Customer Service: Attainable Ideal or Cunning Oxymoron?

Good Customer Service

We, most of us, have had dealings with the customer service people of this world at some point or another.

Whether it's pressing 22 numbers on our push-button phones in vain search of a human voice, or being passed from one uninformed person to another, or being given information by a person who never draws breath, our chances are mighty high we're going to be disappointed.

Or frustrated. Or angry. Or all three.

Perverse Oxymoron

Indeed, in some organisations, the term customer service seems to be a kind of perverse oxymoron.

The good thing is that the pendulum does appear to be swinging in our - the customers' - favour, albeit slowly. For years, companies invested in technology as the answers to efficiency, cost savings, value.

Nothing wrong with technology.

Except technology doesn't do people. And customers are people. Sometimes unreasonable, often difficult, but still, people.

Customer Facing Skills

We're just glad that more and more companies are recognising that if their staff's customer-facing (or telephony) skills are up to par (or beyond) they have a far better chance of pleasing and retaining their customers.

We rely more and more on technology in our daily lives, yet in an odd way, our expectations around customer service are higher than ever. If we can buy or book on-line instantly, we now want our queries or complaints dealt with instantly as well. We want phones answered within three rings, we don't want to be put on hold (too bad Vivaldi isn't alive - he'd make a fortune in royalties for The Four Seasons), and we most definitely don't want to be phoned back because we doubt we ever will.

Phone Frustration

Much like sitting around swapping real-estate stories, we're now all collecting our most frustrating day spent on the phone (waiting for a delivery, etc) stories as well.

The Council offices that want to pass you on to someone else so quickly you've barely had time to say your name. Or the washing machine repairman who doesn't have the one spare part needed and drives off never to be seen again. Or the day you stayed home from work to wait for your new sofa and you're waiting still. Or the phone agent who keeps telling you to calm down when the last thing you are is calm and being told to do so isn't helping.

Actually, aren't there times when you feel you're doing other people's jobs for them? Making phone calls to chase people to try to get them to do what you're paying them to do?

Surprisingly Good

The sad thing these days is that we get surprised when service is good.

And some customer service is incredibly good. People who want to engage with you and make an effort to connect with you as someone they want to serve as opposed to a problem they want to get rid of. People who are cheerful, empathetic, knowledgeable and will go the 'extra mile' if that's what it takes to get a result.


Here's a little exercise you can try which we think is a fun one. Make a list of all the places, shops, restaurants, holiday destinations, service providers, brands that you return to time and again and next to each one give a key reason.

How do they make you feel special?
Do they know your name (or at least pronounce it correctly)?
Do they really listen to you?
Are the waiters efficient and friendly but not over the top?

Or maybe you like over the top!?

Are you made to feel welcome?
Do you forgive them their mistakes?
Do you get that indefinable extra?

We all have reasons for liking something or someone or someplace. They don't have to be logical or make sense to anyone else. We worked with someone years ago who, when we did this exercise, said there was one Greek restaurant he always went back to. Not because the food was any better than another Greek restaurant near-by (indeed it was probably worse), but because on Friday nights he got to smash plates and dance around.

You may be someone who avoids smashing plates and dancing around, which is why we say that everyone's reasons for liking a place or returning will be different.

So, see if you have any really quirky, plate-smashing reasons why you go back. Is it because 'everybody knows your name' or no one does? Is it because they'll get you talking about your favourite football team within a minute of the conversation? Is it because they support your favourite charity or arts organisation?

Or is it simply because, when you phone or show up in person, you really feel taken care of and that your business (large or small) counts?

Once was more than enough, thank you

OK, so now make an opposite list. Places, companies, shops, etc., you'll never, ever go back to, not in a million years. Hotels that make Fawlty Towers look like the Ritz (OK, maybe not the Ritz, but...). Shops with untrained staff who enjoy chatting amongst themselves rather than serve a (gasp!) customer. People who DON'T LISTEN. People who you can tell are:


Places or people that never keep their word - they wouldn't know what exceeding expectations looked like, let along ever try to have a go at achieving it.

You'll find as you do this list that there will be a lot of energy around it. You'll re-visit old frustrations and angers, even if they happened years ago. You may even have a lot more emotions thinking about the negatives than about your positive list.

That's how potent bad customer service can be: it seems to stay in our cell structure.


Have you ever complained?

We mean gone out of your way to make a complaint to a company or store or service provider.

We ask because it usually takes a lot to get to the complaining stage. Most people have to be well and truly fed up to make the effort to ring up or write a letter. We know there are perennial complainers who will complain about anything and everything. If you're one of those, lighten up. We're not talking to you!

