Saturday, June 20, 2015

Customer Service Lessons

Last winter, I spent a lot of time dealing with customer service help lines at various organizations, primarily state government and MNSure.  My present part-time job is customer service.  This makes me one of those people who's often on both sides of the customer service transaction, and I've learned some interesting lessons as a result.  My comments and observations:

Keep your emotions to yourself:
When I answer the phone as a customer service rep, I want to hear a pleasant voice or business-like voice, not an angry or highly emotional voice.  I've been yelled at by customers, usually not because I've done something that's made them angry but because they did not receive what they expected from the organization.  I've learned to not take it personally but it's still an unpleasant experience.  I'm learning ways to defuse the situation, also, so that I can get the information I need from them to help them.

In contrast, last winter I experienced an unconscionable situation with MNSure.  They had signed me up for medical assistance without my knowledge or consent.  If they'd called me, I would have told them not to because I already had medical insurance coverage.  But they didn't call me.  Their action totally screwed up my signing up for new coverage for 2015, and I found myself in a bureaucratic labyrinth, trying to get medical assistance cancelled so that I could sign up for the medical insurance I wanted and could pay for. Was I angry?  That doesn't even begin to describe my rage and fury.  Did I yell at MNSure customer service.  You bet I did.  And I told each rep that I was not angry with him or her but with MNSure and the situation because it was causing me major problems and inconvenience.  I don't know if my qualifying my anger did any good.  But I have since re-thought how I would approach such a situation in the future and it would NOT include yelling at customer service reps.  (If any of them happen to be reading this, I sincerely apologize for my ranting and raging.  It was not productive.)

It took me three months, countless phone calls, filing an appeal and talking with the appeals judge, talking with specialists, and finally, posting at the MNSure Facebook page before the state bureaucracy finally moved and cancelled me from medical assistance.
Not all customer service reps are created equal:
During my MNSure experience last winter, I talked with a different customer service rep each time I called.  Very few of them were knowledgeable beyond the script they had learned. I encountered much the same issue with the MNSure county customer service helpline that I had to call regarding cancelling medical assistance.  It wasn't until I'd been through nearly three months of frustration and doing everything I could think of to move the bureaucratic mountain that I finally connected with a customer service rep who knew what to do and how to do it.  That woman resolved my problem in two days.  Two days!!  I have saved her voice mail telling me of the resolution simply because it is a joy to listen to it still. Not all customer service reps are created equal.

In my current customer service job, I'm acutely aware that not all customer service reps are created equal.  Some people are better at phone service than others.  Some people are more knowledgeable than others.  I have experienced how easy it is to make a mistake or forget something as I'm juggling a customer on the phone and working on the computer at the same time. I have learned the value of asking a customer if I can put him/her on hold while I process an order or research the answer to a question.  It gives me some breathing room and I have time to do a good job for the customer.  I have also learned to review processes and procedures often, even if I'm feeling confident about them.  And I work hard to "build relationship" so that the customer will have a good experience talking with me.  That means communicating that I work for the customer to have a good experience when dealing with the organization (and me as the representative).

Know what you want before you call and have all the documents you need:
You want an excellent, positive, happy, and fast customer service experience?  Be prepared before you call!  Before I pick up the phone to call any customer service, I make certain that I have in front of me all the relevant information.  For example, if I'm calling to exchange theater tickets, I have the tickets in front of me because they have printed on them my account number, seat location, date of performance, etc.  Then I make certain I've already done the research into which performance I want to exchange into, where I want to sit, etc. and my first and second choices of them.  If I'm calling with questions to get information, I will jot down the questions so they are in front of me and I won't forget anything.  Be prepared.  Your customer service call will go faster, pleasanter, and more efficiently as a result.

On the other side, I've answered calls from people who knew only what they wanted without any of the necessary and detailed information that I'd need to give it to them.  Then it's my job to ask the right questions to get the information.  I'm constantly surprised by customers' impatience with this process.  Then there are the customers who call as they are leaving home and don't really have the time to talk, or they're driving their car, or they're someplace far from the information that I need.  Sometimes I can fill in the blanks by searching the customer's account, but most of the time, the customer will have to call back with the information.  Please be prepared before you call customer service.

Be business-like but friendly:
There's something to be said for "treat others as you would like to be treated."  Would you want the customer service rep to treat you with disrespect?  With sarcasm?  With anger?  A customer service transaction or call is a business transaction, and needs the customer's business-like approach.  Be respectful, patient, cooperative, and friendly.  Treat the customer service rep as a person, another human being who is trying to help you.  And if you end up not getting what you want?  Try to understand.  Companies have policies for a reason and if you don't understand, ask for an explanation.

As a customer service rep, I can usually tell by the tone of a customer's voice in the first few seconds of a call what kind of mood the customer is in.  This amazes me, actually.  I will respond to anger by asking questions to get information.  I will acknowledge the customer's anger or dissatisfaction.  It's a lot easier to distance myself from anger than it is from sarcasm.  Sarcasm is just wrong, unproductive, and is just hiding anger.  It's also way too easy for me to be sarcastic back.  I'd rather deal with the anger.

And then there are the customers who call to try to get something for nothing.  Such chutzpah!  I have to admire them for it, but I don't always choose to advocate for them.  At the same time, I want to build goodwill.  But it's hard to want to help or respect someone who's just trying to game the system, especially when everyone else is playing by the rules.

Be grateful:
One of the lessons I learned last winter as a customer was that being grateful for a customer service rep's good service and saying so can be HUGE.  Reps strive to build a good customer relationship and goodwill, and there's no reason why a customer shouldn't be doing the same thing.  Say thank you.  Acknowledge their expertise.  Offer to send a "good job" note to their supervisor or manager. Be grateful -- loud and clear.  The next time you call that customer service department, they may recognize you as someone who's pleasant and easy to serve.

It has been the pleasantest of surprises to hear customers praise my expertise (and I'm still learning), or say that they've enjoyed talking with me, thanked me for my work on their behalf, told me it was a really good experience dealing with me, commending me to my manager, and/or asking for me when they've called back.  I love being able to save a customer money or finding a really good solution to their problem.  I cannot keep the excitement out of my voice when that happens.  It feels great to be able to help someone.

Customer service is a crucial part of doing business in any industry.  When you're a customer, remember that you have some control over what your customer service experience will be like depending on your preparedness and attitude.


Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

I agree with all of this. Years ago, my husband taught me his number-one rule: Know what you want. It applies in any goal-setting situation, but it's so obvious when dealing with a customer service rep. Some people just rant. In that case, the rep cannot help them beyond listening. If you want a replacement part, or a refund, or a different health plan, you need to be clear about that. Sadly, in your case even that didn't help.

Joey said...

From some bad experiences with customer service in the past, I’ve always had as much information as possible before I call and I ask them to repeat their name. I think this lets them know I am keeping track of my calls. I also document their name, when I called, and what was discussed. Staying calms seems to help.

Joey @ AmerikaLink