Excellent Customer Service on the Phone – PART III-B

As promised, we are back for today to give readers especially my target audience, the call center agents details regarding segment B of the third part of my three-part blog series about Excellent Customer Service on the Phone.  This time, we are going to talk about Providing a Helluva Customer Care Experience.

When agents successfully answer a caller’s question, solve his problem, address his concern, fix his issue, or provide what he expects to get from the call; they are able to do their job as expected.  However, when they even go beyond what is expected to give the customer a memorable customer care experience, the person appreciates and remembers the interaction and of course, the agent they spoke with even more.  That is what going the extra mile or going above and beyond the call of duty means in essence.

The question though is, how does one provide a helluva customer care experience?

STAGE VII:  PROVIDING A HELLUVA CUSTOMER CARE EXPERIENCE

The number one ingredient in a recipe of a perfectly-handled call is establishing a connection between the agent and his customer.  When there is a connection, not only do the customer and the representative see eye to eye, they also feel very at ease with each other as if they are just talking to a friend.  This can be accomplished by applying the following tips:

  • Open the call smiling.  Customers feel good when they are greeted on the line by a voice that sounds very willing to help and that is full of pep.  They feel like they made it with a trustworthy help who is not only accommodating but knows what he is doing and loves what he is doing as well. It ushers in a feeling of confidence towards the person and an aura of security and comfort.
  • Exchange pleasantries.  Exchanging pleasantries is not only a mutual respect between the customer and the representative but a sign of professionalism on the part of the agent as well. This is highly-encouraged so that the agent is able to warm up to the customer who then puts himself at ease and learns to cooperate smoothly with the agent. Asking “how are you doing today?” and waiting on a response from the customer are a good start to a having an amiable conversation and it absolutely sets a positive mood for both the customer and the agent.
  • Ask for the customer’s name preference.  Asking for how the customer prefers to be addressed all throughout the conversation is a way of personalizing the customer care experience.  This is important because there are customers who do not want to be called by their first names.  Some would like to be addressed by their title (like Dr., Atty., Engr. etc.) together with their family name as they take too much pride in their profession and their last name. There are even customers who are neither called by their respective first names or last names.  Instead, they prefer to be called by their nicknames or pet names.  So, to play it safe, it is highly recommended to ask them, especially American customers, how they want to be addressed.  One reminder though.  When an agent starts calling his customer by the preferred name, he must stick to it all throughout the call.  It is not good when he is not consistent and alternates between the customer’s desired name and his first or last name.  Consistency is a must.
  • Verbalize nods thru listener feedback.  Listener feedback refers to agent responses that indicate listening, acknowledgement, knowledge, and comprehension.  These are words like “I see…”, “I understand…”, “I’m with you…”, or something as short as “okay”.  When a representative listens, he may want to let the customer know he is understanding or he is on the same page by saying any of these.  Verbalizing nods is important because the agent cannot just nod his head to express his understanding or shake his head to show disapproval or disagreement.  The customer will not know that because he cannot see the agent on the phone (unless it is Skype technology but it is not).  So, listener feedback or verbal cues are really important.
  • Apply mirroring.  Mirroring is defined as matching the customer’s current state of mind or disposition by changing one’s intonation to be in tune with theirs.  When the customer is sad, the agent may need to sound empathizing and feeling sorry. When the customer is happy, the agent may concur with that by sounding bubbly and enthusiastic himself.  The only exception though is when the customer is mad.  By all means, the agent cannot sound mad or aggressive himself.  It will just fan the flame that the customer has already ignited.  What he can just do instead is to sound apologetic but mix it up with a sound of assertiveness.  This is how an agent mirrors the customer’s anger.  Mirroring is certainly of importance because the customer gets to gauge the representative’s sincerity in helping him and how involved the latter is in arriving at an appreciable resolution for the former’s reason for calling.
  • Empathize if the situation calls for it.   It clearly says here that empathizing is not done all the time.  There are customer situations for which instead of empathizing, the customer appreciates more if the agent would just proceed to what he should do or the questions he must ask.  Honestly, there are customers who get irritated by an agent who keeps on saying sorry when he can just say it once and just do what he has to do.  So, my piece of advice is for the agent to analyze the situation well and to decide if it merits empathizing or not.
  • Use positive or power words.  As discussed on the previous articles, positive words refer to words that stay away or refrain from saying naturally-negative words and sticking to words that relay optimism.  Power words, on the other hand, are those words that when pronounced either make the customer attentive, assured, encouraged, motivated, relaxed, and/or perked up.  Both of these variety of wordings over the phone serve to enhance not only the agents’ vocabulary and manner of speaking but the whole conversation and the customer’s experience as well.
  • Initiate small talk.  Striking up a good conversation is helpful in more ways than one.  Aside from helping both the agent and the customer loosen up a bit by talking about something else, it additionally helps the agent reach out to the caller more and make the whole experience more of a friendly conversation than a business transaction.  Furthermore, a small talk is very helpful when avoiding placing the customer on hold.  Instead of making the customer wait on hold, the agent can just make a small talk provided that he can make it short and quick plus he can manage and control it.
  • Use safe humor.  A representative who has a good sense of humor does it better.  Safe humor, although a bit critical and dangerous if one does not know which is safe or not, can be incorporated in one’s call handling and communication strategies.  Just like initiating small talk and using power/positive words, making use of safe humor also enhances the customer’s entire experience on the phone, the quality of the conversation, and the convivial ambiance between him and the agent.  The agent just has to make sure that he does not crack anything that is below the belt or unfamiliar to the customer. At times, a communication barrier in terms of where the agent is from and what the customer’s nationality is plays a great deal.  What this means is a Filipino’s local joke may not mean anything at all to a native American who cannot relate to it and vice versa.  Therefore, neither one finds the other person’s joke funny.  In this regard, the agent just has to make sure his customer will get his joke or better yet, he may want to skip it all together if he is not comfortable with it.
  • Flatter the customer.  Flattering a customer over the phone is exactly like doing the same to a customer in person, face to face.  When a customer wears a nice dress, we usually say, “You look great in that outfit.” Then, the customer feels great.  When a customer follows our instructions to the letter or just like how we want it, we tell him, “Good job.”  Then, the customer feels proud of himself.  This is precisely the concept behind doing the same to a similar customer over the phone.  They feel good when we commend them for being able to follow our instructions well or when we say something good about them or what they say.  If agents would just utilize this style or technique the right way advantageously,  each of the customers they get to help would always have a great time.

So, there you have it.  I say that when an agent applies all of these above, building rapport with customers would just be a no-brainer.  Customers would appreciate the agent more if he does not sound very stiff and formal and if he talks and acts as a human being and make a cordial attachment with them.

Next, we will talk about Excellent Call Handling Skills.  What must we do to handle the flow of our conversation with our customer effectively without sacrificing quality and without lengthening the call and failing our handling time requirements?

What can be called as Excellent Call Handling Skills?

  1. When one can control the call effectively to adhere to the AHT and manage call volumes;
  2. When one can resolve a call on first contact and minimize callbacks;
  3. When one can retain even irate or upset customers;
  4. When one can deal with very difficult customers and challenging situations;
  5. When one can resolve a customer’s concern without jeopardizing call quality.

Okay.  Now that we know what those excellent call handling skills are, let us now touch upon the several tips agents can bank on when assisting their customers.

