How To Handle Difficult Callers
January 1998, Support Management
There's a science to resolving tough customers' problems quickly! Make sure your CSRs take this crash course to deliver optimum service.
If there's a guiding principle by which your support center's call takers should live, it's this:
In fact, today, when customers call the support center for assistance, it may be more likely than ever that they're frustrated or angry. After all, they're calling because they're experiencing a loss of control. They've lost — or perceive they have lost — control over the technology they need to accomplish tasks vital to their business functions. And in the midst of these feelings of helplessness, what do they encounter? Often, another technology that greets them with a voice or keypad response menu, and routes them through a myriad of (often confusing) options. If these customers ever reach a live representative, there is little doubt what kind of behavior they will exhibit. To better understand this phenomenon, just think back to the last time you called your utility company, phone company or cable television provider. When you were the customer, what turned you into a difficult caller? If you think that being placed on hold and forced to listen to Muzak is your only pet peeve, take our self-test — you may be surprised at just how many different forms of aggravation you have been routinely subjected to, when you tried to get help.
Of course, in addition to that extensive list of annoyances, there are other reasons why customers are difficult: previous (negative) experiences with customer service, personality traits, the politics of position, miscommunications and misunderstood expectations, hunger, loneliness, fatigue, pressures, peer pressures, family pressures, physical and mental hardships, resistance to change, fear of the unknown, and the beat goes on. The length of this list suggests that you may never learn why your support center's customers are so difficult, but that doesn't mean that your customer service reps can't successfully handle them (see CSR tips for some helpful hints). It's important to remember, however, that the complexity of the aforementioned list suggests it is folly to try to change your customers' personalities; people form their major personality traits in the first five years of life. It took five years of family life (not to mention a genetic map) to turn these people into Power Players, Know-It-Alls, Chat-A-Lots, Tinkerers, Accusers, Non-Communicators, Non-Listeners, Irate Customers and even Abusive Customers. What's more, because these individuals are calling with problems, your CSRs will no doubt witness some of their strongest defense mechanisms and most extreme personality traits. One telephone conversation or a face-to-face meeting, will not change this.
With these types of customers, your CSRs must remember — and cling to! — the guiding principle for handling difficult callers: manage the moment, solve the problem with great service, and move on to the next call. If they manage the moment well, they may experience a decided change in customer behavior during the initial interaction (see Response and Risk for some pitfalls). With other customers, however, they'll see a change take place more gradually. With still others, unfortunately, they may never see a change. But success must be judged not by whether difficult customers adjust their behavior each time, but rather by how consistently your call-taking agents use these professional service techniques and how effectively they work over any period of time.
Many support groups, help desks, and customer service centers, find that by using these techniques, actual talk times decline, while resolution rates increase.
But these techniques are not for the faint of heart. When I teach them to in-service classes, reactions vary from excitement to absolute resistance. The techniques require a solid understanding of the various personality "types" that usually present as "difficult callers." And mastering the techniques requires patience, presence of mind, and firmness. Some CSRs feel that these traits are contrary to their own personalities. But support centers that teach the "difficult caller" personality types and then institute the management techniques, attest to their success. So work with your support staffers to develop the techniques, and be persistent! One note: Since tone of voice matters, remember that you cannot really "hear" my voice as you read this article. So, if a particular technique does not "ring true" for you as you read it, try a different tone of voice; experiment. It may be that you are reading the words differently than you might hear them.
The Personality Types
· Power Players: They try to use position to get faster better service. Psychologically, they seek ego stroking. They use phrases like, "Do you know who I am?" A power player is stressful to a call-taker because he pits his ego against that of the agent.
To handle this personality type, the agent should develop and use his "sincere, important" voice. Instruct agents to practice this attitude in a mirror at home or with a person they care about. Then, when power players start up, agents should be able to reproduce that tone, to let power players know they are important This technique diffuses the ego for the moment, giving the agent time to unearth the problem to be solved and the deadline issues involved. To be successful in technology customer support, agents must master command of the "sincere, important" voice.
· Chat-A-Lots: They are verbose and tend to ramble on about issues seemingly unrelated to their technical problems. Because they usually take up more time than other customers do, agents' stress levels rise as they watch the queue "waiting" light blink!
