Dealing With Customer Service In Eight Easy Lessons, None Of Which Involve A Machete

I won’t go into the sordid details which prompted me to write this post. Suffice to say that if you’re a traveller, an expat, a parent, a member of civilisation, or a person who occasionally orders things off the internet and later expects them to be delivered, at some point you’ll find yourself dealing with Customer Service.

Until last week, I felt less than competent in this area, but having just helped a newb grapple with a conundrum the likes of which happen pretty much all the time, I suddenly realise my sense of incompetence stems from the demoralising nature of the task, and not from an actual lack of know-how. In fact I have a moderate amount of know-how gleaned from both sides of the customer service equation, and I will summarise it here. Please feel free to fill in the gaps, share alternative experiences, or go all Advanced-Customer-Service Fu on my itty little backside.

Dealing with Customer Service in Eight Easy Lessons (none of which involve a machete) | Journeys of the Fabulist

Kite refers to what I would often prefer to suggest.

Before You Start – Understanding Your Customer Service Agent

Contrary to cliche, your customer service agent wants to help you. It’s just that she/he also wants to please the boss (who wants to please his or her boss, and at some point maybe also the shareholders), sort out other customers, keep a job, have an ok day at work, and maybe, at some perfectly reasonable point, clock off and go home.

LESSON NUMBER ONE: your best chance of resolving your problem is to align as many of these goals as possible. If helping you means screwing over other customers, getting into trouble with the boss, or putting up with harassment, things are less likely to go in your favour. Sometimes conflicts between one goal and another can’t be helped, but mostly, yes they can.

This will work better:

Customer: Hi there. I’m looking for a certain product and/or service. Do you usually offer it, or a suitable alternative? If not, would you consider offering it for a mutually agreeable fee or do you know somebody who would?

This will be less effective:

Customer: Hi there. I’m looking to make the whole world revolve around me in ways that are unreasonable or, perhaps, scientifically impossible. Can I abuse you and your colleagues while all your other customers stand, neglected, in the queue behind me?

Never Ask To Speak To A Supervisor

Unfortunately it’s often true that your customer service agent wants to help you, but they are poorly trained or otherwise powerless. When this becomes clear to you, you will be tempted to ask to speak to a supervisor. I have rarely had any success asking to speak to a supervisor and do not recommend it. 

When you ask to speak to a supervisor you immediately come across as the type of adversarial customer your agent’s supervisor will probably hate them for referring through, and your agent will therefore actively work to prevent you from speaking to anyone about anything, including (if possible) themselves for a moment longer. In any case, the customer service agent’s powerlessness may extend to not being allowed to transfer you to any higher authority until they have completed their script.

LESSON TWO: in my experience, the quickest way through is to stick patiently to the script. When the customer service agent gets to the end of it, they’ll not only be “allowed” to call on a supervisor, the script may automatically prompt them to do so.

This way is faster:

Customer: Hi! I’m having a problem getting hot water to come out of one of my taps. The hot water system is fine because all the other taps are dispensing hot water. I’ve been using taps all my life and this particular one for about five years and I usually have no problems with it.

Service: Well let’s see. Have you tried twisting your tap so that there is water coming out of it?

Customer: Yes, I’ve done that.

Service: Have you checked to make sure the “on” tap is the “hot” tap?

Customer: Yes.

Service: Have you turned the hot tap on by itself, when the cold tap is definitely not on?

Customer: Yep.

Service: And you’re absolutely sure you didn’t have both taps on at once, but the cold one on harder? Can you double check that for me right now?

Customer: Absolutely. Give me a moment…. Ok…. Both taps are off. I’ve located the tap with the red on it, which usually dispenses hot water. Now I’m turning that one on while leaving the blue tap alone…. and…. still cold…. nope…. just cold.

Service: Thanks for checking that for me. I’m going to pass you on to my supervisor.

This way, believe it or not, is usually slower:

Customer: Hi! I’m having a problem getting hot water to come out of one of my taps. The hot water system is fine because all the other taps are dispensing hot water. I’ve been using taps all my life and this particular one for about five years and I usually have no problems with it.

Service: Well let’s see. Have you tried twisting your tap so that there is water coming out of it?

Customer: Alright, I know how to use a tap, okay? Can I speak to your supervisor?

Of course, sometimes your customer service agent will complete their script without either solving your problem or being prompted to hand over to someone who knows what they’ re doing. In this case, I still don’t recommend asking for a supervisor.

LESSON THREE: when escalation is required but not offered, I have better luck if I ask the kind of leading questions which “magically” cause people to come to my conclusions “all by themselves”.

Like this:

Service: Ok. So you’ve confirmed that the tap is on, that it’s the right tap, and that there’s no interference from water running out of the adjacent cold tap. I’m going to give you the number for a hot water system expert.

Customer: Alright, that’s super. Can I just ask, though – if the hot water system is broken, is it usually specific to just one tap, or does it affect all the taps linked to the broken system?

Service: Uh, I’m not sure. Can I put you on hold? [hold music] Alright are you there? Yes, usually if the hot water system is broken, all the taps linked to that system will be affected.

Customer: Ok, so in this case, where they’re all working fine except this one tap, are we thinking it’s just a really really unusual type of hot water system problem, or is it more likely to be something to do with that tap?