  1. Agents should keep track of their time and where they already are in the call flow.  It is definitely a big help for agents to have a portable timer with them or their own IP deskphones to have a timer on its Caller ID display.  There are also online or web-based call timers that they can pull up from some websites.  These timers help them monitor how long they have been on the line with the customers.  However, timing one’s call has its pros and cons too.  One advantage would be being alerted knowing how long one has already been talking to the customer for.  Being alerted signals the agent to think about how to solve the customer’s problem faster or to come up with shortcuts that are as good, if not better, than the long way of doing the same thing.  The downside though would be the quality of the conversation with the customer might be jeopardized because the careless agent ends up shortening the call to a fault and forgets to build rapport and offer the customer an excellent customer care.  So, agents should bear in mind that timing their call is not just for making sure that they always pass their AHT requirement.  More than the handling time, It is about being efficient in what they do – meaning helping the customer with the least time, resources and effort.
  2. Deliver information slowly and clearly.  Some agents think that speaking fast helps them comply with their AHT requirement more often without knowing they are setting aside the quality of service their customers deserve to get from them.  They are wrong.  The truth is it only spells disaster.  When an agent speaks fast, he has the tendency to eat, mispronounce or jumble his words.  This only renders the customer clueless about what was said or misinterpreting the agent.  Ergo, the call just gets longer or messed up because the agent would have to repeat his words again or explain himself again.  The customer’s precious time, for his part, is just wasted listening to the agent and understanding what he is saying all over again. So, agents must take their time and say what they have to say slowly, clearly and effectively.  Of course, without sounding like a drug-overdosed person.
  3. Listen actively.  This is easier said and suggested than done, actually.  Active listening is the highest and the best form or level of listening in which listening is done by absorbing and processing both the customer’s message or feedback and his emotions or feeling.  In other words, it is having a full grasp of the customer concern and putting oneself in his shoes too.  When an agent listens to both his customer’s message and heart at the same time, he resolves the issue at hand in impressive fashion and he also gets a new friend in the customer who will most surely keep his subscription much longer because he is very satisfied with customer service who has very courteous and professional employees.
  4. Follow the process without sounding robotic.  There are some agents who forget that they are human beings the moment they talk about company policies and procedures or the moment they must strictly abide by the processes mandated by the company they are serving when they assist their customers.  The result is, they sound robotic or stiff and eventually disregard personalizing the call.  There is always a way not to sound too formal or scripted even when such things above are being talked about.  All the agent needs to do is to be conversational and to think of his customer as a friend whom he needs to explain such details to with professionalism.
  5. Understand the problem first.  Some agents end up assuming they already know what the customer’s concern is and jumps to the conclusion or to the action steps right away.  This is brought about by assuming at the outset of the call because they are too mindful (to a fault) of their AHT. Worse, they simply want to get rid of the customer the fastest way they could so they could take the next call. I do not recommend this.  I deeply abhor this.  Agents are better off listening to the customer first, paying attention to every detail of what they are saying, and confirming one’s understanding before working on the solution.  This does not only make the call flow smoothly.  It also saves time and effort.
  6. Maximize tools and resources.  Agents’ tools, software, programs, applicatons, knowledge base, and online job aids/cheat sheets are there for them to maximize and use responsibly.  They were provided to aid them in the conduct of their job because the company knows that they help get the work done faster and more accurately.  With this, agents should fully utilize and take advantage of what they have available at their disposal.
  7. Use hold sparingly.  As much as possible, agents are discouraged from always putting their customer on hold every time they need time to find something or to accomplish a task.  Placing the customer on hold is always only the last resort.  Agents can just walk the customer through what they are doing on their end (explaining what they do as they do it) or engaging the customer in a light conversation (small talk) instead.  If worse comes to worst or there is really no option left, especially when the agent needs more time than the usual, that is the only time they ask for the customer to hold.
  8. Multitask.  All workers or professionals in all industries do this.  It is not like this is only done in one industry or whathaveyou.  Call center agents are no different.  It makes them more effective in what they do if they know how to multitask and actually do it.  Agents should be a guru in typing fast, talking to their customer, and navigating on their tools/resources at the same time.  They get to accomplish more in the least time frame possible. Believe me.
  9. Last but not least, repeat difficult words, spellings, and names phonetically. Some agents are under the impression that they are not allowed to have their customer repeat what they said or spell their names, addresses, and other important pieces of information phonetically.  Well, let me correct them now.  Agents are actually perceived smarter and more efficient if they would be honest in letting their customers know that they do not know how their name or address is spelled and having them spell it.  It is not because they want to come off as stupid in spelling but it is because they consider such data important that they do not want to assume or gamble on acting intelligent when the truth is, they do not know how it is spelled.  So, it is as simple as asking, “I’m sorry.  How do you spell you name?” or “Could you spell out the name of your street for me slowly?”.  Customer information is very critical and nobody wants to be reprimanded or terminated just because of inputting an incorrect information into the database caused by pretending.

So, to summarize and in a few words, below is the summary of what must have been learned at this point.  Agents are ought to commit them to memory so they can be the top agent they want to be.

Call Personalization Tips:

  • Ask for their name politely.
  • Ask them to spell their name.
  • Ask for their name preference.
  • Ask those with tongue-twisting names to say how their name is pronounced correctly.
  • Add safe humor to the conversation.

The last part of this article for today is Exceeding Customer’s Expectations.  How do we exactly do that?  Below are some tips I proffer for the agents.

  1. Swallow that pride and be empathetic.  Customers are the very reason why agents have a job.  It is what they are paying for their product or service where their salaries come from.  Therefore, they should forget about that pride at work and treat the customers the right way.  Pride, negative that is, does not pay the bills.
  2. Take ownership of the call.  As previously explained, every agent who is responsibly and professionally representing the company he is taking inbound calls for must always own each of his/her calls.  What happens on the call is one’s own doing.  How the call ends is one’s decision.  What the customers say afterwards and how they react in the course of the conversation depend on what one replies with or how one behaves.  What the customer believes and holds on to come from what the agent says or explains.  To wit, the outcome of any call all hinges upon how the agent handles it.  It is not an excuse, thus, for any agent to pass the buck to a colleague or to blame the company.  Well, perhaps it may be a previous agent’s fault or the company’s doing because of the imperfections of the product or the service, but it does not mean no agent can turn the call around by doing his job ethically.
  3. Treat customers in a special way like the way anybody would treat his boss.  Our customers are our boss on the phone.  So, it makes sense that they get the royal treatment that they deserve.
  4. Be a human being and talk with both mind and heart.  Talking with just the mind leaves an agent speaking too formal, too stiff, too tense, and too geeky.  He becomes too centered on the solution that he forgets to strike up a good and humanly conversation with his customer.  On the contrary, if he just speaks with his heart, he tends to get carried away by his and his customer’s emotions that he loses sight of his objectives in helping his customer.  Consequently, he just feels sorry for the person.  He becomes biased towards the customer and dismisses the company’s own rights and protection including the reputation of the product or the service he is representing.  Ergo, the point here is there should be a reasonable balance between talking with the mind and using the heart.  Both departments should be consulted to be able to give the customer the best treatment he has to get.
  5. Go above and beyond the call of duty.  To exceed customers’ expectations, agents should always go the extra mile when helping them.  As we all know, customers who have gotten a great customer service experience tends to share their story with other people.  This leads to more people patronizing the product or buying the service.  Better yet, right after the call, they ask for the agent’s supervisor so they can just tell the person how thankful they are that they spoke with the agent.  This reflects back to the agent in terms of personal benefits like better scores on their scorecards, promotions, and even pay increases.
  6. Be polite all throughout the call.  Agents should always say “please”, “kindly”, “may” and other courtesy words/statements when assisting their customers. They just should not overdo it as it can also be quite annoying to listen to an excessively-courteous representative.  Just fine is better.
  7. Put that best foot forward on every call.  Agents should always do their best when helping their customers.  They should make sure that they do not leave any stone unturned.  In other words, they should exhaust all possible options to ensure that the customer’s issue is fixed, their questions answered, their concerns addressed, and their problems solved.  Part of this too is offering alternatives when what the customer wants cannot be directly given.
  8. Love customers’ feedback as much as anybody expects them to acknowledge and respect theirs.  Last but not least, agents should always be receptive and open-minded to their customers’ feedback the same way that they expect anybody else to listen to theirs.  Customer service should feed off their customers’ thoughts about the kind of service they are giving as that is what will help them improve their customer service and technical support.  Likewise, companies should do the same.  They will not be able to improve their product or service if they will not take into account their recommendations.

So, there you have it.  how I wish that after going thru this article today, readers (especially agents) now know how to provide a helluva (hell of a) customer service experience to their valued customers.

Tomorrow, we will talk about CALL CONTROL WITH RESULTS.  Please look forward to that.

Until then, BE EQUIPPED. 🙂

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Excellent Customer Service on the Phone – PART II

Yesterday, we talked about the three initial stages or phases of a typical call flow and the different best practices and tips that call center agents must be reminded about and put into practice when they give customer service, excellent at that, to their customers on the phone.  These first stages are Opening the Call, Listening and Comprehension, and Probing.

On this day, we are going to center on the next three phases of the call flow minus HANDLING CUSTOMER COMPLAINTS; the reason for which we will explain at the end of this article.  They are Responding Appropriately and Intelligently and Telephone Etiquette and Courtesy.

STAGE FOUR:  RESPONDING APPROPRIATELY AND INTELLIGENTLY

A lot of call center agents nowadays think that for as long as they have opened the call correctly and effectively, it is already an assurance that they already have a good call in the bag.  Well, not in all cases.  I do not want to sound self-contradictory in this juncture but although I first said that “all that starts well ends well” and “a call that was started right will expectedly end right”, what happens during the core of the conversation or the middle is of utmost importance too.  You see, even if an agent commenced his call right but towards the middle, he loses control of the call or his patience and starts messing with the caller, it will surely open a can of worms that he will just see himself regretting at the end.