Agents need to remember that a Chat-A-Lot is likely an amiable personality type who establishes trust in others through talking. Again, this is a personality type that cannot be permanently changed. So, an agent should:
Chat-A-Lot: "Hi, this is Chris. Our server is acting up again. Don't you just hate repeat problems like this? Just the other day, for the fourth time, my car started to make a spitting noise that stopped when I took it to the mechanic. Don't you just hate that? I mean life is tough enough without these repeat problems that no one can solve..."
Agent ("bridging"): "I know what you mean. I'll (be able to) break that server's repeat problem cycle for you, Chris, if you'll help me by answering the following questions in order. OK?"
By restating Chris' repeat problem cycle remark, the CSR has connected and "bridged" Chris into a problem-solving mode. He let Chris know that he understood the frustration and would work to alleviate the problem for good; then he asked for cooperation with a few questions. Many technical professionals, instead of bridging, simply respond to the Chat-A-Lot by charging ahead with technical questions (in this case, "Which server is it?"). But a Chat-A-Lot wouldn't sense a trust connection in such a case, and would continue to chat to establish trust and rapport—while the support center rep continues to stress out over the flashing queue light, feeling his control over the call ebb away. The bridging technique puts an end to this vicious cycle.
· Know-It-Alls: They tell the agent how to solve the problem and seem to resist considering other solutions. Some-times these are "fast-driver" type personalities who focus primarily on ends rather than means, and sometimes they are "driven" analytical personalities. In either case, Know-It-Alls do not know it all. Still, it is not a CSR's job—nor is it the mark of good service—to try to raise a Know-It-Alls awareness of this fact. Again, the agent cannot change his customers' personalities. But psychologically, the Know-It-All seeks recognition for what he does know, and a screen for what he doesn't. The agent must learn to give both to him.
When dealing with a Know-It-All, the CSR should manage the moment by using key words like "let's", "us", and "we". The trick here is to make Know-It-Alls virtual members of the support team for the duration of each call. For example:
Your support center reps know that repeat problems indicate previously failed solutions and they most assuredly would prefer to solve the problem for good. How they suggest this to Know-It-Alls, however, will greatly affect responsiveness.
The problem will reoccur. This response is not recommended because:
With this response, the agent acknowledges what the customer knows and gives a "screen" for what the customer does not know through the words "temporary fix."
· Tinkerers: They change features and options resulting in problems, but do not tell the agent what they have changed.
Ask support reps why Tinkerers will not divulge their changes, and many will sigh, "Because Tinkerers know they should not be changing things." Yet this is debatable. Technology is now so inexorably intertwined with business operations, doesn't it naturally follow that customers would be learning through exploration? Most support reps will concede that Tinkerers are just plain embarrassed to admit what they have done, for fear of being chastised. So, agents are obviously not going to magically turn Tinkerers into non-Tinkerers, nor is it their function to chastise or embarrass such a personality type. If you've ever tried to fix a car or plumbing problem yourself and finally realized that you needed professional help, you'll recall that you were probably likely to resist help from someone who snapped, "Why'd you try to do that yourself?"
So, how should an agent handle a Tinkerer? He should use his expertise to unearth the cause of the problem and find the solution, rather than ask, point-blank, if the caller changed anything. There's no doubt that it would be helpful to know what the Tinkerer changed, but since Tinkerers rarely will reveal this information directly, and since they almost always react negatively to such inquiries, the process is counter-productive. In the course of a more benign series of questions, those "changes" may, in fact, reveal themselves anyway. Note the following exchange:
· Accusers: Accuse the system of doing strange, unexplainable things.
Because accusers are often closet Tinkerers, it usually makes sense to use the Tinkerer methods, noted above.
· Non-Communicators:They do not respond when agents ask them questions. However it is very likely that they did not understand those questions. The more uncomfortable a CSR is with silence in general, the more stress he will experience in this situation.
If the agent asks open-ended questions like "What do you see on your screen?" and the Non-Communicator remains silent, the agent needs to switch to close-ended questions that can be answered with "yes", "no", or "I don't know". An introductory phrase, asking for the caller's assistance, can also help to smooth the interchange. For example, "I'll ask you some questions to help me solve the problem. We appreciate any information you give us. Do you see a flashing line on the screen?" Close-ended questions are easier for Non-Communicators to answer because they need only pick from one of three options. Here, too, remote access management software will greatly help the agent by showing him exactly what is on the user's screen.
