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Customer Service is Hard

In my opinion customer service is a balance between overcoming short-term challenges and building long-term value.

I believe that every single person in a company is part of the customer service team, but the individuals charged with the after sale “traditional” customer service responsibility have an incredibly difficult job. I was pulled into a few customer service related issues recently and was reminded of this point. On one particular call, I was starting to slip, but my team was in complete control and took the reins. It got my head spinning about what matters most when it comes to kick-ass customer service.

In my opinion (and if you haven’t noticed yet, my blog is just one big subjective ramble) customer service is a balance between overcoming short-term challenges and building long-term value. I’m going to speak in terms of what I know best, selling high-quality physical goods, but I think a lot of this can be applied to other forms of customer service.

In the long term, it is a company’s best interest to have a trail of happy customers (well duh).  Those satisfied customers will feel they have received high-quality products as described during the sales process along with thorough and reliable setup, training, and installation (if needed). They will feel respected and cared for and ultimately believe they have exchanged the right amount of value (CASH!) for what they have received in return, and this not necessarily the numbers on the invoice.

After the sale, when a customer calls on you to assist them with a problem, the assertions that they received the right amount of value in return for the cash is heavily tested.  This is where old-school customer service needs to win.

In the short term for a company passing along that value can be costly, not simply in dollars and cents, but in time, brain power, and in emotional capacity. Hitting that long-term ideal of building an outstanding reputation requires your team to be prepared with the proper mindset.

The customer’s best interest and the company’s best interests can be at odds; if you have the wrong mindset.

Here’s an old-school cliché that is dead on; The customer is always right.  For the customer service team being right or being on the side of the equation that bears no fault, does not change the situation. You can puff out your chest and proclaim to your customer that the company has done nothing wrong, and according to the fine print, or the contract, or the invoice, the company has no responsibility to fix said issue.  That doesn’t make the customer’s dilemma disappear.  Being right doesn’t solve the problem, it merely puts you in a position of superiority. That superior position just provides no value to the customer.  We shouldn’t be looking down at our customers; we should be looking to pick them up, and to make them whole, to present them with a solution, regardless of who bears fault.

Granted, this doesn’t mean you have to pay for a customer’s mistake, but you surely can show empathy, and assist them in getting them out of their dilemma. When addressing a problem, any problem, it’s critical to consider how are we going to lead with value rather than pushing back.  Empathy, attentiveness, communication, and honesty are the fundamental values here.

Listen to their problems and show them a genuine concern for their situation.  Explain the reality of what you can and cannot do.  Communicate the plan of attack. If you don’t have a plan yet and need to formulate one, communicate precisely that! Over-communicate every step of the way; be progressive and not reactive. Give what you can afford to give in assistance to make them whole, and communicate and empathize with them when the limit has been reached. Act quickly and with the customer’s interest in mind.

Leading with value puts pressure on a company.  This means we are going to layout value upfront; whether it’s time or money, or knowledge, or research.  An example from my work: An existing customer calls with a unique problem, something that requires hours of research, and is outside of our normal scope.  For me, it is fair and correct to charge the customer for any parts or direct labor (time spent working on a machine) related to their problem, but we are not going to charge them for our time spent digging for their solution. We want the customer to call us for all their needs. We want to be their consultant, free of worry they will be chastised for “wasting” our time.

So back to my original point — customer service is really hard. Being that frontline specialist, that person has to always keep in the back their mine – LEAD WITH VALUE.  This can be a daunting challenge day in and day out.  There is an emotional tax to be paid by customer service.  Often, customers, themselves under tremendous pressure, are looking for an outlet, for help, and the customer service team often has to take on the exchange of the energy head first.  That energy can manifest itself in several ways, and sometimes it can be very negative.  I have seen integrity and intention brought into question. The only productive way to face these challenges is to show genuine empathy, and lead with value.

None of this is easy. Leading with value is a muscle, and like all muscles, they need training. Like my opening paragraph, I wasn’t flexing those customer service muscles every day, and under unaccustomed pressure, I wasn’t holding onto my values.  Customer service that leads with value is a practice, and like any practice, you cannot achieve perfection, you can only strive for it.  We will make mistakes, but when they do happen, take ownership of those mistakes, rectify the matter and move on.

Thanks for reading,