Therefore, how an agent replies and what he says in response to his customer’s query, concern, clarification, or complaint; play a vital role in the success or failure of a call.  As the saying goes, “think first before you speak”.  Agents will never know what will happen if a recklessly-delivered answer goes the wrong direction.  In that regard, responses should be appropriate for what the customer said and should be intelligently-formulated.

Pointers for Responding Accurately without Sacrificing Quality

Below are the different guidelines that I offer to any agent who wants to know how to respond appropriately without sacrificing the quality of his delivery, etc.

1.  Be personal.  No customer is interested in talking to a customer service representative who talks like a voice-over or a recording.  On the same note, they are are annoyed by insensitive and selfish agents who do not have any spot of concern for whomever they are talking to just so they could deliver their lines and get rid of the customer the fastest time that they can.  Whom customers need to speak with are human beings who converse with them on a personal level; those who stray away from sounding too formal and those who do not speak like a walking contract.  Worse, they never waste their time putting up with people who sound very scripted and stiff.  Hence, agents should be personal and conversational.  When they are, their customers would feel as though they are just talking to a friend.  Consequentially, when they are more comfortable with whom they are speaking with, they feel at ease and they open up and participate more.

2.  Acknowledge whatever emotion there is in the customer’s messages.  Customers feel great when the feeling or the emotions that they carry on their shoulders every time they explain themselves at the onset of the call are being acknowledged.  It is as if the customer service representative also feels what they feel, sees what they see, and experiences what they experience on their end.  A lot of times, there are customers who do not really expect for their resolution to be solved immediately or at all.  They just want to be able to reach someone from customer service or technical support that they can air their sentiments to or they can vent out their inconveniences to.  Recognizing the situation the customers are stuck in at the moment relieves them of their worries, annoyance, etc more so if the agents empathize with them.  Thus, when a customer says something, do not just jump instantly to the resolution.  Whether it is empathizing, sympathizing, commending, appreciating, or simply acknowledging; agents should see to it that they accept the customer’s feedback wholeheartedly and with the passion to serve.

3.  Agents should stick to the concern when responding and make sure that they do not ramble about things irrelevant to the subject matter.  There are some agents who are just very wordy and speak so lengthily that they fail to hit the nail on its head.  This is because instead of getting straight to the point after acknowledging what their customers said, they wander off to some other topics that are unnecessary, that do not add value to the conversation and that do not lead to the resolution.  This also explains why their Average Handling Time or AHT is so high.  Agents have to remember that providing customer service on the phone is not just a show or a contest of who sounds the most knowledgeable or who explains the most comprehensively.  Even in a few words, so long as everything the customer wants to hear is mentioned, the job will be as good as done.  Also, agents are not prohibited from making a small talk.  However, there is a big difference between making an effort to build rapport and rambling about things that go off on a tangent.  They, the agents, must then avert ending up doing the latter.  Once again, one should stay on course to get to his destination the soonest time possible.

4.  Develop open-ended questions to keep the conversation moving.  When agents are not getting enough information from their customers or when they think, they are being fed the wrong specifics, it is very helpful when they ask open-ended questions.  Open-ended questions are those which start with Who, When, Where, What, Which, Why, and How. They are purported to draw further details out of the customers.  They are also used every time close-ended questions fail to work, when information is missing, or agents simply want their customers to tell them more.  Whatever the case maybe, they may have to use these to their advantage.

5.  Every time agents get sensitive information, they should confirm by restating it clearly.  This is where paraphrasing comes in.  Paraphrasing means repeating what the customer said using one’s own words or explanation.  When this is used, not only do agents get to have the customer confirm that they understood them correctly but they also get to have them correct them for any misinterpretation, extraneous information, or lacking details.  As we have learned from the previous article, assuming is a mortal sin among call center agents.  When they do not confirm, an assumed correct interpretation or understanding (when in fact, it is not) will bark up the wrong tree later on.

6.  Base your response from the customer’s own words.  Another way of paraphrasing is basing one’s response from what the customer said.  This has always been proven effective provided that the agent never listens selectively and processes everything that he listens to.  Common sense says that there is nothing more reliable than what the customers themselves say.  Is there?

7.  Agents should be as conversational as they can.  We are talking about responding appropriately.  Aren’t we?  Customers love it when agents are actually striking up a conversation with them.  They hate it when it is like they are listening to a recording of the companies’ policies and procedures booklet or the audio of the products or services’ terms of service.  Do you get what I mean here?  Furthermore, they smirk at agents who are no different than the automated voice prompt that they first listened to before they finally got a hold of them on the queue.  Therefore, agents should make it a point to be as conversational as they can.  Even if they are talking to businessmen or high-ranking officials of a business, they should interact on a personal level without setting aside telephone etiquette and professionalism, of course.

Remember this.  That adage that says, “CUSTOMERS ARE ALWAYS RIGHT” is bull**** and has never been right.  As a matter of fact, many customers are not reasonable most of the time.  That’s a fact.  In spite of that, they should always be given the kind of service that they deserve since they are paying with their hard-earned money.  Therefore, agents should make this their new guiding principle regarding CUSTOMER SERVICE — that “CUSTOMERS ARE NOT ALWAYS RIGHT BUT THEY ALWAYS HAVE THE RIGHT TO BE TREATED RIGHT”.

Facts about Customers:

To be able to respond appropriately and intelligently to customers, agents should be educated about some facts that influence how customers think, what they say, how they behave or react, and the kinds of decision they arrive at when they talk.  Those are:

  • They have expectations. Whether agents like this or not or even if they avoid this or not, it remains the same that all customers call in with expectations that they require them to meet before the end of the call.  If these expectations are not met, they usually feel that they are being shortchanged.  When they do not feel contented, they commonly do not get off the phone until they get what they want.  In some cases, they resort to asking for the representative’s immediate supervisor so they can bring their woes to their attention with the latter being expected to pay attention to them and do something as well.  With this in mind, it is then any agent’s mission to make sure that these expectations are met.
  • They expect to be appreciated.  There are some customers whose weakness is being commended for a job well done on their end or for being appreciated for, let us say, doing something that does the company a favor.  So, every time a customer pays his dues on time, upgrades his plan to a more expensive package, buys additional items, or extends his contract; agents should  grab the opportunity to thank them for their excellent choice or appreciate them for their wonderful business.  Agents should give this a go and they should expect a more pleased and feel-good customer.
  • They have ever-changing wants and needs.  Customers are oftentimes unpredictable with what they want to happen or what they need companies to do and this is something agents must be prepared for.  That is why it is beneficial for agents never to assume that what a customer chooses or decides to do today is the same as what he will choose or decide to do at a different time.  Always watch out for the customers’ human nature to be unpredictable and to change minds.  Always ask and never, for the nth time just to reiterate, assume.
  • They expect to get what they ordered, signed up for or purchased.  Keep this in mind to better understand why customers get mad or cancel their service.  They would not have to call customer service or tech support if they do not have problems with their product or service to begin with.  Right?  If they are satisfied with what they are using or if they are getting what they have signed up for, why would they waste their valuable time dialing that hotline and lining up in the absurdly “it-takes-forever” queue?  So, instead of agents feeling bad about the long line of customers waiting in the queue and having to put up with their idiosyncrasies, why don’t they weed off what the root cause really is?  This way, they are able to identify with their customers more and their behavior.
  • They want the best value for their money (or for time spent).  We all know money is something customers do not just pick up everywhere or obtain by just slacking off.  It is something that they work hard for to earn.  So, similar to the previous item, this backs up why they are very particular about whether the money and the time they spent or are spending with their product or service are reasonable, affordable, and understandable.  Otherwise, they complain or worse, they cancel and never sign up again.  It is for this very reason why agents should always make the customer feel good about what they are paying for and to make them think that they did the right and the best thing getting the product or the service and that they will never regret their customer experience.  Moreover, this is also something that can be reinforced and cemented over the phone. They also want the best value for the time they are spending getting a hold of an agent on the line.  Agents should then ensure they get the best contact center experience they would not think they can get elsewhere.
  • They want to be understood.  Customers are like toddlers at times.  They are either hungry for attention or just want to be acknowledged, accepted, and understood.  The more agents overlook acknowledgement of what they are saying, dismiss what they want reps to hear, and fail to verbalize that they are understood or being understood, the more likely that they snap back or they start acting in a manner that frustrates even the best agent there is.  So, agents should always use verbal cues and let them hear (since they cannot be seen) their agreement (or even disagreement) in a nice and acceptable way.

There you have it ladies and gentlemen in the call center industry.  Knowing these facts help agents know their customers more and be extra patient with them.  These facts help them know how to please them and where to attack the problem.

