Service, Not Servitude

Customer service has been a buzz phrase for several years now and, although many companies claim to excel at it, few actually do. Some companies, on the other hand, take customer service to the extreme, a situation that can easily backfire.

Let me share with you an incident that makes my point. Barb, a colleague, was standing in line at a retailers customer-service desk, waiting to return an item. The woman in front of her was returning several items, taking each one out of a bag, placing it on the counter, then slowly looking through a large envelope filled with receipts as she searched for the appropriate one.

Occasionally, the woman would hand a wad of receipts to the employee and ask him to look through them for her. Some of the items she was returning had no price tags, which added to the confusion. Meanwhile, the line of customers behind her continued to growas did their impatience.

The stores employee, however, never lost his cool. He calmly and methodically tried to help the disorganized woman. While his efforts to assist her were admirable, the other customers quickly became angry. Was he caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place? Not really. He could have better served all of his customers by asking the woman to step aside and organize her receipts while he assisted the customers waiting behind her.

Too often, companies instill in their employees such a focus on customer servicedoing whatever it takes to satisfy the customer as quickly as possiblethat common sense flies out the window. This particular companys customer-service training apparently had been effective in that the employee was doing his utmost to help the customer. What that training apparently lacked, however, was the flexibility to assess a situation and determine the most appropriate action.

Let me put it this way: Customer-service training programs, like any other training programs, must include an element of common sense. The clerk described here did indeed provide good service to that disorganized woman, but in the process, he frustrated the seven customers standing in line behind her.

It goes without saying that employees who have contact with customers will occasionally be faced with a disgruntled one. My recommendations for dealing with that customer are these:

  • Listen actively. Make responses that show you hear what the customer is saying to you.
  • Empathize. Comments such as I dont blame you for being upset can do much to diffuse the situation.
  • Ask questions. This not only clarifies what the customer is saying but gives him time to calm down.
  • Dont become emotionally involved. Remember you, personally, are not the target of the customers anger.
  • Identify the problem as quickly as possible. If a job wasnt completed on time, for example, find out why and ascertain the current status of that job.
  • If you are at fault, take the blame immediately. Then apologize and thank the customer for being patient.
  • Make a sincere, positive statement. You might conclude the conversation by saying, Mr. Smith, you have been doing business with our firm for several years, and we are going to take care of you.
  • Solve the problem. Tell the customer how you are going to solve the problem, then do it.

If you want to know how effective your employees are at providing the type of service customers want, there are several tools you can employ. One is a mystery shopper, a person hired to act as a customer who has a problem and anonymously evaluates an employees performance in solving it. That evaluation will help you to identify areas in which further training is needed. Provided that you supply the additional training, it will result in increased sales.

You also can solicit comments from customers at large. Two tools for doing so are telephone surveys and customer-feedback cards. I caution you, however, that when you ask customers for their opinions, you had better acknowledge them. There is nothing more frustrating than taking precious time to respond to a survey and getting no feedback from the company. Remember: If you dont take the necessary steps to satisfy your customers, your competitors will.

John Tschohl is an international management consultant and speaker. Described by Time and Entrepreneur magazines as a customer-service guru, he has written several books on the topic, including The Customer is Boss, Cashing In and Achieving Excellence Through Customer Service. As president of the Minneapolis-based Service Quality Institute, he has developed more than 26 customer-service training programs that have been distributed and presented throughout the world. You can contact him at 800.548.0538 or [email protected].

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