No, we're talking to the kind of regular folk who are generally satisfied; don't get too hot under the collar when things don't go all that smoothly; want to be pleasant and for people to be pleasant in return.

You know what we mean when we say it takes a lot to get you to complain.

How Did It Go?

So what happened?

  • What did you have to do and did it work?
  • Did getting on the phone and making your dissatisfaction known have any impact?
  • Did you get a response to your letter or email?
  • Were you taken care of?
  • Were your expectations met?

Companies could learn a lot if they look at the reason why people complain and just how much it takes for them to do so. Now, fortunately, a lot more of these regular folk are indeed complaining, which is why many companies are offering customer hotlines and make a big deal of saying how much their customers matter.

Quite honestly, we think a lot of that is lip-service. Companies may have loyalty schemes, retention teams, lapsed member squads, but they still haven't fully got under the skin of what customers want. They do try, but in our experience, if something is convenient for them it often doesn't matter if it's inconvenient for us.

Are we being unfair? Probably. So read on.

It's a thankless job

Up till now, we've been concentrating on what happens to 'us' the customers. But what about 'them' the customer carers?

Since blaming them is what we think is the right thing to do when things go wrong, people who deal with the public, either face to face or on the phone, have to manage a barrage of unhappiness, dissatisfaction, anger and frustration on an on-going basis.

No wonder staff turnover in retail is so high. Indeed, did you know that pretty much the largest turnover of staff in the UK is in call centres? Well, how many of us would want to work in one? We're not talking about the environment that phone advisers work in (some are terrific and have a superb atmosphere); what we're on about is the fact that day in and day out, hour after hour, these people have to deal with us.

Easy To Find Fault

Whether we're in the regular folk or perennial complainer category, most of us tend to find it easier to point out faults than to praise and acknowledge when things go right.

And we're not always sensible when we do have a complaint.

We make assumptions that the person in front of us or on the phone will know exactly what we're talking about. We take out all our frustrations and annoyances on the person who's representing the company even if they had nothing to do with why we're angry.

Not only that, we might use this particular forum to vent a whole lot of anger that doesn't have anything to do with the person, the company or the thing we're complaining about! (It's called kicking the cat).

If in the face of this, the person on the receiving end of our request (we were going to write rant, but we know things don't always come out of our mouths in rant form) gets defensive, we don't like it. It makes us even more frustrated or angry.

Here's an exercise you can do with a chum

One of you thinks of something to complain about (something that you feel genuinely pissed off about) and the other person is the customer carer.

The complainer just has a go about everything that's wrong, what the company didn't do, how you were let down, etc. The person on the receiving end of this responds in whatever you want (except physical violence please; you are a chum after all).

In most cases, it doesn't take too long to feel and get defensive even if you had the best intentions of staying calm. Even in a simple exercise like this where nothing is at stake, our sense of helplessness and of feeling under attack get recreated really quickly. It's a natural response to get defensive or to want to strike back or to hide away inside ourselves till the storm subsides.

That's what's happening to the people we have a go at when we're unhappy about something.

These front-line people do have a lot to contend with. If they haven't really been trained well, then they are already going to be at a disadvantage. Indeed, their job can feel a very thankless one.

Enough with the 'them' and 'us'!

In an ideal world 'we' would be calm and collected and clear when we made our complaints or problems known. 'They' would be friendly, understanding, informative and efficient.

Well, as far as we're concerned, an ideal world isn't all that hard to achieve.

For the most part, people do like to be loyal; they like to have their special place or brand or company that makes them feel they matter.

They're proud to recommend their bank or favourite watering hole or brand of corn flakes they'd never do without.

And for the most part, people don't set out to be unhelpful, rude, difficult, uninformed. They have been hired in a customer service role and most genuinely want to help.

So what goes wrong?

Both 'sides' contribute. Customers will, however, vote with their feet if let down too often. Customer servers, too, will be tipped over the edge if they get unreasonably harassed and badgered.

But really, we should both be on the same side, because ultimately, we want the same thing: 'we' want good service, and 'they' want to do a good job for their organisation.

So first, let's look at what the customer can do.

1) Why Do You Like This Company

Before you go charging down to the shop or picking up the phone or bashing out a letter or email, think about why you like this company in the first place. Make a list (mentally or otherwise) about why you use them and some good things they've done in the past.

If it's a local council, they can't have done everything wrong. So what have they done recently that you think is a plus for your community?

Then, when you make the call or have a face-to-face encounter introduce some of these pluses right away as your lead-in. For instance, "I've always appreciated that you've let me know when there's a change in the rubbish collection, so I was really annoyed when you didn't make a pickup this Monday and I didn't know why."

