Customer service is a give and take. We want our customers to be extremely satisfied with our services, but we also need to be good stewards of our organizational resources. We have a responsibility to those who provide us with employment, but also a responsibility to those people who make that employment possible in the first place. We cannot always provide customers with everything they are requesting. It stands to reason then, that negotiation is an essential skill for customer service professionals.
Not all customer requests are reasonable. In my recent post “The Entitlement Mentality – Customer Service in the Era of High Expectations,” I discuss, in part, the current culture of entitlement (whether real or perceived) and the effect that culture has on customer service. Specifically, customers are expecting more from our organizations and we cannot always deliver. On occasion, we must say ‘no’ to customers for a wide variety of reasons. Perhaps the customer is requesting free or reduced-cost services that are not warranted and would result in a significant loss for the company. Perhaps a customer is requesting an exception from standard operating policy that could potentially lead to a slippery slope. Perhaps a customer is requesting actions that are blatantly illegal! In any of these situations, the customer’s satisfaction depends on our ability to negotiate a successful compromise between what is best for the customer and what is best for the company.
There are many tips and tricks to successful negotiation, I would like to focus on one in particular – persistence.
When we are dealing with demanding customers, persistence is essential to jointly positive outcomes. In these situations, persistence refers to the ability to firmly reiterate your capabilities with patience and through a variety of methods. In my previous post, “Meeting the Demand – Do We Support the Culture of Complaining?” I discuss how time is a key component to successful mediation. Angry customers require more energy than passive ones. The longer a customer is on the phone, the greater your ability to encourage calm, open communication.
It is nearly impossible to establish a mutually beneficial resolution to problems when one party is severely emotional. The expectation for these situations must be that the requisite amount of time will be spent speaking with the customer until they are calm enough to speak rationally. Depending on the customer, this could easily be 30 minutes to an hour before any meaningful attempt at resolution can be initiated. For this reason, I encourage all organizations to hire a professional ‘customer anger advocate’ who is transferred all calls from angry customers to be yelled at until the customer grows weary with exhaustion. (Okay, not really, but if you’re in customer service I bet some version of this thought has crossed your mind!)
Persistent is key for another reason as well. The development of the customer service structure over the years has led to a place where customers know that the first person they speak to can rarely provide the maximum level of concessions. The phrase, “I’d like to speak to your manager,” has become the go-to starting line for displeased customers in almost every situation.
I recently encountered a customer who was displeased with the services that we were able to provide. This customer was under no obligation to use our business and could have easily gone elsewhere for the services he was seeking. Instead, he yelled at the customer service representative, hung up, and then called back and asked to speak to the CEO. There was no progressive escalation and we were not granted the opportunity to address the customers concerns.
To be clear, we had not performed any services for this customer and he was not complaining about poor performance on our part. He was upset that we did not offer the service he desired in the manner in which he desired it. His reaction was akin to contacting the CEO of Baskin Robbins because they were not currently stocking your favorite flavor of ice cream. Given the circumstances, most rational people would likely consider his reaction extreme.
This customer was in fact transferred to the CEO’s office. I am not certain how much time was spent by senior management listening to this customer complain that we could not provide the service he desired. The interesting fact is that there was a process in place to address and provide support for the customer’s specific concern and the customer service agent was attempting to initiate that process with the customer when he hung up. In the end, the customer went through this process and received the service he was seeking.
Customer access to upper management is increasing, and from a purely financial standpoint, an hour of customer service rep time is not equivalent to an hour of Executive Vice President time. Our customer service reps must be persistent with customer interactions to minimize and/or avoid escalation whenever possible. Otherwise, we support a system where upper management is unable to perform the tasks for which they have been hired. This brings us to the issue of employee empowerment – but that is a topic for another discussion!
Leave a comment below regarding your thoughts on customer negotiation – and thanks for reading!