Published: May 24, 2022 | Comments
In the chaos of the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I had decided to cancel my subscription to Major League Baseball’s streaming service. After all, the season was suspended, so why pay for the channel?
I was sequestered in my bedroom upstairs as my son and my wife were attempting to do home schooling in the dining room below. From the sounds of my child’s voice traveling upstairs, it was not going well.
At this point in the pandemic, everyone and their mother was calling customer service channels to cancel things, so I wasn’t surprised to be on hold for a half hour. I had my laptop open, and was doing some work.
I was surprised, however, to hear the hold music stop and the voice of a man speaking Spanish in a very unscripted way to someone who wasn’t me. My Spanish isn’t as strong as it used to be, but I gathered enough to understand that he, too, was doing some parenting and that it wasn’t going well. A younger voice piped up to challenge the directions given by the first.
I almost didn’t want to interrupt, but I had been on hold for a long time. I said, “Hello? I am calling about my MLB subscription?”
There was silence for a second on the other line, and then a dog barked. The customer service representative switched into his beginning-of-call spiel, and we were off and running. Every now and then, one of our respective families could be heard in the background; I think my son was the loudest.
Within a few moments, the streaming service was canceled. Before I hung up, I said I appreciated his help even though he, like me, was juggling family. He didn’t deviate from the script in the slightest, and the call was concluded.
I wish the customer service representative had felt comfortable enough to go off script and acknowledge the unusual circumstances of the call. I don’t fault the rep, per se; there may have been a directive from higher ups to not acknowledge one’s own background noise, and it often is better to be safe than sorry when it comes to professionalism.
However, I would argue that professionalism should not take the place of humanity, especially when more and more customer service support is being conducted at home. While I don’t need, or particularly want, a customer service rep to overshare about their personal life, there is something important about acknowledging the reality of the situation with a short sentence, something like, “Oops, sorry that you can hear my family in the background” or “Looks like my son has decided to try to help with customer service today.” My son was loud downstairs; his family was in the room and making noise - to acknowledge that is to transform noise into a shared moment between two people.
I believe that managers should empower frontline workers to feel comfortable to acknowledge matter of factly when something doesn’t go exactly as scripted. If managers are concerned this could open up a Pandora’s box of casual conversation, they can discuss what best practices for such a deviation might look like. Suggestions could include “Keep the acknowledgement short,” “Avoid jokes - just state what’s happening,” and “Only acknowledge noise on your end, not the customer’s end.”
The world has been trending toward informality, and the shift to WFH customer service will only accelerate that trend. For good CX, we should prepare frontline customer service representatives for how best to handle unexpected noises and situations so they don’t feel stuck or embarrassed.