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Improve Your Customer Support By Breaking Your Own Rules

Written by Ian Landsman, published on 03.01.2018

As teams grow, it’s natural to add processes and guidelines. Standards create a smoother experience for customers and agents alike, and help teams avoid past mistakes. But don’t get too comfortable—there are places where making an exception can delight customers and improve your company, without bringing on disaster.

Rule: Create canned responses to save time on repetitive issues or questions.

Canned responses are not always the right call.

Take this example: at a previous company, customers repeatedly asked for specific information that was in their account, but not easy to find or digest. We then had to include that personal information in the response, using placeholders like <
>, which needed to be replaced manually.

We used a canned response for a short while, but removed it for a few reasons. First, if we accidentally sent a response with any un-replaced placeholders, it would frustrate the customer further and reveal that this question came up often.

More importantly, we were becoming complacent about an issue that should’ve been prioritized. Data had proven that the confusion was widespread, but the automatic nature of the response meant that we could move it to the back of our minds—we’d stop pushing for a better product; stop advocating for the customer.

Instead of using a full-fledged canned response, try one that sets a custom field (to track how often the issue comes up), and input a few key sentences into the email to give the agent a head start. The extra effort will drive your team to find better solutions for your customers.

Rule: Don’t make promises.

You never forget the times you let the word “promise” slip, and then you were on the hook for something you couldn’t deliver. The basic rule still stands: if you’re not able to get the customer a discount, find a lost file, or release a feature single-handedly, don’t promise!

But 99% of the time, you do have more control over the situation than the customer does, even if you’re only able to do a little bit more. Odds are, they are feeling helpless, and they want to know that you care enough to do what you can. So go ahead and use the magic word on the things you can promise to do… and then do them!

  • “I promise to bring this feedback to the product team, and let you know what they say.”
  • “Even though I think it will take a few days, I promise to look for the file tonight, because I know you have a deadline tomorrow.”
  • “I promise to follow-up with that helpful link I mentioned earlier.”

I can’t overstate how much trust this builds with the customer, even if you’re not able to deliver the thing they ultimately wanted. This strategy has often led to a customer thanking me profusely for my help, even when I wasn’t able to give them anything they originally asked for.

Rule: Don’t give out your personal phone number.

Yeesh… I know this sounds risky. But breaking this rule at the right time and place is what differentiates agents from robots.

I’ve found that it’s helpful to break this rule when a customer’s personal and work lives are blurring together, usually for reasons out of their control. In those cases, you have a huge opportunity to improve their lives in a way they won’t soon forget.

Once, a long-time customer revealed on a call that her child had a chronic illness. It explained why she would sometimes be called away from work last-minute, throwing off her whole schedule. When our industry’s busy season started a few months later, I gave her my personal number. This helped her get through what was generally a hellish time for her.

Try this: “Based on the current circumstances, I’m going to give you my number so we can communicate better. This is my personal cell phone number. I cannot promise that I will always respond, but I will try.”

She barely ever used my number, but when she did call, I knew it was important and time-sensitive.

Customers are people, too. When you can, bending the rules and helping them out is not only good customer service, but also a nice thing to do.

Rule: Always teach the customer to fish.

You know this one: teach a customer to fish, and he’ll fish for a lifetime. We’re warned not to take care of a task for a customer in case they try to take advantage later, or never learn how to do it on their own.

But there are cases where a customer is struggling unnecessarily, and you can help. Perhaps their tech-savvy team member is out of the office when something urgent came up. Perhaps they have been struggling with part of the product for hours, and by the time they call you, they are near tears with frustration.

You: There will be a button on the left.
You: It should say ‘Click To Create.’ It’s blue.
Customer: IT’S NOT THERE.

Are they on the wrong page? Maybe. Maybe not! But in those moments, nothing will upset the customer more than you insisting that they keep trying to figure it out themselves.

Be empathetic, and clearly communicate the one-time nature of your actions: “I had no idea your deadline was coming up so quickly—I won’t always be able to do this, but I will do this on our end since your teammate is unexpectedly out of the office.”

Boom: you’ve earned some much-deserved loyalty and appreciation from a customer! They know your company is made up of humans, not policies.

Rule: Never say “I’m sorry.”

Some companies have strict rules about when you’re allowed to say or write that you’re sorry to a customer. It’s true that there are legal considerations in some industries, but unless you’re a surgeon in your free time, it’s unlikely that this rule applies here.

Even if you do try to avoid saying “sorry” on most occasions, there will be times when avoiding the word creates an empty and awkward experience.

Let’s say a customer is in a bad situation based on their own actions: they misunderstood something; they permanently deleted their work; they overlooked an important email notification.

  1. “I see why the notification was confusing. If you have ideas of what would have worked better for you, please let me know and I’ll share with the team.”
  2. “I’m so sorry the notification was confusing. If you have ideas of what would have worked better for you, please let me know and I’ll share with the team.”

Or maybe there’s been some wrongdoing or an accident (the site went down at a bad time, a package was lost, an email had incorrect info). Here’s where apologizing has the most impact, and where it’s most awkward to avoid it:

  1. “I understand your frustration completely. We’ve identified where in the process things went wrong, and have already taken steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
  2. “I’m so sorry that the email had incorrect information. We identified where in the process things went wrong, and have already taken steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

Empathy only goes so far. Sometimes, a customer feels they are owed an apology, and dancing around the topic will only leave them feeling sour.

The exception makes the rule

Chat with your team about which rules were made to be broken. Some of those moments will be the brightest you shine all year.

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