Customer service in a recession

During difficult times every customer you have becomes much more valuable. So what can you do to make sure that shoppers choose to spend their reduced disposable income with you? And what can you do to ensure that those customers stay loyal to you?

This is an opportunity to go back to basics and focus on customer touch points. Don’t kid yourself that even in a recession customers will buy on price alone. Most of all, don’t assume that you can let your customer service standards slide at this time. Customers have long and vivid memories when it comes to poor service.

Consider this

Take some time to reexamine every customer touch point and consider how you can ramp up your service levels:

  • Look at the wording of your ordering information on your website and in your catalogue. Do the style and the tone match your branding? Are there any typos?
  • Review every written communication sent to customers-order confirmation emails, despatch notification emails, responses to queries-and think about how to add value to them. Is the tone right for your customers, or have your agents drifted away from guidelines?
  • Will reduced order volumes enable you to give better service to your customers with shorter waiting times, faster delivery, and improved accuracy?
  • Reconsider your customer processes. Perhaps there’s scope to improve your returns process, for instance.
  • Was call monitoring one of those things that got pushed aside during busier times? It needs to move to the top of the agenda.

Rapport and empathy

During these tougher times, customers need to have the best experience possible. Your contact centre staff are best placed to influence this. Two key attributes need to come to the fore over the next few months: building rapport and empathising. It’s all about the feel-good factor, especially when things have gone wrong.

Having rapport with someone is like being on the same wavelength with them. Sometimes this just happens without any effort at all. But sometimes call centre agents need to put in some spadework to achieve that quality.

The first thing is to get the mindset right. The agent has to be prepared to like the customer and enjoy dealing with the customer. So the starting point is to be friendly and helpful, and to convey this with words and tone of voice. In addition, the agent needs to let his own personality shine through.

Then there are some specific techniques to help the customer feel more comfortable. The agent should always give his own name to the customer and use the customer’s name during the call. It’s the telephone equivalent of smiling and making eye contact. There’s usually scope to establish some common ground, often based on the customer’s choice of product or his location. The customer will often drop clues about his situation, mentioning a holiday, say, or indicating that he’s in a hurry

 An agent can use these details to establish a closer connection to the customer. Rapport is also about responding to the customer in the way that’s best for him, treating him as an individual and not communicating with him and everyone else in exactly the same routine, monotonous way.

Empathy can be seen as a subset of the process of building rapport. Empathy is the ability to understand a situation from someone else’s perspective, and it comes into play most powerfully when dealing with problems. Although specific words and phrases can help to convey empathy (“I understand…”, “I appreciate…”, “I’m sorry that you feel…”), it has to be genuinely felt.

So is empathy a skill that can be taught? I believe that the techniques can be learned, but wanting to empathise with a customer comes from the culture around the agent. Are customers always referred to with respect? What attitudes do members of the top team have toward customers? How far can the agent go with management support to meet customers’ needs and expectations?

When the agent empathises with the customer, the customer knows that he has been listened to and understood. This helps to establish a positive emotional connection between the agent and the customer and can even tip the customer toward a different course of action. For instance, I recently decided to keep an £85 cardigan instead of returning it, because when I raised a quality issue with the agent, she handled it outstandingly well.

If you’re not sure how your agents are doing on the rapport and empathy fronts, take some time to listen to their calls. Consider if what they’re saying and doing would be enough for you if you were the customer.

Don’t be like the company I wrote a three-page complaint letter to three weeks ago that hasn’t even bothered to acknowledge my letter, let alone send me a proper apology for the lousy service I received. If you want to emerge from the recession fighting fit with well-trained staff and a loyal, profitable group of customers, be prepared to invest some time now in reviewing, thinking, planning, and taking action around every crucial point of customer contact.

Yvonne Baxter is principal of Yvonne Baxter Consultancy, which provides contact centre and customer service training ?and solutions.

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