Customer service departments are too often treated as nothing more than an unfortunate, but inescapable, business cost. That’s a huge mistake, and it’s hurting businesses. The fact is, great customer service can build customer loyalty, turn customers into advocates, grow your business and even feed into product development. So there’s an awful lot at stake if you manage a customer service team.
So how can you ensure your team consistently deliver outstanding customer service? Essentially, it means equipping and empowering them to capitalise on their humanness. Only then can they truly connect with the people behind the complaints.
‘Our data demonstrates that superior service is an investment that can help drive business growth,’ says Jim Bush, Executive Vice President at American Express. ‘Investing in quality talent and ensuring they have the skills, training and tools that enable them to empathise and actively listen to customers are central to providing consistently excellent service experiences.’
That empathy word again
We’ve explored before how important empathy is to every aspect of business, but it’s worth digging deeper into how vital it is for great customer service in particular.
Despite the increasing use of chatbots and artificial intelligence in customer service (and beyond), time and again research shows that customers are crying out for a human touch when they have a problem.
A survey by management consultancy Accenture found that 83 per cent of US consumers quizzed wanted to deal with a human being – not a bot – when they needed to solve issues.
Real people with a problem, not just a number
Fine. So people want a person on the other end of their query. But why does it matter how that person deals with the problem – so long as they deal with it?
According to Kristin Smaby, author of ‘Being Human is Good Business’, that kind of attitude is exactly what drives customers away. She defines this as issue-centric customer service, as opposed to the ideal: human-centric customer service.
When an organisation follows the human-centred model, it makes customers feel they’ve been heard and understood, not just treated as a number.
‘An issue-centric customer service model resolves issues on a case-by-case basis, completely divorced from the company’s relationship with that customer,’ says Smaby. ‘As an agent, your performance is measured in speed, not on the quality of your relationship with your customers or your interactions with them. You are trained to think “How quickly can I close out this issue?” instead of “How can I best help my customer?” The ever-present goal to have zero “issues” in the queue reduces people to numbers.’
→ Want to know how your team can connect with your customers and transform complaints into loyalty? Get our free guide to writing with empathy today.
And this case-by-case approach also limits the potential for seeing how individual complaints are often part of a bigger story that can help the organisation improve its product or service.
Smaby adds: ‘Issue-centric models simply aren’t built to capture customers’ stories and thus don’t lend themselves to useful product features, enhancements, and fixes. Since issues are collected out of context, deriving meaning from them is extremely difficult.’
Two parts to the puzzle
Naturally, you can’t ignore the issue the customer is facing. But you do have to think about your customer’s overalI experience, and that comes in two parts: there is the practical side, but there’s also the emotional side.
The practical side is the actual issue they’re having – and how you’re going to resolve it. It’s usually the easier part to fix: if you know enough about the product, service or system, you’ll know the answer or steps you have to take.
But what about that elusive emotional side?
If you work in customer service, you’ll know that customers often come to you in a state of high emotion – angry, frustrated, disappointed, upset. After all, they wouldn’t be getting in touch if something wasn’t wrong.
But the emotional side of your customer’s experience is at least as important as the practical in determining how they’ll feel and think – and talk – about you, your organisation and your brand afterwards. And make no mistake: they will talk – especially if they’re unhappy. Research by creative design agency Touch found that, on Twitter alone, 1 million people will view tweets about customer service every week. Of those tweets, a massive 80 per cent would be negative or critical.
We have to invest in our customers’ emotions because they’re investing theirs in us. Chris Malone, who co-wrote The Human Brand: How We Relate to People, Products and Companies, likens a customer choosing who to do business with to a person choosing their friends. In both cases, the sense of warmth they feel plays a pivotal part – in the case of businesses, a part on a par with their competence.
Profits or loss
How your customer feels will also directly affect their decision to stick with you or take their business elsewhere. The Accenture survey, which measured the experiences of 24,489 customers in 33 countries, found that 52 per cent of consumers switched providers in the previous year thanks to poor customer service. And the cost to business? In the United States alone, the estimated cost of all this switching was an eye-watering $1.6 trillion.
Conversely, getting it right comes with some impressive stats of its own. According to Accenture, 45 per cent of consumers say they’re willing to pay a higher price for goods and services if it means a better level of service.
And of the switchers in Accenture’s survey, 83 per cent said better customer service could have kept them loyal. A loyal customer is worth up to ten times as much as their initial purchase with a company, according to the White House Office of Consumer Affairs.
Crucially, a well-made apology – a key feature of empathy – can make a customer with a problem more loyal than a customer who never had a problem in the first place. In a survey of retail banking customers, Gallup found only 26 per cent of people who’d had no recent problems felt ‘extremely satisfied’ with their bank. Compare that with the 51 per cent who’d had a problem, but felt ‘extremely satisfied’ with how the bank had resolved the matter.
In the end
So what can we conclude here? Well, your customers want to connect with a human when things go wrong, and they want to be seen as a person with a problem, not as a statistic.
Fail on this front, and you risk at least half your customers taking their business elsewhere.
But there’s more good news here than bad – namely, that every customer complaint is an amazing opportunity. It’s just a matter of dealing with it in the right way. And, ultimately, that comes down to the human connection.
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