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How deep does your customer communication go?

Service personnel represent entire teams that remain mostly invisible to the customer. Stewardesses, bank tellers and hospital nurses are interfaces between the end-user and teams that consist of dozens or hundreds of people. But it’s the flight attendant, the teller or nurse that clients interact with. It is from their voices that they receive good and bad news, appreciated or resented solutions. It is members of such front-line service infantry that clients will remember for better or worse, often for the rest of their lives. They will be the subject of praise and criticism, referrals and jokes.

Everyone has grateful and nightmarish anecdotes about flights, car rentals, bank transfers, medical emergencies, repairs and replacements, a suitcase accidentally sent to Ulaanbaatar or a life-saving upgrade. Regardless of industry, your customers have their stories about your people. I remember the Italian rental car attendant who pacified my complaint about their loyalty system only accepting US phone numbers with a sympathetic smile: “No American, no chance!” Each time a service person manages to turn rage into a chuckle, she saves time and trouble for an entire team. But when they show the wrong attitude, the efforts of the back-stage crew matters little.

Why do service people trip on emotions? Why do they fail to acknowledge the fury of a client transferred multiple times between operators? The desperation of one who reports the same problem repeatedly? The depression of one who suddenly fears that the problem might never, ever-ever be resolved? The reason is a built-in bug in most customer service processes. While sales people are meticulously trained to counter rejection, objections, doubt and anxiety with well-applied acknowledgement, questions, proposals and guidance, customer specialists at the other end of the service pipeline are often mistaken for solely technical problem-solvers. Management attention, training and tech support is allocated accordingly. And that is a big mistake.

Iceberg - Under the waterline issuesRaving optimists expect client service to be quick and pleasant, but most customers bring frustration and anxiety to the table or switchboard. Some bring memories of ineffective or rude service (a sad benchmark today) and grudges about gender, race or social status. At our Total Customer Focus™ programs, we call these ‘under the waterline issues’ referring to the popular iceberg model of human interactions. Client service personnel instinctively shun this sunken mess of issues, but plunging in to untangle them is necessary for two reasons. First: they cause a surprising share of customer issues. Second: addressing them opens a new dimension of customer satisfaction, appreciation and loyalty.

Communicate with the entire person

People try hard to isolate performance from personal aspects of their lives like mood, character, upbringing, health, family or faith. But pressure brings such issues to the surface: as a customer, an overappreciated single child will differ from the nerdy youngest son of an infantry colonel. Of course, customers hate discussing such issues, which is why management must train customer specialists in active listening for unspoken complaints and requests, and in reading clues such as body language (Read: Can they figure you out in 5 minutes by Gabor Holch, one of our consultants and author of this article). Of course a rational and systematic solution is always possible, but only if the customer’s lurking underwater fears, frustrations and expectations are properly addressed.

Customize Your Communication

Customer specialists who enter their client’s world do their magic in two ways: building trust and delivering customized solutions. They align below and above the waterline issues by asking open questions (the kind you cannot answer with a yes or no). ‘How did you first discover the problem?’ ‘How does it damage your business?’ ‘Who helps you to tackle it?’ Open questions also enable reps to suggest solutions without condescending. ‘How do you usually approach similar problems?’ ‘If we were to reboot now, what would happen?’ The choice of words is crucial. The same solution can be presented to a systems engineer with ‘Let’s do this step by step,’ and to a sales rep with ‘Let’s use our imagination to find an effective solution’. The reason is that below the waterline emotions rest on simple life values: courage, curiosity, care or conformity.

Back to Basics

Ironically, training customer care specialists in emotional skills enables them to actually focus better on the technical issues. Frustration over a glitch and fear of consequences makes a customer as hard to help as a panicked patient in a dentist’s chair. Well-trained customer specialists follow a simple sequence: acknowledge below the waterline issues, probe for specific details, build the trust needed for action and follow up with the client as a team. In the resulting atmosphere of calm and concentration, attention stays on the core issue. Moreover, the customer will contact the same rep with future problems, instead of leaving for other providers, scared away by the memory of an upsetting experience.

If you want to explore what lies below the waterline and make an impression where it really matters join our upcoming webinar: The Service Revenue Secret: Go below the waterline!” You will see what are the few simple steps that will systematically help connect and engage with your customer more deeply, more personally.

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Written by:
Gabor Holch, Associate at Global Partners Training