In April, I touched on the topic of “Geeks and Communications Skills.” Reading through some of David Berlind‘s (over at ZDNet) recent blogs about poor customer service via call centers, I am following up my original post with this series. This series refers specifically to communicating with call centers, a potentially unpleasant task that most IT professionals need to deal with on a regular basis. The previous post discussed how to get maximum results from a call into the support hotline, and this post in the series will show how to provide quality phone support.

Call centers are an entry point into the IT industry for many people. Although my time at a call center occurred well after I had entered IT, it was still a great experience for me. Some of the most rewarding jobs I have had over the years involved direct customer contact for a full eight hours a day. However, delivering quality customer service, particularly trying to assist a user with technical problems over a phone, is a difficult art to master. These tips should help the call center employer (or anyone trying to assist a customer over the phone) to deliver the best help possible.

Answer the phone properly

A proper phone greeting should include a greeting, the name of the company, the precise department that the customer has reached, and the support person’s name. It should be as sincere as possible. Treat every call as the first call of the day, and remember that no matter how difficult the last call was, it has nothing to do with the current call. The standard greeting I have always used was, “Hello, this is XYZ Technical Support. My name is Justin, how may I help you?” Although the script for that company suggested that I ask for the serial number first, I discovered (after much experimentation) that my greeting let the user know that I was there to help them, not to tie them up with process. After the user gave me a brief explanation of their problem, I would then request the serial number. If your company allows you a bit of freedom with your greeting, try this out. Your users will tend to be more pleasant to deal with if you greet them like this.

Empathize with the user

When a user calls technical support, they frequent are overcome by a feeling of powerlessness. They may be embarrassed that they cannot solve the problem on their own, or that their job rests upon a successful resolution of the problem. I have literally heard grown men break out into sobbing tears on a support call. To compensate, some users will attempt to direct the call, or refuse to follow directions. Other users try to pump up their egos or impress you with their wisdom. I have had callers repeatedly brag about their Cisco or Microsoft (or whoever) certification; meanwhile their problem is extremely basic. While it may be tempting to ask them “if you are so smart, why are you calling me?” do not do it. You have the information needed and the process established to help the user, and it is up to you to direct the call. You need to quickly establish this with the user by asking pertinent questions up front. Once the user sees that the questions you are asking will solve the problem, they are happy to follow along. It is very rare to have a caller refuse help once you have demonstrated that you can actually help them. But always keep in mind that the user feels helpless. Do not embarrass them or make them feel little, but show in a kind and gentle way that you are there to help, but only if they let you help.

Respect the customer

Keep in mind that by the time the user calls you, they have probably been trying to solve the problem themselves. They made be under the gun with a tight deadline or a mission critical problem. As a result, users often sound harried, tense, or may be terse or short with you. They may even take out their frustrations with your company, the product, or your co-workers out on you, and act as if you are the problem. Let it slide. The last thing you need is to be in an argument or abusive to a customer because they are having a bad day. Your job is to put a smile back on their face and resolve their problem, not to dictate to them a lesson in manners.

Of course, if a customer is extremely rude or abusive, such as using foul language directed at you personally, you have the right to politely request that they calm down. I have found it helpful to remind them that I am not the unit, the company, or the other support technician who was not helpful. One example of an effective phrase to do this is, “Sir, I understand that you are frustrated and angry right now. But I am here to help you, and it is difficult for me to do that if you are abusive to me. If you would like, I can transfer you to my supervisor who may be able to help you.” By doing this, you have put the ball in the customer’s lap. They can either calm down, or they can speak to your supervisor while you help the next customer. But you cannot assist the user if they insist on insulting you.

Another aspect of respect is to learn the customer’s preferred name, to use it frequently, and to pronounce it correctly. When the customer gives you their name, always refer to them as “Mr. [Last Name]” or “Ms. [Last Name]” unless they request that you use their first name. Never refer to a woman as “Miss” or “Missus” unless you distinctly hear them say that; “Ms.” Is the appropriate prefix for woman of unknown marital status. “Sir” and “Ma’am” also go a long way towards being polite and respectful. If you have accidentally confused a “Mister” with a “Ms.” or vice versa (it happens quite frequently, especially for men with high voice or women with low voices, and a gender-ambiguous first name) and they correct you, simply apologize and make sure that you do not repeat the mistake. Using the customer’s name is important on many levels. It shows that they you are treating them as an individual, not as a nameless, faceless voice emanating from a telephone. It also lets them know that you are paying close attention to them. Be wary though, if you mispronounce the customer’s name, you are letting them know that you are not paying attention. If they have a difficult name, repeat the name and ask them if you have the pronunciation correction (“Mr. Wick-cow-sky, is that correct?”). My experience has been that customers really like this level of personalized treatment.

