Good customer service is something we cherish. Think back to your latest amazing customer service experience. Maybe the rep gave you a refund with no questions asked or quickly solved a technical issue. You probably remembered it because it’s not always the norm, and there is a perception that great customer service has been harder to find.
A recent NBC poll found that 75% of respondents believe customer experience has worsened after the pandemic, with 78% saying they’ve had to contact a company multiple times to obtain a resolution. Most said they had to wait 30 minutes or longer for an agent when placing a customer service call. Overall customer satisfaction has been on a steep decline since 2018.
To understand how you can improve your odds of great customer service, you must first understand the challenges customer service reps face. Once you can empathize with them, you can better understand how to get good customer service.
Excellent customer service isn’t easy
Any customer service rep will tell you that almost no one contacts customer service because they’re happy. Customers are already irritated by a problem; otherwise, they wouldn’t take time out of their day. That immediately sets the interaction off on a bad foot.
Search TikTok or YouTube for “customer service,” and you get a stream of customer service reps recording themselves being screamed at or otherwise abused. You’ll also find funny videos and customer service memes of customer service reps blowing off steam in creative ways.
This isn’t merely an anecdotal observation. A 2020 study by Cornell University cites “call center agent” as one of the ten most stressful jobs in the world, with 77% of survey respondents reporting high or very high levels of personal stress and 87% reporting high or very high stress in their jobs. Over 50% of respondents reported being prescribed medication to alleviate stress and anxiety.
Earlier this year, Jeff Toister of Toister Performance Solutions and author of The Service Culture Handbook surveyed 951 customer service agents on their burnout risk. 59% of agents are at risk of burnout, while 28% face a severe risk of burnout.
That’s a sobering statistic, but there is a bright spot. Compared to his 2016 survey, there was a 15 percentage point reduction in overall burnout risk and a 2 percentage point reduction in severe burnout risk.
What caused the reduction in burnout risk? Toister has a theory.
“The hypothesis is that burnout is still high. But we’re also more aware of it. And when you’re more aware of it, sometimes it gets a little bit better,” Toister says.
The first step in solving a problem is becoming aware of it, and as awareness has grown, customer service leaders have grown more supportive.
“There’s a higher percentage of agents overall that are reporting their company is customer focused. More agents are saying, ‘Hey, I’m empowered to do more than I have been in the past.’ That’s a big improvement,” Toister says.
Good customer service is more challenging
In the wake of the pandemic, customer service reps have to wear more hats. Per Forbes:
“Instead of being able to focus on doing their jobs well, frontline employees have been forced into new roles. They don’t just answer customer questions or sell products—now they are security guards, mask mandate enforcers, listening ears and bearers of bad news.”
Customers are angry, frustrated, and stressed; unfortunately, customer service agents often take the brunt of it. From The New York Times:
“Have you seen a man in his 60s have a full temper tantrum because we don’t have the expensive imported cheese he wants?” said the employee, Anna Luna, who described the mood at the store, in Minnesota, as “angry, confused and fearful.”
“You’re looking at someone and thinking, ‘I don’t think this is about the cheese.’”
“The customer uses words like ‘you’ to describe the issue they’re having with the organization, but the rep is not the person—most of the time—who caused the problem. And so it’s hard to feel like a human punching bag when you’re on the frontlines of customer service,” Toister says.
“Endocrine systems get fried. There’s too much cortisol, you’ve been running on adrenaline, eventually you tap out. Everyone feels nuts right now because what on earth are we supposed to do with the fact that we’ve had this incredible rate of change for so long. We think we’re keeping up with it, but our bodies are like, ‘Oh, actually no. We have no idea what’s going on.’ ”
Everyone is having a hard time right now, and it’s important to remember that in our day-to-day interactions. Practice patience, kindness, and understanding when interacting with others. A rule we have here at TextExpander is to always assume the best intentions of each other, which helps avoid misunderstandings.
Customer service teams are short-staffed
As customer service has grown more challenging, fewer people want to fill the role.
You’re probably no stranger to the term The Great Resignation, but it’s a very real phenomenon. If you lead a team, it’s important to keep in mind that up to 87% of your team members could be willing to leave at any time.
“CSRs are increasingly leaving en masse, presenting increased problems across a multitude of business aspects. Leaders must recognize these high levels of attrition will negatively impact remaining staff, harm the customer experience and perhaps lead to even higher attrition rates in the future,” says Deborah Alvord, Senior Director Analyst at Gartner.
Unfortunately, understaffing puts more stress on the remaining team. However, there are opportunities there. Many companies have turned to chatbots to reduce the load.
If a chatbot doesn’t effectively handle the issue, not only is it an escalation, it’s an escalation where the customer is now annoyed by the bot and that makes the agent’s job harder,” Toister says.
“But on the other hand, I think some of the more repetitive type of requests—the less interesting type of requests—those are taken off the agent’s plate. And maybe for a lot of agents, their work becomes a bit more interesting,” Toister says.
“And so what that leads to is [customer service reps are] a little bit more engaged with each interaction than if they’re answering the same question over and over and over again,” Toister adds.
Customer service agents do care
When dealing with customer service, it’s important to understand that reps want to help you solve your problems, and they’re often emotionally invested in it, contributing to high burnout risk.
“What the research is really clear on is customer service reps do not have a motivation problem. This is kind of a fallacy of customer service. Leadership will say, ‘I need to motivate my team. No, you do not,’ Toister says.
Rather, Toister says, the challenge for managers is not to demotivate their teams. Agents come into the job highly motivated, but many experience a drop-off after training is finished.
“They came to work optimistic that this is going to be a great environment,” Toister adds.
Provide that great environment, and you’ll keep your teams motivated. One way you can do that is by creating and enforcing employee-centric values like the ones we have here at TextExpander.
Toister says that many new agents find it hard to access the information they need and tire of typing the same messages over and over again, two problems that TextExpander solves.
Good customer service is a two-way street
With all that established, let’s address the original question: How can you get great customer service?
“One, be pleasant. I know sometimes you get upset, you’re angry, or you just assume that the other person is there to serve you. But that’s not how human interactions really work. So if you’re pleasant, you’re kind, and you treat the other person with respect, it’s human nature for them to want to serve you better,” Toister says.
Another key is clear communication.
“In many cases, as customers, we don’t do a particularly good store job of telling our story. We make it unnecessarily difficult for service providers to serve us. And so if we can focus on being really, really clear in our communication, making it easier for them to serve us, then I think we’ll probably get better and faster service,” Toister says.
“Support is a two-way street, to give great support, I also need detailed information, the more I know, the better I can help. I’ll always try my best but there is only so much I can do with ‘Help! It’s not working.’,” says Vince Crighton, the support team lead at TextExpander.
Toister’s first two points may seem obvious, but his third point may surprise you: give up some control.
“In customer service interactions, there’s often a fight for control between the customer and the employee. Both want to be on top at times,” Toister says.
“And if we give up control and we show respect to the person who’s serving us, not only do you demonstrate respect, but you also take away that tension, and in many cases, you’re more likely to get the help that you were looking for,” Toistery continues.
The idea, Toister says, is to demonstrate, “Hey, I know you’re an expert. Here’s what I’m trying to achieve. What do you think is the best way to do it?”
“The same skills that we would use serving our customers you should use when you’re a customer yourself. Customer service, ultimately, is a two-way street,” Toister says.
In our next installment, we’ll discuss ways that customer service leaders can reduce stress and burnout for their agents and reduce turnover costs.