Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Is the Customer Always Right?

The answer is definitely "no." We all know that. The reason? What I like to call "wrong understanding" based on the first step of the Buddha's Eightfold Path.

The customer might think they are right, but without a right understanding of the situation, it is difficult for them to know the truth. This is why I like to say that, "the customer is always right - in their own mind." That's not to denigrate the customer, but to make the point that customers do not always know what goes on 'behind the scenes' and that's why customer service professionals must educate them when necessary.

A good example of this comes from my time with a local electric utility company where we'd have the occasional power outages due to storms, accidents, or equipment failure. During widespread outages, we'd get calls from customers complaining about crews “just sitting” in their trucks doing nothing. Or, they would approach a crew and demand they fix their problem next. It didn't work that way – but the customers didn't know that.

When I arrived at the company, the standard responses were “they're taking a break” (which doesn't sit well with customers whose power has been out for several days) or “the crew has their next assignment already.” Needless to say, this increased the frustration in an already stressful situation and local media featured interviews of irate customers complaining about their service. A drastic change in direction was needed.

After months of meetings, a decision was made to educate our customers about the storm restoration process. This process, of course, had to start with the call center representatives who take the brunt of the complaints during these outages. You see, they were kept “in the dark” as much as the customers. They had no idea how the storm restoration process worked and instead took guesses or made generalizations based on the scant information they had received over the years.

Training programs were developed to teach the representatives how the storm restoration process worked and the safety-related measures crews were required to follow. Now, instead of being told a crew was “on a break,” the customer was told the crew was taking a required safety “stand down.” In fact, many representatives used their newly-acquired knowledge to explain that stand downs were necessary since crews often worked long days around dangerous voltage levels and needed to maintain a high level of alertness. Representatives were even able to quote company safety statistics showing a decrease in injuries since the requirement went into effect. Everyone wants their loved one to come home from work safely, and customers are no exception. By rephrasing and restating the situation, we were able to reach out to the customer and involve them in the process - they understood and were therefore more accepting of the situation.

As for crews working assigned jobs, call center representatives were able to explain the prioritization process to customers and give them a good idea of when their power would be restored. Instead of a seemingly random assignment of work (on which rumors of restoring power to the wealthier neighborhoods first was born out of ignorance), customers understood that power lines feeding emergency facilities were repaired first and from there, lines were repaired based on the number of customers served by that circuit

Within a few years of implementing this training, people were praising the company's work on news reports and giving workers “high fives” when company trucks rolled into their neighborhoods. What a difference a little information makes.

Wrong understanding works both ways. Take the time to educate your customer and don't assume they know the company's systems and operating procedures. If you need to put them on hold to process a transaction, or make a few calls to other stores to check on stock, advise the customer of this instead of just telling them to hold – or worse, asking them if they can hold and not waiting for an answer. Let your customer know you're on the same side. Training, of course, is key. Uninformed customer service professionals bring about uninformed, and often angry, customers. And what do angry customers do? That's right, they take their business elsewhere.

So, if you are a customer service professional, take the time to inform and educate your customer. If you are in management, make sure your front-line representatives are armed with the knowledge they need to do this.

Tashi Delek!

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