Or, "I really enjoy the benefits of having your credit card, therefore, I was doubly disappointed when you changed your billing layout and didn't let me know. I always clear my account when I get the bill and this time I didn't because the new total was in a different place."

Although you may want to hang on to the full feeling of your anger or frustration, this really will help you come across as someone without an axe to grind, but with a genuine concern about the company's slippage in standards.

2) Don't Shoot The Messenger!

See if you can avoid accusing the person you are dealing with for being responsible for the mistake or problem. This can be difficult in the heat of the moment, but if you follow step one, no matter how upset you are, it will help you get some perspective.

Again, you can add that to your opening gambit: "I know this isn't your fault and I don't mean to get upset with you, but I've always been treated efficiently by your company and so I'm really, really frustrated with what's happened."

3) Get Clear

If need be, write out what you want to say before it comes out of your mouth. Have your facts (and figures if necessary) logically laid out either on paper or in your mind so that you can take the other person through the difficulty in a coherent and sensible way.

What you don't want to be is someone who can easily be dismissed because you are incoherent, 'mad', abusive.

Don't assume the other person has all the facts themselves.

4) Ask For Their Name

If they haven't given it on the phone or they don't have a name badge. Avoid asking for it in an 'I've got your name, so watch your step' kind of way. This is so that you have a named person you're dealing with.

Give them your name, clearly and spell any difficult ones (Jo Ellen: I have an unusual first name and a near-impossible surname for most non-Polish speaking people, so I always make a joke of it and spell it really carefully. It's a great opening ice-breaker).

5) Let Them Know How You Feel

It is OK to let the person on the receiving end know just how angry/frustrated/ disappointed you are but you don't have to blast their ears off.

Indeed, our recommendation is to use 'I' statements as much as possible: "I'm very angry that I stayed at home all day and the telephone repairman never showed up and no one returned my calls. I'd like an explanation, please." As opposed to: "Your man never showed up, you always promise and never deliver, you didn't return my calls, you're hopeless."

You might be feeling all that but it's not going to improve the situation by going on the attack, however satisfying it might feel.

6) Suggest A Solution

If at all possible, suggest a solution, rather than hoping they'll come up with one you'll be happy with.

You may have to compromise, but at least you'll get what you want on the table.

OK, customer server, it's your turn

(or your company's turn - you might want to show them this when you've finished reading it).

It would be great if every customer you have to deal with would read the above recommendations and follow them, so your life would be better.

Unlikely. So let's see what can be done on your side of things.

1) Good, thorough training in customer service skills is absolutely essential.

If you work for a company who has given you good training, then the following recommendations will probably reinforce what you already know.

If you haven't had top-notch training, then you need to put some pressure on the powers that be to support the customer service area by giving it the right skills and tools so all of you can do your jobs better.

2) Essential Tools

We're not going to go through our entire Customer Service Training programmes here, but here's a list of what we consider essential tools for your customer care kit:

  • Introduce yourself, whether you are face-to-face or on the phone. Say your name really clearly and ask for theirs.
  • Remember, whatever the problem, customer relations means just that: it's a two-way relationship no matter how lopsided it feels.
  • Listen carefully and make notes about what the problem is.
  • Reflect back what you've heard so you let the other person know you've 'got it'.
  • Acknowledge how they feel ("I can hear/see you're really angry/upset, etc.").
  • Avoid getting defensive (this is hard as we explained a few pages ago). If you find yourself getting defensive, apologise.
  • Use their name when appropriate, not parrot-fashion.
  • Have real conversations, rather than just doing the script. See, the script sounds false and doesn't include any of your human side.
  • Make offers by coming up with a few solutions for them to choose from, instead of boxing them in with a 'take it or leave it' situation (see number 4 below).

3) 'Own' The Customer

A lot of companies use this phrase and if they mean it, it's a good one. It means you taking responsibility for the person in front of you or on the other end of the phone or letter or email, rather than trying to get rid of them as quickly as possible.

4) Take Care Of Yourself

After a couple of really difficult encounters, it's important to let go of some of your own emotions. We suggest simple things like off-loading to a colleague or your supervisor; go for a short walk, drink some water, jump up and down and do some stretching exercises.

This is not just for your sake, but so that you avoid taking out your own frustrations on the next person you have to deal with, whether they are tricky or not.

Good Customer Care

These are just the highlights of what good customer care is all about.

We have tons more stuff, but the key for us is that outstanding customer service really is about exceeding the customer's expectations and keeping your own dignity at the same time.

We once worked with a client who said they wanted to 'delight their customers' and we thought that was a delightful phrase to describe the ideal customer relationship.

But here's a final thought to mull over:

In general, if a customer has a problem, and you deal with it with real care and grace, you'll have a champion for your company and a customer for life.

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