the system to see if I can do it."
CUSTOMER: "But I don’t want you to make the reservation. Don't you know the answer to my question?"

When this happens to me, several questions would pop into my mind: Did you hear me? How does the date of travel make a difference in your answer? Am I talking with a person who can help, or are you going to fill in some screen and then transfer me to a person who can actually add value to me that I will have to start over with?

3. Acknowledge & Get Permission
With this approach, it's not just answering the customer’s question or stated need. The key to customer service that gets noticed and creates loyal customers is about understanding what the customer is trying to accomplish and serving their unstated needs.

CUSTOMER: "Can I book a flight for two people on the same reservation and use two different credit cards?"
REP: "There are a few different ways to pay. I'd like to ask you a couple of questions, to understand your situation then figure out the best way to help you. Would that be OK?"
REP: "Great. Can you tell me about why you'd like to use two credit cards on your reservation?"
CUSTOMER: "Well, I'm traveling on business and bringing my wife with me. I am paying for my ticket with a credit card, but want to use a personal credit card for my wife's ticket. However, I would like to have one reservation so that in case we need to make a change we would only have to pay one change fee."
REP: "No problem. When you are ready to book the tickets, I can make two reservations for you, each with a different credit card. Then I can link your reservations as one itinerary in our system. You'd only need to pay one change fee if you need to adjust your plans. I can waive the $25 fee since this is not something you can do on-line. Does that help?"
CUSTOMER: "That'd be great. I’d like to make the reservation now."

This approach is the only one that ensures that we understand the reason for the customer’s seemingly simple question. By acknowledging that we heard the customer’s request and that we can help him, we are relieving the customer’s anxiety and letting him know that he’s in the right place. Only then is the customer more likely to open up to give us a few more details so we can provide that exceptional service. It might seem a little strange to ask customers if we can ask questions to better serve them – after all, they called us. But, they called to have their questions answered, not asked. By asking for a customer’s permission, we are providing him with a choice while still being able to quickly and delicately establish control of the conversation. If we are in control, then we can more effectively and efficiently guide the conversation and ultimately solve the customer’s problem. There are some companies that do this well, but most don’t. Greeting customers this way creates an incredibly positive start to their 3 minute and 36 second relationship with the rep.

Ask Why? (In a Nice Way)

So which questions should you ask customers? It always depends. If you just clarify their stated needs, it won’t get you to their unstated needs. As a rep, you need to understand what the customer is trying to do. We need to visualize his to-do list. The customer is not calling because he’s bored. The customer is trying to get something done. Find out what that is. The customer may start with, "What is the lead time for product X?" After acknowledging and getting their permission ask, "What are you trying to accomplish?", "Can you tell me a little more about the situation?", "What’s going on?" or "What prompted your call?"

Also, make sure to save the "What is your account number?" type of questions until you really need that information. Get into a conversation first. You don’t need the customer's account number to get his name and ask some questions. Keep your initial questions open-ended, so you don’t get just a one-word answer. If you are worried that a customer might not be sure about why you are asking such a question, you might want to Prime the Question with an "other-centered reason." In other words, let the customer know that you are not conducting some survey or just filling out your screen. Let the customer know the reason you are asking and how their answering will benefit them. It will help you help them, "To make sure I’m giving you the right information, can you tell me a little more about the situation."

Don't Try to Make One Size Fit All

I only call my credit card company if I have to. The reps there are usually helpful and handled my request efficiently. But, the reps ALWAYS make me that offer at the end: "Mr. Lamson, while I have you on the phone, I want to tell you about a special offer you are eligible if you’d like a lower interest rate. (Without taking a breath) Mr. Lamson, the new…." Why am I the one that feels awkward? She's the one keeping me on the phone, pitching me on something I don’t want. But I feel funny interrupting her. So I let her finish and have to say, "No thank you." Twice. I'm sure that somebody at my credit card company has done the math. If they make the same offer to 8,643 customers per day with a 1.3% conversion rate, that’s 112 credit cards that will return an average yearly revenue of $68.43 each. The problem is that the spreadsheet doesn't show the 98.7% of customers who couldn’t care less. They leave with a bad impression, and are less likely to listen to any real offer in the future. (Oh, and by the way, if she looked at my account, she would see I don’t have a balance – so I probably wouldn’t care about interest rate.)

Instead of making the same offer to every customer, make the right offer to customers, when it’s appropriate. You’ve helped your customers many times and there’s no reason to talk about other products you offer. Your customers are happy with what they have and it works for them. Sometimes though, after you’ve asked the customer a few questions, you may find out that his unstated need would be met with an additional product, service or upgrade. Start every offer with "Based on what you told me, you might benefit from understanding a little more about X. Would you like me to tell you about it?" By presenting an offer this way, and asking their permission first, ensures that the customer is an open and willing participant to your pitch. This also makes the customer much more likely to buy, while ensuring that no customer gets upset because he was pitched something that wasn’t relevant to his needs. After all, you are just trying to help.

Making a few simple changes to how you answer your customer’s questions can have a big impact. For example, one of my clients in the energy business recently shared with me the result of an interaction he had after making this change. It seems to be a common practice for competitors in his field to regularly call each other as a mystery shopper to find out the current price for oil/propane. A few months after my client's company changed its approach, one of their competitors had to confess his motive on the call: "What has happened over there? I’ve been calling for years to get the price of oil and propane. Now you are trying to help me and ask me questions. It’s making it hard for me to lie!"

Good luck in making these changes in your contact center. Help your customers cross off their to-do lists and they’ll keep coming back over and over again.

By the way, after all that, we did not have to change our flight – so it didn’t matter anyway.