And don't forget that in this now global workplace, some customers are non-communicative because they face conversational language barriers. In such cases, agents should offer Non-Communicators the option of e-mailing their requests. (Many support centers offer e-mail as a standard option for incoming requests, reducing customers' frustrations with sitting in the hold queue. This alone can reduce the number of difficult callers, assuming the support center prioritizes and handles the e-mail requests appropriately.)
· Non-Listeners: Also known as "Button-Pushers", the Non-Listeners call into the support center for help and then continue to push buttons (on the keyboard, the printer, the server, etc.) while the agent is trying to ask questions to understand the problem. The CSR's stress level rises quickly because the queue light keeps flashing as his dread grows — the Non-Listener could be making the problem worse!
After an initial and unsuccessful plea for the caller's complete attention, the agent should try complete silence. After all, the sound of the CSR's voice is the Non-Listener's security blanket. Take away that security, and the caller is likely to start grasping for the voice at the other end of the line. Non-Listeners will eventually say something like, "Hello, are you there?" That's when the agent should speak in a very low volume and say, "I can help you best if you answer these questions before typing anything else". The silence brings the caller to attention, and the low-volume voice retains it because Non-Listeners must concentrate just to hear the agent. Once they start working with the agent to answer questions, the agent should return to a more normal volume of voice, else he might end up frustrating the caller.
· Irate Customers: Irate customers are upset and let everyone know it. Abusive customers (see next page) go beyond being irate to calling agents foul or abusive names. Lets first consider irate customers, since in customer service books they are the most widely discussed type of difficult customer.
Most experts (including myself) agree on the first step to handling irate customers: Let them vent. Agents should be careful not to interrupt irate customers while they are venting; they will see this interruption as a vote against their right to be upset. CSRs should take the concise steps on the following page.
Support reps often ask: Should we apologize to irate customers? If an agent detects that the support center did indeed make a mistake, an apology is appropriate, along with corrective action. An apology alone without corrective action is of questionable value. Moreover, constant apologizing does not build customer confidence in your support center— it generally undermines it.
· Abusive Customers: They personalize their displeasure and call the customer service representative a foul or otherwise demeaning name.
To handle abusive customers, agents need management support (or team consensus in a fiat organization). The CSR's response choices are as follows:
Accepting the behavior, however, may demoralize your support center reps. And passing abusive customers to the manager may give abusive customers exactly what they want—special treatment. But setting appropriate limits builds empowered customer service. If you as manager empower your staff to set limits with abusive customers, you must also empower your staff to end these calls if the abuser continues to abuse. Otherwise, the abusers will know that there are truly no limits. Whichever option you and your support group select, make sure that the CSRs are consistent and follow through with it.
Kate Nasser is president of CAS, Inc., a consulting and training firm based in Somerville, NJ, which helps companies to integrate business, technology and people. Through her workshops, she builds customer service and human relations skills/teamwork in technical professionals throughout the US/Canada; Ms. Nasser also speaks about customer service at major industry conferences. To contact her, call (908) 595-1515 or e-mail KNasser_4CAS@Compuserve.com.
What Turns You Into A Difficult Caller?
Communication Tips for CSRs.
VRU Menus for Great Customer Service
Check your VRU: Is your menu helping your customers, or enraging them?
Responses and their Risks
|"Please calm down."||He might vent three times longer just to prove he has a right to be upset.|
|"Don't you yell at me."||He may yell more or hang up. I do.|
|"I feel your pain."||He might gag. I certainly would.|
|"What color socks do you have on?"||This attempt at shock humor may say to him that you don't think his irritation is appropriate. He may escalate to abusive and call you a stupid clown (or worse).|
|"I understand:"||He may say you couldn't possibly understand unless it happened to you—and then vent even more.|
|"What can I do to help you now?"||Not bad, but it may not de-escalate irate customers who want empathy.|
|"This is important:"||One of the best replies. The phrase, "this is important" is purposely short and cryptic. Most irate customers are not listening well nor will they hear a long explanatory sentence. They hear the word "important" and it helps break the venting cycle. Moreover, the phrase provides empathy but does not patronize; it is not defensive, humorous, or saccharine. It is positive; the caller can make of it what he wants to hear. What's more, even if the Irate Customer is venting, your firm response "this is important" will cause him to pause briefly to hear more. The pause gives you time to use an assurance action statement (see Step 3, above.)|