Seven Cs of Communication:

To be able to respond as intelligently as possible to customers, agents who want to provide extraordinary customer care should remember the following Cs of Communication:

1.  Clear – This does not just include speaking without fillers and not stuttering or stammering.  Speaking clearly is also about not sounding confusing or beating around the bush. Also, this refers to speaking fluently with understandable grammar and neutral accent.

 2. Concise – Being concise is being able to explain everything or being able to respond appropriately with the fewest words possible. It is replying with “short-but-sweet” statements.

 3. Correct – Correct responses refer to that which is based on facts and which is the best response to the customer’s statements.

 4. Courteous – Being courteous is being able to represent the company well without disregarding the kind of treatment that should be provided to the customers and that they deserve. It is being assertive without rubbing them the wrong way. It is about giving them an extraordinary customer care experience.

5. Conversational – Being conversational is refraining from sounding scripted or robotic. It is all about personalizing the call and making the interaction a friendly conversation without setting aside the respect for the customer.

6. Convincing – Refers to a response, which is believable and workable and intelligently-thought and delivered.

7. Complete – Refers to responses that lead to first call resolution because they cover everything.

These Seven Cs of Effective Communication are what separate regular and just good agents from extraordinary and great ones who win awards on the floor every now and then and who get promoted first.  Thus, if agents want to soar to greater heights in their chosen career apart from the nostalgia to serve customers the best way they can, they are encouraged to put these to practice.

Positive Scripting:

The other aspect of being able to respond appropriately and intelligently to customers is being able to say things positively.  It is all about avoiding saying something that will piss the customers off or negative responses that might push their buttons (the sensitive ones, that is).  Positive Scripting or Phraseology is about thinking first before one speaks and watering down naturally negative statements by taking it easy on the negative words like “NO”, “NEVER”, “CANNOT”, “WILL NOT” “SHOULD NOT”, “MUST NOT”, “DOES NOT”, “DO NOT”, etc.  Positive scripting also covers delivering bad news without coming off too harsh and using courtesy words when making customers understand something.

So, agents should make an effort to say their piece positively.  It may be very difficult but all it takes is thinking first before uttering a single word.  It is about giving alternatives when one cannot directly grant the customer’s request or give what the same wants.  It is also about maintaining sounding professional all throughout the conversation and minding one’s manners.

Minding One’s Tone:

“It is not only what you say but how you say it”.  Tone plays a critical role in how agents’ manners on the phone are perceived by their customers and even how their message is interpreted.  Even if the agent says his lines positively and he has the best vocabulary, grammar, or pronunciation; a conversation might still go awry if he sounds tense or always on the fighting mode.  The following tips below help agents know what to do to abide by this principle.

1.  Picture oneself as the customer.  Putting oneself in his customer’s shoes makes him think of the consequences of his actions even before he says what he attempts to say.  It is like asking oneself, “How would my customer react if I say this?” or “Would my customer like if I explain it this way?”.  This way, the agent thinks of a better way of saying something that has a negative implication in it or sugarcoats it with positive, courteous, or impact-cushioning words.

2.  Be conscious with the way one breathes.  Even how an agent breathes or him making his exhalation and inhalation audible on the phone matters in any conversation.  If only such sounds could be cancelled out over the phone, it would be better.  Unfortunately, they could not.  This is why agents should be wary of these things.  They do not want to be thought of as sounding irritable, impatient, or upset.  Their deep breathing might be mistaken as giving a sigh of annoyance or disappointment.  Therefore, if they are going to breathe in and out or clear their throat, they should make sure they do not sound with any mark of ill feelings toward their customers even if it is the case.  They can just keep their emotions to themselves and hidden.

3.  Sit comfortably but maintain a good posture.  Sitting positions also contribute to how agents sound on the phone.  Although each one of them has his own working style that involves sitting preferences, sitting comfortably and maintaining a good posture at the same time aid in the clear sound production.  When sounds come out clean and clear, it affects the agents’ disposition or mood and they are able to explain themselves to their customers without any tension at all.

4.  Insert inflections and rhythm into one’s speech.  Engaging customers in a healthy conversation also involves some theatrics and music to it.  Inserting inflections (altering one’s voice pitch, tone or modulation) and rhythm (stressing and unstressing syllables when speaking) do not only help one sound really nice on the phone (like a DJ) but also helps one not sound combative at all.

5.  Match one’s tone with the customer’s emotions or the ambiance of the situation.  Do not get this wrong.  This does not mean that when a customer is mad, the agent should sound mad too or when the former is shouting, the latter should raise his voice just the same.  These are but exceptions of course.  However, when customers are sorrowful, agents may need to match that tone by sounding sincerely concerned if not sounding sad too.  Customers would feel that they found a shoulder to cry on in the agent.  Similarly, when the customer sounds all-bubbly, the agent may match this happy state of mind by sounding lively too.

6.  Make smiles heard.  An agent who speaks with a smile on his face is a music to a customer’s ears.  Agents should make it a habit to open the call smiling, converse smiling, and wrap the call up smiling unless of course the customer’s mood changes the situation all together.  Wit this, they should follow Tip #5 which explains mirroring the customer’s mood.

7.  Be conversational and do not rely on scripts.  Unless required by the management or the client, scripts are only there to serve as guides so agents know what to say especially when they talk policies or so they know how to explain intricacies about the products or the service.  Nevertheless, agents are still better off connecting to their customers and sounding conversational.

Mind your tone and be guided by these important considerations for offering excellent customer service.  With these being applied, agents reading this article are assured of a smooth conversation with their customers.

Managing Dead Air thru Small Talk

One of the common concerns of not only agents but call center leaders as well is managing dead air.  As we all already know, dead air refers to an unintended interruption in a broadcast when there is no sound.  In the call center industry though, this jargon refers to when an agent stops talking and neither does the customer so there are a few moments when there is total silence on the line.  This is usually a ding on professionalism on the part of agents because they are expected to carry an uninterrupted or smooth-flowing conversation with their customers and even on product knowledge because sometimes, an agent not talking may mean he is thinking of what to say next, the answer to his customer’s question, or he is not sure about something.    But there are several ways to kill dead air.  One of which is by initiating small talk.

Small talk pertains to a light conversation or a chitchat with a customer just so there is no dead air or to avoid having to put the customer on hold while something is being accomplished on the representative’s end

Below are a few tips on how to make a small talk the right way.

The agent should initiate short, appropriate and manageable small talk.  Not all agents are encouraged to make small talk.  Only those who can manage and control it are allowed to resort to this.  Why?  Small talk is a skill as much as it is an art.  When an agent strikes up a light conversation with the customer, he has to make sure that he knows and can cease it any time to direct the conversation back into the focal topic of the phone call, which is the customer’s reason for calling.  When small talk goes out of one’s sway, it tends to veer away from the more important discussions and worse, prolong the call.  When this happens, it becomes hard for the agent to cut in and go back to the task at hand since he does not want to interrupt the customer.  Therefore, agents should make sure that when they open up small talk, they only limit the conversation into the safe topics to avoid a lengthy exchange with the customer.
He should be careful with the topic he talks to the customer about.  Another important thing to remember is to make sure that the subject of the small talk is not only light and short but also appropriate and non-taboo.  Agents should avert talking about politics, religion, sexuality, too personal matters, and the like.  These topics are always biased because what the agent believes may not be in agreement with what the customer does.  Thus, to stay safe, just stick to neutral topics like the weather, how the customer is doing, and of course; the issue itself.

He should make sure that he can manage such conversation to avoid getting out of hand.  As mentioned, agents should be able to steer the conversation back to the main issue.  Otherwise, they might regret they started a conversation with the customer.

He should ensure he is still able to multi-task. Agents would be able to accomplish less or would only protract their calls if they are not able to multitask while engaging themselves in a pep talk with their customers. They should remember that small talks are only enhancements to the whole customer service experience that is being provided to the customers.  They should not in any fashion get in the way of the efficacy of the agent nor the success of the call.
As soon as you are done on your end, steer the topic back to the main concern at hand.
So, let all agents be guided by these steps and they will be fine with making small talk with their customers.
Cutting Down on Fillers
Fillers are one of what we call, speech defects.  When a delivery is marred by these speech defects, the overall effectiveness of the message that is being delivered and the customer service representative’s delivery are affected as well.  So, how can agents keep their fillers at a minimum or better yet eradicate them altogether?  Simple.  The universal remedy is to “PAUSE”.  Yes.  just pause.  Fillers are uttered because the speaker is still thinking of what to say next or maybe confirming if what he is saying is really what he wanted to say in the first place.  Therefore, instead of uttering fillers, the speaker can just pause while thinking.  He just has to make sure though that he is not pausing for more than 5-7 seconds because it then becomes, “DEAD AIR”.  He has to think fast so he is able to shift to the next parts of what he is saying without pausing for too long.

