Ever been in a situation where you have been having a problem with a service provider and when you talk with the representative it can go from just slight annoyance to major irritation? This happened to me a few years ago when I was living in the UK.
The problem – a simple delivery of a gift.
I was sent a gift while I was away for two weeks travelling in Europe. I arrived back to find two cards from the delivery company. One was the original delivery note, the other a redelivery and instructions that it was now at the depot and that I should call them for redelivery.
I called them and got onto their automated system – voice activated and really easy to use. I was impressed! Unfortunately it didn’t deliver the parcel. So I called and spoke to a very pleasant customer service representative who apologised and said it would be delivered on Friday. It wasn’t. So I phoned again and spoke to another very pleasant service rep who said it would be delivered tomorrow. It wasn’t. (A pattern is definitely forming here). So I phoned a fourth time to be told “It’s been returned to sender – it left two hours ago”. “Really?” I enquired. “But I phoned yesterday and was assured it would be sent”. And this was the trigger point where my patience ran out. The customer service representative did what many unsuspecting contact centre staff do and she said “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do”. There it was. The statement customers dread. The apology was there, but it didn't feel or sound genuine. Reading between the lines it says "I’m not going to help", 'I take no responsibility", 'it’s not my problem", "I’m not empowered to look for a solution".
The conversation was going no-where and I found myself joining the ‘angry customer cycle’. Denial by the service provider that they could do anything. Frustration by the customer that they’re not trying to do anything. When I asked to speak to a supervisor to have the problem sorted out, she told me they didn't have a manager there. So, what happened here and how did it start to spiral downward so quickly? Like most customer service experiences the challenge is the emotional / logical divide.
Situations like this are naturally bound up with emotion (for both parties). When problems occur for customers, in particular repeated problems, a level of frustration starts to build, irritation increases and repeated excuses from the service provider only makes it worse. Trust is lost and therefore business reputation can be impacted. Emotion.
For those who have ever read Dr Eric Byrnes work on Transactional Analysis and ego states, you’ll know that the customer is probably acting either out of their critical parent ego state (judging and criticism), or most likely their child ego state (anger, frustration). And the best way to combat these states is with an appropriate response from the aligned ego state – nurturing parent (empathetic). Mirror emotion with emotion (not anger with anger but reflect back in an empathetic tone). Most often the service provider is trying to be ‘professional’, as they’ve likely been encouraged to do, so they act from their Adult ego state and rationally focused – but this is a clear mismatch.
The problem is that many customer service representatives stay task focused and jump to solution mode and either try to fix the issue straight away, or in this case make excuses as to why it can’t be remedied. Logic. They deal with the task at hand – ‘the parcel is now on the back of a truck – I can’t get to it’. They ignore the most important aspect in the situation – the customer.
Here’s where complaint handling can fail - while some companies are getting quite good at dealing with the complaint itself, it is the resolution of the complaint that lets them down. From the staff members perspective, they believe that they are doing the right thing. They believe that they are fixing the problem. But in reality, they’re often only making it worse. And phrases like “I can’t do anything about it” or “you’ll have to phone the person who sent it” or “there’s nothing more I can do” are, in the customers eyes, not good enough and they overlook the emotion being felt by the customer – disappointment, frustration, annoyance.
When faced with situations like this, customers usually want two things:
Some customers also want one more thing – to know that something is going to be done about the process that may have caused the problem in the first place. After all, if I’m going to use you again, then I want some assurance that there will not be a repeat. Therefore, savvy and effective operators will also go one step further and let the customer know what they will do to ensure the problem does not occur again.
Sadly, many staff do not get the training to help them understand the dynamics of these interactions, and they are left to ‘do their best’ by being ‘polite and efficient’. When customers get upset, they may resort to defensive behaviour often blaming the customer for what went wrong. In the instance of the parcel delivery, the staff member said “well we did try to deliver it twice!” an underlying tone that it had been delivered and if I wasn’t there in the first place, that’s my problem. They’d done their job!
Now when we think about effective complaint handling, obviously it needs to be conducted in such a way that it reinforces the brand promise. I’ve looked on the website of this company to see what they promise but apart from being orientated toward parcels, and being a ‘force’, I can only assume that being on-brand would mean doing everything necessary to deliver the parcel – worldwide.
How could the customer service representative have delivered a more 'on-brand' experience?
To be fair to the representative, she finally did agree that perhaps she could contact the depot the parcel was being sent to and get it returned, and that she would get somebody to phone me to let me know. Evidence that, when pressed, there was something she could do. And, I have no doubt that her manager probably would appreciate being told of the ‘glitch’ in the system that caused this problem. I’m sure that they want to avoid repeated issues.
Complaint handling (dealing with the customer in the moment) and complaint management (ensuring that process, policy and practices are improved) are two important service experience aspects to any business. When handled well, the relationship can be strengthened and enhanced beyond what it was originally. But having pleasant staff who deal with issues well is not enough if the issue is not dealt with. I had three good service experiences even though I’d had a problem. The problem lay in the resolution – the third person I spoke to should have followed up to ensure the parcel was dispatched. Having spoken to her again I asked what she had done and, as I suspected she just followed the same process as the others – and got the same result. She told me it wasn’t her job to follow up on parcels (If this is true, then I wonder whose job it is?).
Effective complaint management ensures that problems are not repeated.
It’s true that many people have become disillusioned with service providers and don’t bother complaining because they believe nothing will be done. However the damage is done when people leave and tell others, and in today’s age of on-line media, bad news travels fast. The effect of the poor handling is that trust is eroded, and essentially the money spent on marketing is wasted. Surely that’s worth some sort of time spent on coaching and training staff how to deal with these situations more effectively!
Leah Fisher. Chief Engagement Officer, ON-Brand Partners
If you'd like to talk about your organisation's customer experience and how we have helped clients significantly improve theirs, drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org