Bringing Heart Back to Customer Service

There are multiple truths that we are faced with in customer relations. One, in our fast-paced world, there are increased sources of pressure and one is required to develop internal and external “systems” of dealing with it. Yet in dealing with the pressure we are called to behave with decorum, maintain relationships and leave the other person better off than when our interaction started.

Two, with the increased businesses there is an increasing and absolute need for the best possible customer service. Even the most advanced of business will confirm that no matter how perfect a CRM solution, human beings will always be central to serving customers and resolving issues.

The reality that both the customers and service desk crew are human beings presents us with a need to make sure that the pressure that builds up between the two is dealt with amicably and without leaving anyone with a bitter taste.

The human mind, when dealing with one crisis after another after another, tends to build defensive mechanisms as a way of cushioning one for the long haul. The end result sometimes becomes a numbing effect which leads to lethargy. If left unchecked, the fatigue, laziness, disenfranchisement and indifference towards customers will have an impact on your bottom line due to untoward customer handling.

A few signs that will tell you if your staff are lethargic towards your customers include:

Long time to resolve simple customer issues

Increased customer complaints over small issues

Deliberate refusal to deal with customer issues by passing the buck

Management not being informed of challenges until they blow out of proportion

Non-retention of customers

Lack of repeat or referral business

Reduced number of new accounts/ customers Increased arguments and discontent among sales staff due to shrinking pipeline of prospects

Different managers react differently to any or a combination of these signs. Sometimes, the reaction is to call for interdepartmental meetings to resolve the issues.

In such meetings, staff members are sometimes bashed in a blame game, brainstorming is conducted, ultimatums are issued, methods of carrot and stick are devised, and action plans are drawn all in a bid to resolve the customer dissatisfaction that has led to a very visible impact on the top or bottom line.

While all these measures are good and work to some extent, it is obvious that they would be treating the symptoms as opposed to dealing with the root cause.

Building empathy into customer relationship management requires us to understand our team members and ensure that we build ownership for and their contribution to customer satisfaction into their performance measurement tools.

Role Swaps

I recently watched an episode of the program Undercover Boss in which the supervisor of a customer service department confessed to the CEO that the department was considered as the bottom of the pile hence not important. The situation was so bad that their complaints of using an outdated CRM software always fell on deaf ears. One of the measures that result in an attitude and cultural change is to swap people within the firm such that once in a while, the back-office teams are put up front to have direct interaction with the customer. The result of such is a great awakening for most people with confirmations by statements like, “I will never take for granted what it takes to keep one of our customers happy.” The next time that a customer calls, such a staff member will be careful on how to respond to the customer – it will not be all about policy and systems.

Experiential Training

A grand mistake that many corporates make is to reserve the customer service training to the customer relations and the sales departments with the reasoning that only these team members interact with the customers daily. How about the credit control/ accounts team that goes into issues of collecting outstanding debt? How about the personal assistants to the company officials? How about the cleaners and tea service teams that make sure the company offices are sparkling and tea is served at the right temperature in the right way? Theoretical training must be reduced for the sake of experiential training.

This is whereby within the training, attendants do role plays in simulations of real customer service scenarios. The simulations are packed with some of the emotions and characteristics that play out daily in the service delivery e.g. how the staff handle an enraged customer whose product was damaged in transit or it hasn’t been made to the agreed specifications. Or a customer whose bill appears to be inflated or it wasn’t what he expected. Or simulate a staff member who has to deal with an irate customer just after signing divorce papers, or soon after learning that everyone in the department got a raise in salary except them. It is in such role plays that people’s mind-sets are changed and when they get back to their office stations, it is most likely that they will begin to handle customers better.

Fifteen Seconds of Madness

Fifteen seconds is a long time to hold your breath underwater. Yet in customer service, it is the time that can make a difference between losing a customer or retaining a customer and solving their problem. As we run our consultancy, we advise colleagues and clients alike to always let the aggrieved party talk and, in the meantime, take fifteen seconds to listen out for the real issue that comes out in the barrage of words that are spoken.

It requires one to have patience and self-control to endure the fifteen seconds, but the results are usually positive. In the fifteen seconds, we have to be careful not to come out as being patronizing and most of the time a customer can pick it in our voice or actions when we are simply playing out the company’s standard of responding to a customer complaint or when we are being genuine about our empathy.

Visualized Customer Service

The challenge that growing companies have when it comes to resolving customer complaints is that there is no structure in customer service. No telephone etiquette, no structured way of escalating customer complaints, no unified course of dealing with the customer complaints. In such organizations, you will find two customers with the same complaint being sorted out differently. You will find two sales executives answering the company phone in two different ways “Hello, good morning, this is company B, my name is EF, how may I help you?” while the other sales executive answers, “Hallo?”

Companies must endeavor to have unified customer service standards that are like second nature to their employees. This is while giving staff room to apply their unique positive attributes to the interaction with customer. The culture of the organization should be such that empathy statements come out almost naturally with the staff. It will then be commonplace to hear statements like, “Oh. That must have been very inconveniencing for you. We are truly sorry that …” or “I know how that must have looked to your superiors” etc.

A Work Ethic of Reciprocity

Have you ever driven in one of the cities that are heavily infested by traffic jams? Sometimes it happens that a driver cuts in front of you so badly and you feel like you could throw a shoe at them; then a few metres later another driver cuts them off and, in your mind, you can’t help but say something like “serves you right!” There is always some emotion that runs in the background when we treat others the way we would like to be treated and applying it enables us to make a connection with them at almost personalized levels.

Empathy is about reciprocity. It costs us nothing but good human nature to treat others as if we are the ones in their shoes. We are all someone’s customer and we are all someone’s service provider and so day in day out we will wear both of these shoes.

Somehow, the two roles will always influence each other, and we need to be careful that our customer service is equivalent to what we would like to receive.

By way of conclusion, it is important to know that empathetic employees are a great complement to any CRM software. They give organizations a heart and customers love to patronize organizations that care or genuinely value them and the business they bring.


“Everyone can make a difference. Success is built on good relationships. You must continually create value for others and it doesn’t have to cost anything. You can reinvent yourself whenever you want.”

For more insights to help with the dynamic issues around customer relations we recommend the book “The Benefits of Combining Data with Empathy Ritu Agarwal and Peter Weill”

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