STAGE FIVE: TELEPHONE ETIQUETTE AND COURTESY.

The next portion of the second installment of our three-part blog series about “EXCELLENT CUSTOMER SERVICE ON THE PHONE” is Telephone Etiquette and Courtesy.  Here, we will talk about what telephone etiquette and telephone courtesy mean and what else is there to know about the topic.

What are Telephone Etiquette and Telephone Courtesy?

Telephone Etiquette – is simply good breeding over the phone.  It also refers to the display of good manners and right conduct when speaking with a customer on the line especially in call centers.

Telephone Courtesy – is showing respect to the buying or paying customer thru behaviors indicative of polished manners and regard for other people’s feelings.

What are the Benefits of Observing Etiquette and Being Courteous Over the Phone?
1.  There will be less to zero supervisor calls.  Come to think of it.  If all agents were good with Telephone Etiquette and Telephone Courtesy, would there be a lot of irate customers?  Absolutely not!  Debates would be avoided, nasty encounters would never be triggered, shouting would be discouraged, and requests for supervisors would be deescalated. They would not think of asking for supervisors anymore because they are confident the first level of support is enough to help them with their concerns.
2.  There will be more satisfied customers.  Companies may have a lot of customers but not everyone is satisfied with the product or service that they are getting.  However, there are cases when excellent customer service compensates for their not-so-good experience.
3.  There will be no stress at all.  One of the causes of stress in the call center is annoying customers.  However, since there are no more irate customers because of telephone etiquette and courtesy, then stress in the call center brought about by forgettable experiences with irate customers would be lessened.
4.  There is fulfillment and happiness.  Everybody knows how great the feeling is every time a customer hangs up on his end happy with the customer service that he got from the representative.  On the agent’s end, it also gives him a feeling of fulfillment and happiness every time he does his job as expected, when he has been of help to the needy customer, and when he has made his customer smile and feel great that he talked to him.  This is definitely the greatest benefit of observing etiquette and courtesy over the phone.
Putting the Customer on Hold the P.R.E.T.T.Y way
There is a procedure to putting the customer on hold the proper manner.  Agents should not just tell their customers they are going to hold without asking for permission.  It is somewhat a disrespect.  As much as possible, putting the customer on hold should only be the last resort.  However, if it is the only option left or the best option that the situation calls for, the following steps MUST be followed.  Agents should just remember the P.R.E.T.T.Y. process which says:
P – Permission.  Agents should always ask for permission.  Putting the customer on hold is not for them to decide on or do instantly without listening to what the customer has to say about it.  There are some customers who do not like being put on hold so it is better and safe to get their “YES” before pressing that HOLD button.
Example: “May I put you on hold…?”
R – Reason.  The reason for putting the customer on hold should be communicated and made clear.  Since it is a reality that some customers are hesitant about being put on hold, it also helps when they are educated about why they need to wait by being placed on temporary hold.
Example: “…I just need to research further about your concern…”
E – Set Expectations.  Setting expectations is just like stating the reason.  However, there is more to it.  Setting expectations also involves assuring them that they will only be on hold for a few minutes, that the agent will get right back to them as soon as he can, the line will not get disconnected, and that the procedure is necessary for the resolution of their problem or the satisfaction of their questions.  Exchanging expectations also leaves them confident that the agent knows what he is talking about and doing.
T – Time.  The time frame within which the customer will be placed on hold is important.  There are some phone IVRs that do not offer background music.  In other cases, there may be music or sounds but the customer may not like them or enjoy listening to them.  The worst case scenario is there is no background songs at all.  Therefore, it is important to tell them how long they have to wait while on hold or should we say, how they long they have to put up with the background music for.  This is also another way of setting expectations with them.
T.Y. – Say Thank You.  It is also important to wait for the customer’s response first before putting them on hold.  What if they say “NO”?  Should agents still put their customers on hold?  Of course not.  But if the customer says “YES”, the agent should not forget appreciating the customer for letting allowing to be put on hold.  A simple “Thank You” is enough.
On the other hand, how do we display courtesy over the phone?  Below are some tips agents may want to try out:
Take calls promptly.  Agents should answer an incoming call right away.  They should not let the customer wait because they had already waited more than long enough before finally getting a hold of someone they can speak with.  Therefore, once an agent sees an incoming call or hears it (depending on the company’s phone technology or the kind of phone being used), the agent should accommodate it right away.
Smile.  We have already talked about this before so let this just serve as a reminder.
Listen actively.  Listening actively is listening to both what the customer is saying in complete detail and putting oneself in his shoes too.  Both the message and the customer’s feelings or emotions are important to be able to assist them thoroughly.  Being able to do so gives the agent all the tools he needs to not only resolve the concern fast but exceed expectations too.
Do not chew anything while talking to a customer.  Call center agents are never allowed to eat while they have a customer on the phone.  Their headset’s noise cancellation feature does not include cancelling the sound of food or bubble gum, particularly, being chewed by an agent.  It is an outright discourtesy.  Such an act might be misinterpreted as taking the customer for granted or not taking his purpose for calling seriously.  This could also be a ground for discontinuance.
Be responsive.  Being responsive means being able to reply with verbal feedback or listeners’ cues when one is doing the listening and not the talking.  When customers hear some “Uhuh”, “Yes”, “I’m with you”, “I can follow”, “I understand”, “I see”, etc; they feel that they have the representative’s ears and that the said agent is really into the whole situation.  Being responsive also means being able to reply at once when it is already the agent’s turn to talk or say his part.
Initiate interesting but quick and controlled talk.  We have also discussed this before.  As a reminder though, agents should make sure that when they strike up a good conversation with their agents, they know when to get back to the matter at hand and get the customer’s attention easily and any time.
When it is the customer’s time, let him speak and never talk over.  It is a disrespect for agents to interrupt their customers when they are still talking.  They should keep in mind never to cut their customers off or talk over them.  When they did not do this on purpose, they may have to apologize and let the customer continue afterwards.  It is the same with inadvertently talking over, they should say sorry for doing it so and just continue listening actively.
Avoid slang, jargon or offensive language.  Agents should avoid using or saying words that only they know or familiar with or worse, offensive language that is uncalled for.  These are called office slang, industry jargons and the latter, profanities.  If they cannot avoid saying or making use of jargons, they should initiate explaining what they mean and how they are related to their concern.  With slang words, on the other hand, they should keep them at a minimum or better yet, not use them at all because even though agents are expected to be conversational, call center conversations are still categorized as business interactions so slang words are a big NO.  Lastly, any agent is being moderated from swearing on the call.  Not only is this unbecoming of a call center professional.  This is also plainly wrong and rude.
Watch one’s tone.  As discussed on this article, agents should always be mindful of how they sound and how customers react to their tone of voice.  They should avoid sounding too loud, as it might be mistaken as sounding angry, and they should refrain from sounding too formal too, as it could be misperceived as sounding too tense or stiff.
Enunciate each word clearly.  Agents do not need to sound like DJs or newscasters when they talk to their customers over the phone.  Not everyone was born to be gifted with soothing or relaxing voices.  But agents can make up for this by simply talking slowly, pronouncing their words accurately, choosing their words well, and enunciating each of their words clearly.  Even if they are not native English speakers, believe me that they would perfectly be understood and they would be able to express themselves with relative ease.
Stick to the threshold for placing the customer on hold.  If an agent promises to get back to his customer after 1 or 2 minutes, he should stick to this.  In case he is not done with what he is doing yet and the promised time period has already elapsed, hecan just get back to the customer and tell him that he is not done yet and ask for an extension; like an additional 1 or 2 minutes.  It is better to do it this way than to say only 2 minutes is needed and yet it took him 4 minutes before putting the customer back on the line.  In most cases, when the agent gets back to the customer, the latter is already upset.
 
Transfer properly.  Depending on the center or the client’s policies, transferring properly is classified into cold transfer, lukewarm transfer, or warm transfer.  Below are what each of these types means.
Cold or Unannounced Transfer

The next representative the misdirected call will be transferred to does not know of the incoming call.

Lukewarm Transfer

This is similar to the Cold Transfer with the only difference being that the previous representative already dials the options or the extensions on the customer’s behalf before putting him through the next representative.

Warm or Announced Transfer

Here, the next representative the misdirected caller will be transferred to is informed about the transfer.

