The Customer is Not Always Right

By Tab Norris, Aslan Training

The customer may know what they want, but not always what they need.

Despite the incredible effort companies make to provide all the answers on their websites, along with a number of self-help tools, customers will still make a phone call. Maybe they don’t have a computer. Maybe they tried the website but didn’t have any luck. Maybe they just want to talk to somebody.

Regardless of the reason, people will always call us. And when they do, it’s an opportunity to provide them with levels of service beyond what they were expecting. We want them to be happy. We want them to be loyal to our company. We want them to tell their friends. We want them to keep buying from us. This exceptional service depends on our ability to help the customer with what they need, not just what they want. There are a few simple, but potentially counterintuitive, keys that will increase the odds of reaching this goal with every customer.

Respond to Their First Question the Right Way

Customers try to boil it down for us. Most customers make an attempt to solve problems on their own before subjecting themselves to the phone menu, long waits, and expected mediocre service. Therefore, they typically try to simplify their problem into what they think is a simple question that should get a simple and quick answer. “I have a quick question,” or “What is your return policy?” or “I just want to change the credit card I have on file.”

We really only have three responses to the customer’s initial, simplified question. When a customer makes that initial request or question:

  1. Answer
  2. Ignore
  3. Acknowledge and Get Permission

Review the following three scenarios and think about how the rep’s response affects the customer’s level of satisfaction.

1. Answer

The easiest and most common approach a rep takes in response to a customer’s initial question is simply to answer it. Sometimes, it seems like a simple question, and a rep’s intuition is to just provide a quick answer. For example, the interaction might look like this:

Customer: “Can I book a flight for two people on the same reservation and use two different credit cards?”

Rep: “No, you can’t. I’m sorry.”

Customer: “Okay, I didn’t think so. Thanks.”

Many reps would argue that this was an acceptable call. Probably true. With today’s well-deserved low expectation of service, a simple yes or no answer is what the customer asked for. The problem is this answer doesn’t solve the customer’s problem. They’ll hang up the phone politely, but will still be confused and frustrated that they can’t do what they want to do.

What will they do then? Will they look for another airline that can help? Will they take the train? Or will they just book the ticket anyway, feeling like a hostage to the airline, and later complain to their friends?  Who knows?

But just answering the question seems like we don’t even care.

2. Ignore

Another response is that a rep may inadvertently ignore the customer. In the rep’s mind, they aren’t ignoring. They are trying to help. But unless you tell the customer that, the customer might not be so sure you got it.

Customer: “Can I book a flight for two people on the same reservation and use two different credit cards?”

Rep: “What is your date of travel?”

Customer: “Hold on. I don’t want you to make my reservation for me and pay the $25. I just want to know if there is a way I can use two credit cards on my own.”

Rep: “Yes, but I’m trying to get into the system to see if I can do it.”

Customer: “But I don’t want you to make the reservation. Don’t you know the answer to my question?”

When this happens, several questions pop into my mind: Did you hear me? How does the date of travel make a difference in your answer? Am I talking with a person who can help, or are you going to fill in some online form and then transfer me to a person who can actually add value to me that I will have to start over with?

3. Acknowledge and Get Permission

It’s not just answering a customer’s question or stated need. The key to customer service that gets noticed and creates loyalty is about understanding what they are trying to accomplish and serving their unstated needs.

Customer: “Can I book a flight for two people on the same reservation and use two different credit cards?”

Rep: “There are a few different ways to pay. I’d like to ask you a couple of questions to understand your situation then figure out the best way to help you. Would that be okay?”

Customer: “Sure.”

Rep: “Great. Can you tell me about why you’d like to use two credit cards on your reservation?”

Customer: “Well, I’m traveling on business and bringing my wife with me. I am paying for my ticket with a company credit card, but I want to use a personal credit card for my wife’s ticket. However, I would like to have one reservation so that in case we need to make a change we would only have to pay one change fee.”

Rep: “No problem. When you are ready to book the tickets, I can make two reservations for you, each with a different credit card. Then I can link your reservations as one itinerary in our system. You’d only need to pay one change fee if you need to adjust your plans. I can waive the $25 fee since this is not something you can do online. Does that help?”

