Earlier this year, I fought for seven months to get an issue resolved with a customer service team. Every couple of weeks, I’d muster up the energy to call the same number and wait on hold until someone answered.
Nearly every time I called, I spoke with a different agent. I’d have to start from the beginning of my story and walk each agent through my dilemma. Each time, I was met with different attitudes, responses, and levels of engagement. Most agents didn’t care to actually solve my problem. Some were clearly not listening to me. It wasn’t until I landed on an agent who listened to my problem and said she’d do whatever it took to fix it, that my issue was finally resolved.
It was an incredibly frustrating experience.
Unfortunately, most people you talk to probably have a similar story. But why is this so common? How can your experience as a customer vary so drastically between agents?
Some of the difference lives in agents’ diverse personalities. But with the right training and encouragement, most contact center agents can become effective and efficient communicators.
Positive experiences with a contact center agent go a long way. In fact, 73% of customers will stay loyal to a company if they encounter friendly customer service agents.
On the flip side, 82% of customers leave a company because of poor customer service.
How you handle an issue often matters more than the issue itself.
Customer service is a tough job… and it can be hard to stay positive if you’re having a bad day and get a few disgruntled customers in a row. But if a customer is uncomfortable with an agent’s tone of voice or feels like he’s not being heard, it puts the entire customer experience in jeopardy.
Customer loyalty depends a lot on strong customer service. So it’s important to walk alongside your agents, celebrate their strengths, and work through their weaknesses.
Here are five contact center communication skills every agent should master.
1. Making a good first impression
On average, people have only seven seconds to make a good first impression. That means your agent’s greeting is vital in creating a positive customer experience.
One of the simplest ways an agent can personalize the greeting is to ask for the customer’s name. Answering the phone or a live chat with a cheerful greeting and addressing the customer by name sets the tone for the rest of the conversation. (Unfortunately, only 21% of contact center agents do this.)
Coach your agents to be conversational with their customers. Share guidelines and tips on greetings and phrases to say (plus what not to say).
But ditch the scripts. Customers know when an agent is being inauthentic. Starting a conversation that lacks authenticity can diminish customer trust. And sometimes, it even makes customers mistake live agents for your IVR. So encourage your agents to greet customers casually.
Help your agents be casual, relaxed, and empathetic at the start of every new conversation. And, encourage them to take a moment of mindfulness before kicking off their next string of customer conversations. Set trigger thresholds to help your agents ID when it’s time to press pause. Maybe automate a moment of mindfulness after every 15 customer interactions. When the threshold’s met, your system inserts a microlearning lesson on mindfulness into your agent’s queue, so they can breathe and reframe their mindset ahead of their next conversation.
2. Listen more than you speak
Your agents likely hear the same complaint four, five, six times a day. And when that happens, it’s easy to check out and stop listening. Especially if they’re working hard to meet their Average Handle Time metric.
If they’ve heard the problem before, they already know the answer, right?
Possibly, but if agents assume they already know the customer’s question, they’ll also assume they already know the answer. This attitude can often lead to more confusion and frustration. And sometimes, this makes finding a resolution take even longer (which is no good for hitting call time metrics).
Plus, customers know almost immediately when they’re not being heard.
The best agents listen actively to hear what customers have to say, without interrupting them. Even if agents think they know the answer, listening and responding positively to the customer makes all the difference in how the experience turns out.
Guide your agents to ask clarifying questions to understand the issue from the customer’s perspective–not their own–before moving on to find solutions.
3. Match the customer’s tone and language
Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?
Mirroring is a technique that works well in agent-customer interactions. The Wall Street Journal argues, “Mirroring a conversation partner’s gestures, expressions, posture, vocal pitch or tone can reflect rapport or a desire to please.” Taking on a customer’s tone and vocabulary can help an agent build trust with the customer.
What does this look like in practice?
Let’s say a customer calls your agent with a routine request, but it’s clear the customer feels rushed. If the agent responds nonchalantly, the customer may sense that the agent doesn’t care about resolving the issue quickly. But, if the agent speaks in a prompt tone, affirms that a quick resolution is important, and acts swiftly, it will ease the customer’s worries.
In this scenario, the customer feels cared for and the agent resolves the issue.
There’s one caveat, though. Mirroring doesn’t mean taking on negative tones from an angry customer – which leads us to our next point.
4. Handle angry customer calls with confidence
As any contact center agent knows, handling angry customers is just part of the job. The average customer service agent handles 10+ hostile interactions per day. It can be the most stressful part of an agent’s job. So it’s important to know how to effectively handle disgruntled customers.
Coach your agents to distance themselves from the customer so they’re not taking every complaint personally. Help them learn how to stay focused and resolve each issue calmly. Empower your agents to handle angry customer calls with confidence.
Give your team access to your company’s metrics, resources, and customer data so they can deliver the right answers to each customer.
When agents listen, ask the right questions, and have resources at the ready to work on their own, customer frustrations will vanish.
5. Be empathetic and kind
Empathy requires a deep understanding of human emotion. It’s a characteristic you need to be a true problem-solver. Encourage your agents to practice empathy and kindness with each customer interaction.
Empathy often requires putting yourself in another’s shoes. Tell your agents to draw upon a disappointing customer service experience of their own so they can remember what it’s like to be a frustrated customer. Then, coach them to use those insights and feelings as they work with customers. Doing so will help your agents be more understanding in each situation that pops up.
Here are a few key phrases agents can use to convey their empathy, too:
- I understand why you’re frustrated. I’m going to find a solution for you.
- I would be upset in this situation, too. Let’s see what we can do to resolve the issue.
- This isn’t the experience we want for our customers. You have every right to be upset.
Whatever your agents say, authenticity is key. Empathy fails when an agent sounds scripted.
When you coach and mentor agents frequently, they’ll have a positive influence on your customer experience. And your customers will feel the difference too. They’ll notice your agents’ consistency and build trust in your company. And added trust brings loyalty, less churn, happier customers, and a more profitable company.
We originally published this post on December 20, 2016, and we updated it for new insight on September 25, 2020.