Fend off abusive language politely.  When a customer starts cussing over the phone, the agent should handle this by giving the first warning and reminding the customer that such choice words are not allowed over the phone or will not help in the solution of his problem and that if he does or says it again, the agent has the authority to end the conversation abruptly and release the call on his end.  Second or third warnings can also be given based on what the company’s policies state or in some cases, dependent upon what the agent can tolerate.  But still, regardless what such policies and level of tolerance are, agents should parry abusive language with courtesy and never with “bossiness-to-a-fault” approach.
Always keep one’s cool.  Last but not least, agents should always control their temper.  It does not help when the customer is already mad and they would compound the problem by matching the customer’s intensity too.  It is part of the job to be extra patient and to be more understanding of the customer.  That is why the job says “CUSTOMER SERVICE REPRESENTATIVE” and agents should know this better than anybody else.
So, this is it for today.  We have promised to talk about HANDLING CUSTOMER COMPLAINTS too but yours truly needed to do something else important  at this time so I apologize but we would have to carry the last topic over to the last part of our three-part blog series which will be published some time next week.
Until then.  For now, BE EQUIPPED.

 

 

Excellent Customer Service on the Phone – PART I

“Get me your supervisor!”  “Transfer me to somebody in the States!”  “You’re an a******!”  “I don’t want to talk to you.”  “Why are you working there to begin with?!”  “You’re the worst representative that I have spoken with!”  These are just some of the responses that a call center customer service representative, who does not know how to provide excellent customer service or does not want to treat a customer well intentionally, usually gets.  Now, whether the customer himself is the one who is the pain in the neck in the course of the conversation or the agent just gives really terrible customer service is on a per-case basis.  However, more often than not, a call gone wrong is the call center agent’s doing or should we say, something that he did or said triggered the annoyance and the retaliation of the person on the other end of the line.  Some of the common reasons why customer service calls end up for the worst are due to some representatives not knowing how to pacify an irate customer, how to deal with their aggression, or how to provide an alternative when the policies keep them from giving what the customer demands.  When calls go out of hand, the worst case scenario is that these customers end up either cancelling their subscription, letting their friends and family know how bad the company’s customer service is, or telling the mistreatment to their country’s concerned government agency for lodging a complaint against terrible customer service and call centers.  Of course, no corporation wants any of these to happen to them or to their reputation just because of one or only a handful of employees they outsource their customer service department to.

There are some call center professionals who lose control of their emotions not because they are impatient or hot-tempered but because they tend to bring their problems at home or with the people around them to work.  On the other hand, there are simply those who take too much pride in their own abilities and knowledge that they just feel irritable when the person they talk to question their credibility, does not trust them, or talk down on them.  Nevertheless, neither of these probable causes is an acceptable excuse in treating a customer incorrectly or not giving them the kind of customer service they deserve as paying customers.

Our topic starting on this day will revolve on several tips that call center agents; regardless if they live in the USA, the Philippines, in India or somewhere else; must keep in mind and apply at work to give justice to their job title and description, which are aptly called “CUSTOMER SERVICE REPRESENTATIVE” and “TO PROVIDE EXCELLENT CUSTOMER CARE”.  This blog will be divided into three parts though.  Each part will have three topics apiece that pertain to the stages/phases of a call center agent’s typical call flow with his customers.  These stages are:

Blog 1:

I.  Opening the Call

II.  Listening and Comprehension

III.  Probing

Blog 2 (May 24, 2013):

IV.  Responding Appropriately and Intelligently

V.  Telephone Etiquette and Courtesy

VI.  Handling Customer Complaints

Blog 3 (May 27, 2013):

VII.  Providing a Helluva Customer Experience

VIII.  Call Control with Results

VIX.  Closing a Call with Impact

But before anything else, we will first talk about what makes a great call center agent.  This revolves on the different factors that affect an agent’s performance and the kind of career that he will have in the call center industry.

WHAT MAKES A GREAT CALL CENTER AGENT?

There are always TWO ASPECTS and three elements EACH ASPECT that make up how a professional in the business world thinks, what he can do, how he does what he can do, and his mental outlook towards his work, colleagues, his customers, and the company.  These two aspects are INTERNAL ELEMENTS and  EXTERNAL ELEMENTS.

INTERNAL ELEMENTS:

Knowledge

The extent of a call center professional’s knowledge and know-how regarding his job is important.  This is a no-brainer.  This explains why each successful new recruit undergoes a new-hire and/or a product training so he knows what his roles and responsibilities are, the company’s expectations of him, and what his targets or deliverable would be.  However, there is one significant component of this element of performance that some companies are missing out on themselves and that is to make them know, understand, and appreciate the company’s VISION-MISSION-CORE WORK VALUES.  Their employees have to be oriented about these crucial statements because these very words determine how they treat and value their customers and how they go about their tasks to help the company attain what they have to meet in the conduct of their business.

Therefore, if the employees are not fully-familiarized with and properly-guided about these statements, they might be clueless about how to treat their customers and what kind of value they bring to the company.  Additionally, they might end up getting lost on the track even if they know what to do and what information to give them.

Skills

Having the skills to accomplish the job with flying colors is important just the same.  Skills refer to how the job is done or what the most efficient way of completing a task is.  Hence, a call center agent may know all the answers to a customer’s questions or may know all the troubleshooting steps to help him fix his technical issues with his computer or whatnot, but if he does not know how to type information, where to type such information, and where to find the job aids and the cheat sheets on the computer that will help him solve the customer’s concerns quickly and thoroughly; knowledge alone will not help him take care of the job.

This is why technical trainers in any call center are available so they can teach new hires the skills that they have to possess to be successful call center agents.

Attitude

A call center agent who is very knowledgeable and skillful on the floor will go a long way for sure.  However, even if he is the most knowledgeable and the most skillful there is but he does not have the heart for his customers, he is boastful, and he snaps too easily; hey may not last that long in any call center after all.  It is either he gives up on the job himself for too much pride or he gets booted out of the company for mistreating a customer when it is highly prohibited.  In other words,  the company is just creating an INSENSITIVE AND INDIFFERENT MONSTER in an agent who may know a lot and can do anything but lacks or worse, does not have the customer’s best interests and welfare in mind.

This element is what completes the three indispensable characteristics that any call center agent must instill in himself to be the best representative he can possibly be who puts the customer’s satisfaction and the issue resolution above anything else.

EXTERNAL ELEMENTS

Environment

Not a lot of call center managers look beyond the internal elements that a call center representative must learn and live by to acknowledge that there are also external factors that they must consider to provide their employees the best workplace there is — a workplace that is not only conducive to learning but which also nurtures working surroundings that foster camaraderie, sincere concern, genuine support, and a “we work hard but we play harder” set-up.

The kind of surroundings call center agents are made to thrive in plays a major role in reinforcing knowledge and skills learned in training and advancing acceptable attitude that is needed to provide excellent customer service.  Needless to say, a workplace must have very supporting and fair leaders; must be attractive, clean and convenient enough to work in; and must be appreciative of its employees’ best efforts.  You see, an environment where bosses are unfairly demanding and harsh; that is unpleasant; shabby; and inconvenient to stay in; and that does not put into practice positive reinforcement has a bearing on the kind of attitude and level of work that a call center agent shows to both his customers and co-workers, respectively.

Motivation

How call center agents treat their customers are oftentimes hinged on what their mood as of the moment is, the level or status of their motivation at work, and the degree of their longing to continue what they are doing and contribute.

Therefore, the management must also take good care of their employees’ level of motivation.  Everybody knows that one of the drivers to “under-performance”, non-performance, and worse; agent attrition is lack of or absence of motivation.  If the management expects its workforce to put it best foot forward at work, then the latter also expects them to enhance and preserve their level of motivation and happiness.  It is a give-and-take relationship.

Job-Person Fit

Sometimes, a call center agent does not perform on the level he is expected to be at because of this.  This means he is simply not a good match for the job itself or the other way around.  It is either the demands of the job clash with his personal preferences and limitations or the attributes of the work are not compatible with his working and learning styles.  There are even situations in which personal goals and aspirations do not point to staying long and happily, for that matter, in the call center industry because they realize they do not love what they are doing or they later on decide to pursue the course they graduated with or who they really want to become to begin with.

Hence, it is not a surprise when you hear a call center agent tells you that he/she only worked or applied for work in a call center because of the relatively-high pay, “hard-to-say-no-to” benefits, the happy-go-lucky lifestyle that the job comes with, the temptations of smoking; drinking coffee; and even “bingeing on beer” after work, and of course; being with the “more cool” dudes and gals of the corporate world (thanks to dressing down for most of the week and working the night shift).

This is why a call center supervisor must assess his/her agent for a sufficient period of time coupled with an ample supply of coaching/skills-enhancing opportunities, life counseling, and training/re-training interventions.  Then, if by the end of all of these efforts to help an agent improve himself or treat his customer the proper manner, he still shows no marked improvement; the team leader might want to take a good and careful look into this element of performance too.

