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Why Employees Say the Wrong Thing to Customers

By Jeff Toister on Apr 23, 2019 06:45 am

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We've all heard an employee say something cringeworthy when explaining an unfriendly policy or procedure to a customer.

  • "It's our policy, there's nothing I can do about it."

  • "That's not my department, you have to talk to someone else."

  • "You have to do it this way. It's our procedure."

These unfriendly statements frustrate customers, and it feels like common sense to avoid making such prickly statements. So why do employees say these things?

The answer may surprise you. Employees often say the wrong thing because that's exactly what they've been trained to do.

Angry contact center agent.

How Policies Get Shared

The new customer service manager admonished her team for saying the wrong thing to employees in a department-wide email. Here are some excerpts:

Team,

I need each of you to reply to this email after you read it acknowledging that you understand what I expect, that you will adhere, and what the consequences will be if these expectations are not followed. 

Notice the demanding tone. The email goes on to list forbidden statements, such as "I don't know," and "I can't help you." Then it describes the type of tone that should be used.

Your tone needs to be professional and upbeat. I do not want to hear dull, sad, or bored tones when talking to a customer.

The email concludes with a threat of consequences if employees say the wrong thing.

[Supervisor] and I will be listening to calls to ensure that you are following the protocol. If we find that you are not following the protocol stated here expect to receive a verbal warning the first time. Expect to receive a written warning the second time. A third time may result in termination of your current position.

Ouch. Given this leader's communication style, it's no wonder employees struggled to be professional and upbeat when serving customers. We tend to follow the examples set by our leaders.

While this may be an extreme example, think about how you generally communicate policies to your team. Is your communication positive or is it couched in negativity?

Managers often share new policies by emphasizing the negatives:

  • The policy must be followed, no exceptions!

  • The policy is enacted to solve a problem caused by a bad customer or employee.

  • There will be sanctions for not following the policy.

These same managers are often unprepared when employees question the reasoning behind a new policy or procedure. Some just shrug and say, "I didn't make the decision, I just have to enforce it." Others will share a very corporate reasons such as "We were losing money because customers were starting to abuse the old policy."

These leaders are unconsciously engaging in the very same behaviors they'd like their employees to avoid.

I once sat in a customer service manager's office while she ranted about her dislike for the phrase, "No problem." She felt it was unprofessional and didn't like her employees using it.

An employee walked into her office to ask a question. The manager answered and when the employee thanked her, the manager reflexively replied, "No problem!"

Yeah, that was awkward.

Training Your Employees to Say the Right Thing

Let's say you find a tactful way to ask your employees to avoid certain negative words and phrases when serving a customer. You even find a way to avoid using them yourself.

So what do you want your employees to say instead?

It's not enough to tell employees what they shouldn't do. An effective leader needs to help employees understand what they should do.

Here's an exercise called "Say this, not that" from the book, The Effortless Experience, by Matthew Dixon, Nick Toman, and Rick DeLisi. I've used it with customer service teams and it's always both empowering and a lot of fun.

  1. Gather the team and list tricky situations where you might say the wrong thing.

  2. Just for fun, list some of the things you should definitely not say.

  3. Now brainstorm some acceptable alternatives.

  4. Ask everyone to experiment with them for a week.

  5. Gather again the next week to share how the new ideas worked (or didn't).

Whenever I've run this exercise, we've had a lot of fun coming up with the list of things not to say. After a few laughs, the group always comes up with some terrific ideas for what to say in those situations.

They leave the exercise feeling empowered and eager to say the right thing.


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