The customer service rep sounded tired.
I had called the company to ask about a recent bill. A past due notice had been mailed to me, even though I was sure I had made the payment and even had a receipt.
The customer service rep explained there was an issue with the new billing system and she would have to do some research to verify my payment was correctly applied. She asked if I could call back the next day.
Now her tiredness made sense—she had been getting a lot of calls like this.
It's easy to imagine this employee had been getting beat up by angry callers. It happens to customer service reps every day. That's probably why "working with upset customers" is one of the most commonly requested training topics.
Training employees is fine, it's just not the right place to start. If you want to help your beleaguered employees, the best place to begin is preventing angry customers in the first place.
Here are three ways you can do that.
Fix Systemic Problems
The most important thing your company can do is fix the issues that cause customers to get angry in the first place. In this case, it was a new billing system that wasn't working properly at the time it was implemented.
Customer service leaders often talk themselves into believe this isn't possible:
- "We don't have the budget!"
- "We can't hire the staff we need!"
- "It's not our fault the system doesn't work!"
The truth is you often have a lot more power than you think!
One software company initially blamed buggy software and a lack of staffing on a flood of phone calls that kept customers waiting for up to an hour. Then the team did the Circle of Influence exercise and found three solutions within their grasp:
- Fully solve issues on the first call to prevent callbacks.
- Empower the tier one team to handle more issues without escalating to tier two.
- Track and summarize issues to share with the development team.
The team was surprised when the first two solutions immediately cut the peak hold time by 50 percent. The third solution was more long-term.
Sharing clear, objective feedback got other departments to finally listen. The conversation went from "We're getting a lot of calls!" to "Here's how many calls we're getting on issue x, and here's how much those calls are costing the company."
Executives were ready to listen once the problems were defined in concrete financial terms.
Four Seasons Hotels are regularly among the upper echelon of all hotels in terms of service. The company is famous for having a "glitch report" that hotel leaders review each day with their associates. It helps them identify, fix, and make amends for any service issues that occur.
Customers are far less likely to get angry when they are notified of an issue proactively.
The company with the billing issue should have mailed follow-up notices to every affected customer. The notices could have acknowledged the billing issue, apologized, and provided a clear action plan for resolving it without the customer having to call.
There would still be some customers who called, but this proactive approach surely would have prevented a lot of calls, too!
Companies often have several tools at their disposal to proactively notify customers of issues:
- Email notices
- Social media updates
- Status pages (like this example)
We've all experienced an example of proactive service from our doctor or dentist. Many offices will proactively call, email, or text an appointment reminder the day before. That simple step prevents a lot of missed appointments, which keeps customers happy and saves the office money!
We often think of empowerment as giving employees some level of authority. But that's only part of the definition. Empowerment means enabling your employees to deliver outstanding service. This is generally comprised of three elements:
- Resources: the right tools, equipment, supplies, etc.
- Procedures: identifying the best-known way to solve each issue.
- Authority: the ability to exercise a degree of autonomy to serve customers.
The rep who handled my billing question wasn't empowered to solve the issue on the spot because she either didn't have the right resource (a billing system that worked) or the best-known procedure for finding the answer.
The problem became worse because she wasn't empowered to proactively follow-up with me once she found the answer to my question. This meant I would have to call back again to get my answer.
When fires devastated communities in Sonoma and Napa counties last Fall, my wife and I wanted to donate pet food and other supplies to an animal shelter that was housing pets for displaced families.
We weren't sure what shelters were collecting donations or what they needed, so I contacted the customer service team at Chewy.
I received a response in just two minutes that said, "We're on it!" Just 1.5 hours later, a Chewy customer service rep sent me the name and address of a shelter plus a shopping list of items they needed. I was easily able to order supplies (via Chewy, of course!) and make a donation.
None of this would have happened if Chewy's customer service team was not empowered to go out of their way to find a solution.
Preventing customer anger can solve a lot of issues before they begin. Once you do that, customer service training can still be helpful.
I've put together a simple training plan you can use to teach your customer service reps to better handle upset customers.
Here are some additional training resources: