Written by Ian Landsman on Oct 11, 2016 in

The Dos and Don'ts of Chatting with Customers

As a customer support person, you interact with people every day you go to work. Quite often, these people - your customers - may be individuals you’ve never met before, and certainly never spoken to before. If your company serves tens or even hundreds of thousands of users, you might spend your entire day engaging with customers that you are “meeting” for the first time... every time the phone rings.

This lack of familiarity requires you to take an extremely delicate approach to how you converse with customers, and what topics you talk about. It also requires you to be able to react quickly and smoothly when the conversation goes a direction you weren’t expecting.

In this post, we cover a few quick dos and don’ts to consider next time you’re chatting with customers. By following these tips, you can help avoid awkward situations while providing enjoyable and personable experiences to your customers. If things get weird anyway, at least you’ll be able to handle it with grace.

Never Make Assumptions About Your Customer’s Situations.

Ugh, a subscription cancellation. You don’t get these too often, but when you do, it’s typically because:

  • Your customer didn’t know how to use your tool well enough, so they didn’t see value.
  • They were stolen away by your biggest competitor.
  • They didn’t want to pay the reasonable price you charge for your product.

These common reasons are obvious enough, and they’re frustrating. It might be your job to convince the customer otherwise, but these aren’t situations that make you feel terribly emotionally attached or sympathetic to the customer in that moment.

Except, maybe that’s not why this particular customer is canceling his or her subscription. Maybe they’re canceling your service because they no longer do the types of projects that had required your tool, by choice… or not. They might not have that work anymore.

Are you more sympathetic now?

The truth is, we don’t know why customers are making the decisions they are making. We also can’t always know if the reasons the customers are giving us are in fact the truth. Some customers might not open up about the real whys behind a product return, cancellation, request, or even a complaint.

Do: Remember you don’t know what’s behind the customer’s reasoning. Treat all customer inquiries with the same level of respect and support, whether it’s a customer calling with a question, a customer contacting you to say how happy they are, a customer cancelling their service or returning their product, or otherwise. You don’t know what’s behind their actions. You only know that it’s your job to help them with what they need.

Don’t: State “the obvious” assumption only to find out you’re wrong. Putting the customer in the position of correcting you by having to explain their (worse) situation makes them and you feel awkward and will make it harder for you to help them feel supported, even if helping them means processing their cancellation.

Be Extra Kind and Avoid Jokes Early in the Conversation.

We’re not assuming, so we might be asking.

And if we’re asking, we better be really, really nice about it. Again, we don’t know the situations that led someone to be here.

Reddit threads are full of awkward customer service stories, like this one:

One time while ringing up a customer I was chatting with them and somehow the subject of him being from out of state came up. I asked where he was from and he said Florida. This was in the middle of winter and I'm in a more northern state so I jokingly asked why the heck he'd leave all that beautiful weather behind, that it had to be something good.... He just looked at me and said "actually I'm here for a funeral." I froze. Just stared at him for a second and then managed to mumbled out "oh... Well that's.... erm... terrible."

These situations happen frequently. It’s human nature to feel the need to add some levity to a conversation, but that levity must be managed and well-timed.

Being personable is tremendous!

But making jokes about why they want something or why they’re contacting you should be off limits. Save friendly banter for the close of the call, or at least until you know the emotional state of the individual that you’re working with. Gentle quips may come off as insensitive to a customer who’s only making this call due to a bad situation at home or work.

Do: Be friendly and polite when asking how you can help them today. If the situation requires discussing the “why” behind the request (whether to serve them better or for your own record keeping purposes”) be extremely gentle and kind when doing so.

Let them make the first joke. If the customer cracks wise first, they are opening the door. If you don’t acknowledge their humor, you may come off as the human equivalent of elevator music. If they want to engage with you, let them (within reason, of course). Even if you are having a bad day.

Don’t: Pry. Don’t ask for details that are irrelevant to the task at hand, or in any way make the customer reveal more to you than is absolutely necessary to complete what needs to be done.

If the customer wants to talk more - and they very well might! - engage politely, remain friendly, and only pursue the conversation as much as the customer seems comfortable with.

Don’t Share Too Much of Your Own Personal Information.

First of all, too much time on the phone talking about yourself means your customer isn’t moving on with their day yet, and you’re disregarding other customers waiting to receive your assistance next.

But, let’s assume you’re spending the appropriate amount of time chatting with your customers. You still want to refrain from sharing too much of your own information. Customer support, especially outside of retail capacities, requires just a touch of anonymity. You, like anyone on your support team, are there to help the customer. The services and solutions you provide should be the same as any that would be proposed by others on your team. While it’s certainly good to create customer relationships, do so based on the merits of your work - not so much on where you grew up, old acquaintances you have in common, or even your favorite sports team. One’s favorite team is just as easily another’s enemy, right? If you are going to get into sports and other debatable topics, sure you’re letting the customer lead the conversation.

Talking too much about yourself can also make a customer feel like you’re not actually interested in them - you’re only interested in talking about your own life.

Do: Make a connection. Make small talk as you process their requests or otherwise need to fill time as programs reset, files upload or other delays take place.

Don’t: Get into personal information and experiences. Don’t sympathize with customers by sharing your own tales of woe. Bringing your sob stories to the table is just uncomfortable. It also forces the individual needing your support into a situation where they’re now forced to offer their support you, instead.

Don’t attempt to build rapport by empathizing with your customers' issues with your product or company. It may seem cool to commiserate over a pain point, but it can also blow any chance of one day bringing this customer back into the fold.

One Final Do: Stay Focused.

You never want to rush a customer service conversation, but it is important to note that the longer you continue the conversation, the more you risk running into an awkward situation or saying the wrong thing.

You want to be friendly with your customers, but you aren’t trying to make your customers your friends. That is a distinct difference that must be understood by all customer support people who are chatting with customers on a regular basis.

Remember your exit lines. Phrases like "Is there anything else I can help you with?" or "If you've found this helpful, it would be great if you'd take our online customer satisfaction survey" can help you wrap up a call. As a bonus, if you did your job right, the customer's feedback could help with company training process or even help you rise to a position where your job become teaching others to be as delightful on the phone as you are.

Follow this rule: Every part of the conversation should focus on getting the customer get closer to what they were trying to achieve when they contacted you. Side chatter will occur - we’re human! - but both sides will benefit when the customers’ needs remain the focus of the conversation.

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About the author

Ian Landsman of UserScape

Ian is the founder of HelpSpot and also podcasts at Bootstrapped.fm.

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