“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:
I. Opening the Call
II. Listening and Comprehension
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 FORETELL – Any 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