Customer: “That’d be great. I’d like to make the reservation now.”

This third approach is the only one that ensures that the rep understands the reason for the customer’s seemingly simple question. By acknowledging that we heard the request and that we can help them, we relieve the customer’s anxiety and let them know that they are in the right place. Only then are they more likely to open up to give us a few more details so we can provide that exceptional service.

It might seem a little strange to ask them if we can ask questions to serve them better – after all, they called us. And they called to have questions answered, not asked. By asking permission, however, we provide customers with a choice while still being able to quickly and delicately establish control of the conversation. If we are in control, we can more effectively and efficiently guide the conversation and ultimately solve their problem. There are some companies that do this well. Most don’t. Greeting customers this way creates an incredibly positive start to their five minute relationship with the rep.

Ask Why (In a Nice Way)

So which questions should you ask? It always depends. If you just clarify their stated needs, it won’t get you to their unstated needs. You need to understand what they are trying to do. Visualize their to-do list. Customers are not calling you because they’re bored. They are trying to get something done. Find out what that is.

The customer may start, “What is the lead time for product X?” After acknowledging and getting their permission, ask, “What are you trying to accomplish?” “Can you tell me a little more about the situation?” “What’s going on?” “What prompted your call?”

Also, save the “What is your account number?” questions until you really need that info. Get into a conversation first. You don’t need their account number to get their name and ask them some questions. Keep your questions open-ended so you don’t get just a one-word answer.

If you are worried a customer might not be sure about why you are asking such a question, you might want to Prime the Question, with an Other-Centered® Reason.  Let the customer know you are not conducting some survey or just filling out your screen. Explain the reason behind the question you’re asking and how their answering it will benefit them. It will help you help them. “To make sure I’m giving you the right information, can you tell me a little more about the situation?”

Don’t Try to Make One Size Fit All

I only call my credit card company if I have to. They are usually helpful and get my request handled efficiently. But they ALWAYS make me that offer at the end. “While I have you on the phone, I want to tell you about a special offer you are eligible for if you’d like a lower interest rate. (Without taking a breath)… the new….”

Why am I the one who feels awkward? The rep is the one keeping me on the phone, pitching me on something I don’t want. But I feel funny interrupting them So I let them finish and have to say, “No, thank you.” Twice.

I’m sure that somebody at my credit card company has done the math.  If they make the offer to 8,643 customers per day with a 1.3 percent conversion rate, that’s 112 credit cards that returns, on average, yearly revenue contribution to my credit card company of $68.43 each.

The problem is, that spreadsheet doesn’t show the 98.7 percent of customers who couldn’t care less. They leave with a bad impression and are less likely to listen to any real offer in the future. (Oh, and if they looked at my account, they would see I don’t carry a balance – so I probably wouldn’t care about the interest rate).

Instead of making the same offer to every customer, make the right offer to customers, when it’s appropriate. Many times, you’ve helped them and there’s no reason to talk about other products you offer.  They are happy with what they have, and it works for them.

Sometimes, though, after you’ve asked a few questions, you may find out that their unstated need would be met with an additional product, service, or upgrade. Start every offer with “Based on what you told me, you might benefit from understanding a little more about X. Would you like me to tell you about it?” Presenting an offer this way and asking the customer’s permission ensures that they are an open and willing participant. This makes them much more likely to buy while ensuring no customer gets upset because they were pitched something that wasn’t relevant to them.  After all, you are just trying to help.

Doing these things can have a big impact. For example, recently, one of my clients in the energy business shared the impact of making this change, instead of just answering the question and giving the price of oil/propane when asked.

It seems to be a common practice for competitors to regularly call each other as mystery shoppers to find out their current price for oil/propane. A few months after my client’s company changed their approach, one of their competitors had to confess on the call. “Hey, what has happened over there? I’ve been calling for years to get the price of oil and propane. Now you are trying to help me and ask me questions. It’s making it hard for me to lie.”

This approach works.

So, good luck in making your changes. Help your customers cross off their to-do lists and they’ll keep coming back over and over again. n

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