Service: Um… ok, I’m going to transfer you to my supervisor.

Customer: Thanks so much.

As opposed to this:

Service: Ok. So you’ve confirmed that the tap is on, that it’s the right tap, and that there’s no interference from water running out of the adjacent cold tap. I’m going to give you the number for a hot water system expert.

Customer: But it’s not a problem with the hot water system.

Service: In a case where the tap is on, it’s the right tap, and there’s no interference from water running out of the adjacent cold tap, the most likely cause of the problem is a broken hot water system.

Customer: But- Ok, look. Can I just speak to a supervisor?

One Question Only

It doesn’t matter how clearly you speak or how well you format your emails, your average customer service agent will only deal with one question at a time. If you ask more than one, they will simply choose whichever is the most fun to answer, and ignore the rest.

If, for example, you write the following email enquiry (including all formatting):

Dear Customer Service Agent,

Hi! I was just browsing your website, and I’d like to ask THREE questions about your product before I place my order.

1. How much would it cost to order a single unit and have it shipped to Singapore?

2. Does it come in other colours? (I’m not too fussy but I wanted to ask just in case.)

3. If I order within the next forty-eight hours, will it be delivered within the next two weeks? This is really important because it’s a gift for my older sister, who will be leaving in two weeks on a humanitarian mission to treat victims of a highly contagious and very deadly disease, and may never return.

Regards,

Me

You will typically get the following response:

Dear Me,

Thank you for your recent enquiry. We are pleased to advise that our product is available in three colours: red, green, and magenta.

We look forward to serving you,

Customer Service Agent

LESSON FOUR: for smaller companies with few customer service agents, choose your most important question and ask that first. Upon reply, you may follow up with your second question, and so on. If you are writing to a large company with hundreds of customer service agents, consider writing each question into a separate, simultaneous email.

Same Same, Not Different

Just because two things are functionally or in some other way equivalent, doesn’t mean they’re the same. I mean it sort of does from many viewpoints, but not (importantly) from the viewpoint of your typical customer service agent.

LESSON FIVE: Do as you’re told. Exactly and precisely as you’re told.

If you find yourself thinking this:

Customer: I know they said I should send a detailed autobiography, prints of all ten fingers, retinal scans, and a cheek swab for DNA processing, but surely for their purposes it would be ok if I sent a detailed autobiography, prints of all my currently attached fingers, retinal scans, and a cheek swab for DNA processing?

You should probably change your tune to this:

Customer: Autobiography – check. Retinal scans – check. Cheek swab – check. Now I just have to track down the finger I accidentally chopped off in tenth grade so I can get its print and I’ll be able to open a local bank account.

Basic Record Keeping

Any problem which is not resolved within TWO exchanges needs to be carefully documented. This is not only so you can keep track of who said what to whom when, but also so you can use the magic of copy and paste to ease the email writing process.

Wrong:

Customer: I’ve been trying to resolve this for months! I must have spoken to fifty different people! Why doesn’t anyone seem to know what’s going on?

Not wrong:

Customer: I’ve been trying to resolve this since roughly 10:30am (GMT) on the the 16th of June. So far, I’ve spoken to Cindy, Cecil, Darren, Doreen, and Ferdinand. A summary of these discussions follows…

LESSON SIX: Be the person who knows what’s going on. It’s foolish to rely on the other party. Write down the date, time, method of communication, name of person with whom you communicated, questions asked, answers given, and actions taken.

Where To Stick Your Opinion

Anybody who can get sidetracked from telling you how much something costs and whether it can be expected to reach you before your sister goes off to face certain death is going to derail rapidly if you so much as question their tone of voice.

LESSON SEVEN: stick to the point. Keep your opinions to yourself until after you’ve solved the problem. Then give everyone all your opinions. Detailed and specific observations on what went well in a customer service experience are just as helpful and much better appreciated than constructive, yet negative criticisms. But at the very least, don’t burn your bridges with a long rant until you’re sure you’re done.

Your customer service agent will stay on track more easily if you say:

Customer: So you’re not sure which documents I need, who I should give them to, whether I should really be wearing this tie with this shirt, or if there’s any ongoing point to existence. But you can tell me you’ve lost my passport. What do you think the best solution would be here?

But will completely drop the ball in order to focus on the fact that you actually sent them *too many* fingerprints if you say:

Customer: So you’re not sure which documents I need, who I should give them to, whether I should really be wearing this tie with this shirt, or if there’s any ongoing point to existence. But you can tell me you’ve lost my passport. Well, in my opinion this whole operation is a farce. And I am not a big fan of the genre.

Take Two

Most companies, even small ones, have more than one customer service agent, and often they don’t communicate very well with each other.

LESSON EIGHT: when all else fails, it can be worth simply starting again with a different person to see if you can get a better outcome.

It’s incredible how often this gets results:

Customer: I see. Well, thanks anyway, Company X Representative. I appreciate your time.

Customer: [beep bip boop bip bap] Hello? Is this Company X? Yes, I have a problem and I wonder if you can help me out…

Go on. Tell me your secrets. Especially the customer-service or bureaucracy-related ones (and the really juicy ones). I am also seeking comments on any subject in rhyme.

 

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