———————

We have just discussed the six components of total performance that an agent needs to have and take into account before taking that call or making that outgoing call and assisting the customer on the line.  At this point, let us go through the motion and allow me to walk you through each critical stage of a call and explain some tips and necessary “must-dos” to be able to give EXCELLENT CUSTOMER SERVICE ON THE PHONE.

STAGE ONE: OPENING THE CALL (THE HOT TECHNIQUE)

All that starts well ends well.  Very true.  Piggybacking this simple yet very meaningful piece of knowledge, we can relate this to starting a call right to be able to end it right as well.  Most of the time, even when the customer is upset, disappointed, or mad; when his call is answered by a voice that sounds very willing to help, accommodating, and passionate; the negative feeling or emotions are leveled off or better yet, taken away.

To be able to create a very good first impression on any call, you need to be HOT.  I don’t mean its literal meaning though (LOL).  HOT is actually a mnemonic, which stands for Hot Opening Technique.  So, I guess, the right way of saying it is you need to “DO” HOT.  Isn’t it (LOL again)?  Below are a few things that a call center agent has to bear in mind to do the HOT process to the letter.

1.  Focus on and prepare for the incoming call.  As soon as the agent hears the phone ringing or sees an incoming call on its Caller ID Display, he might need to take a deep breath in preparation for the customer in need.  He might also need to clear his mind of unnecessary thoughts, especially problems and negatives, so they will not; in any way; affect the flow of his assistance of the customer.  It is equally very helpful when he thinks of happy thoughts or simply keep in mind all his motivations in life especially his loved ones that he offers his work for.  When he does this, no matter how the customer treats him or what he tells him, he could not care less.

2.  Predict the success of the call.  Remember this all-time famous saying that says “What the mind conceives, the body achieves”?  This is exactly what this tells any call center agent.  If one predicts the success of his call, he would be able to think with quality because he already assures himself that the call will go according to plan or his positive prediction.  When he can think straight, he swiftly finds what he needs to look for.  He is able to provide the answer that the customer on the phone will appreciate the most.  He is able to remember all the troubleshooting steps that must be done to fix the issue on the customer’s end.  He is able to explain accurately and impeccably that confusing bill, those perplexing overcharges, and all that.  Most importantly, he is able to remind himself that the customer must be given the best customer service he deserves.

3.  Sound passionate and with a smile.  Customers may not see who he is talking to or getting help from.  Nonetheless, when he hears that the agent on the line smiles and sounds that he is happy being of service, he feels assured right then and there that he got a hold of the best person and that the person knows what he is doing, knows what to tell him, and will put him in one of the best customer service experiences he has gotten into ever.  Also, a smiling agent kind of drives ill feelings in between away forcing the customer to calm down and cooperate with the service provider for the resolution of his concern.

4.  Build rapport early.  A call center agent who initiates building rapport with his customer early on will no doubt reap the fruits of his awesome labor even before the call ends.  Connecting on a quite personal level with the customer by making a  safe small talk, on the condition that the agent can manage it or put the conversation back on track, or by simply sounding truthfully sincere and helpful; puts the customer at ease knowing he is with the right person.  By the end of the call, he hears the customer sounding very thankful that he may want to talk to the his supervisor just to commend him or forgetting that he got into the call first feeling or sounding down if not mad.

5. After exchanging pleasantries or hearing the purpose of their call, thank them for their time.  Irrespective of the purpose of the call, it helps calm the customer down if; after exchanging pleasantries; the agent thanks him for his time.  This, in most cases, makes the customer feel that he is valued or that his call is appreciated. Some, if not all, suddenly forget that they have to curse the company thru the agent or complain big time as if there is no tomorrow.  What they think of instead is how they can thank the agent enough for his assistance and how he can repay him for his excellent service.

Now that you have heard how to do the ‘HOT TECHNIQUE’, trust me on this.  Even if an agent gets a harsh customer who starts shouting at him at the very outset of the call or greets him with all kinds of profanities here and there, if he does or says (whichever applies) any or all of the aforementioned, expect that he would be able to tame even the wildest customer out there.

STAGE TWO: LISTENING AND COMPREHENSION

The next important phase of assisting customers over the phone is listening actively to the reason why they are calling, understanding every single detail, and formulating the most corresponding action steps to get the job done quickly and effectively.  However, no matter how good and effective a listener any call center agent is, it still becomes difficult to process and digest what the customer is babbling about when one is restricted or handicapped by some barriers to effective listening.

Barriers to Effective Listening:

1.  The call center agent thinks he is the expert and the customer just has to listen to every word he says without any question, interruption, or dispute.  Remember, not because the customer needs the agent’s help that the latter already has the right to act authoritatively and aggressively in the wrong way.  The customer is still and will still be the boss.  The agent may be the expert but it does not give him the right to talk down on the customer or to bully his way through the conversation.  He must still give the customer the chance to explain himself or to respond every now and then to clarify what the agent is talking about, to have him repeat what he just said or to communicate his thoughts about everything.

2.  He thinks that there is no need to establish connection anymore and that he just needs to go straight to fixing the issue or answering the question.  This tendency is usually typical of technical support agents who do not give importance, if not hardly taught, to customer service.  As often the case, they are issue-centric.  They just focus on getting rid of the customer at once so they can take on the next call.  They are more into resolving the issue than providing customer service.  This is flat-out wrong.  Even the most expert TSRs out there are highly-encouraged to showcase real and commendable customer service as well.  Fixing the issue or answering the customer’s question is important.  No doubt about that.  But giving them the best customer service experience over the phone and leaving them feeling they are in good hands are still the main priorities of any service provider.

3,  He thinks he already knows what the concern is right away or at the onset of the call.  One of the worst barriers to effective listening is assumption.  It is when a call center agent thinks most calls are but the same with one another.  Therefore, when he gets a different customer who starts explaining something that sounds like what he has already resolved before, he stops listening and starts thinking of what to say or do next.  This is dangerous.  Any call center agent should treat each call as unique.  Assuming leaves anybody missing some other important information that is very helpful in isolating the problem and ascertaining how the problem came about in the first place.  Logically, knowing what the cause is that lead to the effect that is being brought to one’s attention will make one’s work much easier because the root cause gives one the ideas on how to take care of the issue.

4.  He does all the talking and the customer just does the listening.  Working in the call center is a talking job.  However, not because one is expected to talk over the phone that he can just go solo and dominate the conversation from start to finish.  As proven and tested, a call center agent who listens more than he talks accomplishes more and settles the problem faster than one who talks more (jut to prove he’s the smart-aleck) than he listens.  Listening more gives the listener the upper hand when it comes to comprehending the entire problem in detail and providing the best and the most appreciable resolution based on the sequence and the common sense of the conversation.  Therefore, one should give his customer all the chances he could get to explain himself and just cuts in with respect to say his part and explain everything the customer expects to get out of the talk.

5.  He just waits for gaps or pauses to jump in with his responses.  There are some call center agents who may not be interrupting or talking over their customers, which is good, but they do not listen to what their customer is saying at all.  This is even worse because they are ignoring the customers.  It is like they are just waiting for their chance to be able to talk and come back with their own responses.  When listening, one should try his best to get all the details.  He does not ignore nor selects what he wants to and does not want to hear.  He is ought to capture all information he can come by to make sure that he does not miss a thing.  When one has all the weapons/tools/pieces of information he needs, he gets to the much-needed solution quickly; therefore, shortening the call.

So, these are the different barriers to listening effectively.

Now, instead of letting these restrictions and handicaps paralyze a call center agent, affect his better judgment, or badly influence his level of listening; he may need to learn the NINE Fs OF ACTIVE LISTENING below that will absolutely help him be a role-model and an effective call/issue listener.

FOCUS – The agent should concentrate on his call, his customer and what he is saying.  He should not let his colleagues and the noise around distract him.  Even if the customer starts the call angry or shouting at him, he should relax; keep his composure; and concentrate on why the customer behaves or sounds like that to begin with.

FEEL – He must do empathetic listening and listen to the customer’s voice and feelings.  Doing so helps him understand and identify with what emotions the customer is carrying or what he is feeling at the moment that makes him react like that.

FACT-FIND – He may need to ask probing questions to get down to the bottom of the concern and so as to get more information that will help him with the purpose of the customer’s call.

LET THE CUSTOMER FINISH – He should never interrupt nor talk over his customer.  When he is paying attention to what the customer is saying, the better he is able to manage the situation.  He should just let the customer finish what he is discussing so he has a better understanding or grasp of what he is dealing with.

NEVER FORETELLAny agent should treat each of his calls as different no matter how many calls of the same issue he has already taken before.  As mentioned early on in this article, assuming keeps him from listening to every detail of the conversation with the customer.  Also, he should never presume that he can predict how the customer will behave or what he will say as the call goes on.  This will bias his listening.

FORMULATE – He, the agent, should stop and listen before he responds.  When he pauses and takes a moment to formulate organized thoughts, he says something better and which makes more sense.

Now that the call center agent already knows what the barriers to effective listening are and what tips he can apply to listen actively at this point, he may also need to know and understand the varied driving forces that dictate customers’ expectation/s on every call.  These factors or forces help the agent understand what the customer says at the onset of the call or how he introduces his issues.

Driving Forces Behind Customers’ Expectation:

1.  Their experiences with the product/service or another representative in the past.  What the customer experienced, is currently experiencing, or thinks will experience in the future with the product or the service and his conversations/experiences with a different representative in the past somehow influence how he treats the agent they are presently talking to.  Ergo, it is very helpful and beneficial for the assisting agent not to disregard stories about past experiences that the customer is sharing.  If he was mistreated by another agent in the same call center before, the actual agent assisting may need to apologize on the company or that person’s behalf.  Similarly, he may have to be very careful about what he says or does because one wrong move and impulsive reply that the customer does not like or feels bad about, the call will already be blown out of proportion.

2.  Their experiences with a competitor that offers the same product/service.  Customers cannot be blamed for comparing companies or providers that sell the same product/service from one another.  When they are not  getting something they used to get from their former provider before, they will comment about it.  When they are not being treated the way they are being treated by the current company they have a subscription with by their past provider, they will say something unpleasant about it.  When they do not hate the policies with the ex-company as much as they do the current binding policies with the present company they are with, you will hear something from them.  Customers know that this is a free world where people can say anything they want; freedom of expression, so that has to do with what they say or how they behave on the call.  This is something that the agent has to brace himself for.

3.  The actual experiences of their family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances with the product/service or another representative in the past.  Friends, family, colleagues and even acquaintances are very powerfully influential.  What they say matter to the customer calling.  Therefore, this also has a bearing on the kind of attitude that they bring forth and the words that they choose when they talk to an agent.  So, the agent, for his part, must be ready and assertive enough to help the customer get his facts straight by correcting wrong notions, inaccurate rumors, and bad bashing.  He must always be on the defense of the company without insulting the customer or rubbing him the wrong way.  It all hinges on what he says and how he says what he says. Get it?  If he carefully and intelligently chooses the words he uses to express himself and if he watches out for his intonation and other verbal cues, then he will not have to pacify an agitated customer or regret he said or did what he said or did.  Does this make sense?

4.  How they understand the company’s policies and procedures.  Any call center agent must always remember that each customer, even if they see or read the same documentation, terms of service, or terms and conditions; it is inevitable that they have different interpretations of what they read.  Worst, they did not even read them at all to begin with (which is true with most of us).  In other words,  even the most perfect business reference is open to misinterpretation or misunderstanding.  It is, therefore, the call center agent’s job to straighten the misunderstanding of the company’s policies and procedures and explain the contract or agreement that they have signed up for or agreed on in detail; dissecting everything the customer needs to know.  It is wrong and such a bad practice for any call center agent to prejudge the customer as stupid, ignorant, careless, or whatnot for not understanding their product or service well.  Just think about it this way.  Call center agents must in fact be thankful that they call even for such concerns.  That only means that when more customers understand more, fully, and accurately what they have signed up for, lesser customers will complain or call in because they already know their product/service pretty well and they can answer their questions or fix their own issues themselves.  Thus, no need to call Customer Service or Tech Support.

Well, how I hope that mentioning these different drivers that influence customers’ expectations on a call will help any call center agents who read this blog with dealing with their customers’ demands and understanding their reactions and behavior more.

STAGE III: PROBING

After opening the call and listening to the customer’s concern and comprehending it, the next logical step is to ask probing questions (if necessary) and to paraphrase (restate using one’s own words) what the customer said to have them verify the agent’s full understanding and to make sure that both the agent and the customer are on the same page.

What is the Importance of Probing? How Important is It?

Probing is very essential in the success of any call because it:

1.  Gains and maintains control of the conversation.  When agents ask investigative and clarificatory questions, they put themselves at a position where they have full sway of the flow of the conversation and how it starts, progresses, and culminates.  All call center agents must master the skills and the art of taking the lead in the conversation and not letting the customer take over and dictate the proceedings of the conversation instead.  If the latter happens, it will only prolong the call more and the agent will be left not knowing how to regain full control.  This is not to mean though that one does not give his customer the opportunity to explain himself, clarifies what is going on, and asks or answers questions.  The give-and-take nature of the conversation must still be put in place and maintained with, once again, the agent listening more than he talks. Probing is not there for the agent’s utilization just to ask questions for the heck of it but for him to make use of to maximize the opportunity of having the customer on the line.  It should be a collaboration.

2.  Gathers information the agent needs to better understand where customers are coming from and what could be done for them.  Not all customers are good at explaining their situation, elaborating their explanation, and cutting to the chase.  There are some customers who do not even know how and where to begin or make sure that their account of what happened on their end is detailed and complete.  Therefore, it is the agent’s obligation to help the customer explain himself by asking questions that are meant to  figure out the issue and get to the bottom of the problem.  Once the issue is much clearer and better understood, it becomes a walk in the park to take if from there and proceed with the succeeding steps to take.

3.  Establishes rapport and understands the customer’s needs, values and wants.  When customers sense that the agent is talking and making a conversation, they feel that they are really talking to a human being or a live person and not an automated voice or an answering machine.  They feel connected to each other and they conclude that the agent really understands what they expect to achieve out of the call.  When they are asked questions, they feel valued and that their concern/issue/problem is really being taken seriously.

4.  Builds the customers’ trust in the agents’ ability to assist them with their concern.  Asking probing questions is the agents’ chance-of-a-lifetime to prove that they are the expert and that they know what they are doing.  It is also their opportunity to guarantee the customers that they ended up with the best person.  Therefore, an agent must think first before he speaks or asks and must not waste the opportunity given to him.  Agents have to remember that the customers’ time is precious and valuable.  The shorter the call, the happier they are.

Different Kinds of Probing:

Depending on the customer’s concern and the probing questions that have to be asked, below are the different types of probing that an/the agent can resort to:

CLARIFICATION – Clarifying the customer’s question, explanation, story, or issue.

Example: “Do you mean to say…?”

PARAPHRASE – Repeating what the customer said using one’s own words or version.

Example: “If I understood it correctly, so you…?”

EXTENSION – Asking the customer to tell him some more or to continue what he is saying.

Example: “Could you tell me more about what happened?”

EXAMPLE – Asking the customer to provide clear and specific examples to support his question, explanation, story, or issue.

Example: “Can you share a particular instance when that happened to you?”

YES/NO – Asking close-ended questions to check one’s understanding, to confirm the customer’s decision or conclusion, and to set the frame or to ask leading questions.

Example: “So, you need me to upgrade your account?”

Ws AND AN H – Asking open-ended questions that are meant to develop an open and fluid conversation, get the root of the matter by finding out more details, and taking into consideration the customer’s perceptions, observations, and opinions.

Example: “What do you think about our subscription so far?”

As mentioned, these are the different ways or types of asking probing questions that agents can choose from.  Once again, it really depends on what the customer’s reason for calling is, the nature of the agent’s support, and what the customer says.  It is up to the agent what he believes is the best option to use when asking probing questions.

Our last topic for today’s first part of our three-blog series about EXCELLENT CUSTOMER SERVICE ON THE PHONE is

Probing the Right Way:

So, how does an agent probe the right way on top of the different ways of asking investigative or clarification questions?

1.   The agent should start with telling the customer that he is going to ask him questions and why he needs to ask them.  It is very necessary to set expectations with the customers.  The agent should tell them that they need to ask them questions regarding their problem, issue, concern, or question and why they need to ask them before anything else.  If there is no setting of expectations, some customers become hesitant to provide further information; especially when they are being asked to divulge personal/security information; or they feel the agent is asking too many questions that such questions start annoying them.

2.  He should make sure he asks the right questions.  This is where “think first before talking or asking” comes in.  So as not to waste time, the agent should make sure that his question makes sense, is intelligently-thought, and really helps in taking care of the situation. Otherwise, time would be wasted and customer might not participate anymore any further.

3.  Lastly, he should tell the customer how he will benefit from cooperating and providing him what he needs especially if he is hesitant at first.

 

Next would be Part II which will tackle the following:

 

IV.  Responding Appropriately and Intelligently

V.  Telephone Etiquette and Courtesy

VI.  Handling Customer Complaints