No matter what happens, never, ever raise your voice to a customer or use anything less than polite, respectful language. If the customer is in a loud environment such as a server room, there is a way to your raise voice to be heard and still sound pleasant, and a way to sound like a grouch when raising your voice. Learn the former. If the call is getting “too hot for comfort,” it may be time to involve your supervisor, or possibly place the user on hold for a few (very brief) moments to take a deep breath before getting back onto the call. For particularly angry customers, I found it helpful to have my supervisor jack into my phone to monitor the call on the spot, or be by my side, so that they were available if needed. This also allowed my supervisor to directly hear what was going on, so that if a complaint or a problem arose, it would not be my word against the customer’s.

No matter what the caller sounds like, never, ever mention their accent. I cannot stress this enough. While I do not advocate lying to a customer, “Sir, could you please speak a little more slowly? It is very loud in here at the moment,” will be taken much better than, “Sir, I have a hard time understanding your accent. Could you please speak slower?” Many people may not speak your language natively, or may be from an area with a different dialect of your language. If one is available, ask the user if they would prefer for you to get a translator on the line. Many people who do not speak a language natively are very self conscious about their accent. To bring it up is impolite at best, and quite offensive at worst. Just about the worst mistake  ever made regarding accents was offering to get a translator on the phone for someone from Scotland. I simply could not understand the Scottish accent at all, and I thought that maybe Scots had a regional language (like Wales). Boy was I wrong! The only thing that saved me on that call was that it was an internal call, and it was still rather difficult to smooth it over after that.

Learn the customer’s lingo and use it

Each call center has its own subsection of the English language, a combination of product-specific words and phrases as well as regional sayings. However, your customers may be from all over the country or even from all over the world. They are not steeped in the culture of your company either. So if the user calls the device in question a “doodad” and your literature calls it a “widget,” just call it a “doodad.” Similarly, if your user says something along the lines of “power cycle,” say “power cycle” not “reboot.” Adapting to the user’s language allows you to communicate more effectively. If you work at a call center long enough, you pick up bits and pieces of different regional phrases. Feel free to use these, as long as you do not sound like a pretender or like you are mocking the user. I worked in one call center where we dealt with a large number of people in Australia. One of my co-workers would do his best version of “G’Day mate!” in an exaggerated Queensland accent (think Paul Hogan). Not only did he sound ridiculous to begin with, but the callers were typically in New South Wales and had an entirely different accent. Most of them did not find it particularly funny; they thought he was making fun of them.

Pick up on the user’s mood and match it

If your customer is laughing and joking, it is OK to be a bit lighthearted. Do not take it too far of course, of make any type of even potentially offensive jokes, of course. On the other hand, if the user is being a bit down, or is upset, or is all business, then you should be 100% professional. Someone with a lot of pressure on them to solve a problem will treat your lightheartedness as you not taking the problem seriously. Even if the call is in a moment of “down time” like during a unit reboot, filling the silence with small talk is not appreciated under those circumstances. The happy shiny customer, on the other hand, will most likely be happy to exchange pleasantries like “how is the weather?” or “I have never been there, what are some good places to visit if I ever get out there?” But remember to always be professional.

Be sincere, honest, and upbeat

Whenever you open your mouth, make sure that your heart agrees with the words you are saying. “I am having a great day!” is an obvious lie when you grumble it, and the customer does not appreciate that. If you are having a lousy day, there are ways to be honest yet professional. “Today has had a lot of challenges, but I learned some great things,” is a lot better than, “I am looking forwards to the end of the shift.” On that note, never mention how long you have been on duty or if you are near the end of your shift. The last thing you ever want is to give the caller the impression that you are looking to get them off of the phone so that you can go home or take a break. The user is calling in to get help with their problems, not to hear about yours. They do not want to be talking to someone with a bad attitude either.

Always tell the truth to your customers. They have an uncanny ability to spot a lie, even over a phone. If you make a mistake, immediately correct it as soon as you know better, or admit to it if the customer catches it first. Along those lines, if a co-worker has given incorrect information to a customer (for whatever reason), be careful with how you correct the problem. “Well, I am sorry sir, but John is new and really is clueless,” is not a very good way to handle this. “John may have made a mistake or miscommunicated what he really meant sir, I will let him know and make sure that he gets the correct information,” is a much better response.

“This call may be monitored or recorded for quality and training purposes.”

Unless you are working for a very small company, chances are that there is always the possibility that any given call may be monitored in real time or recorded. Treat every call as if your supervisor is standing next to you. That means always be polite, do not lie to your customer, and delivery the best support possible, on every single call.

Make sure that your ticket notes are accurate and appropriately worded

If the customer calls back, you want to make sure that your co-workers are able to quickly read the notes in the ticket and understand exactly what happened. If a questionable situation arose, make sure that you document why you made the decision that you did. “As per paragraph 1.X.a of the system manual” or “as per team lead Joe” are wonderful ways of covering yourself if a problem comes up later. It also lets the next technician know where you got the information from. On the other hand, the ticket notes should not be too verbose. When someone has to read four paragraphs of “he said, she said” just to find out that the network connection is down and a technician is being dispatched, you have been too wordy. When writing your ticket notes, ask yourself, “if this user called back, what information would I need to know to pick up where we left off?” The user who calls back will appreciate that you co-workers will be able to quickly and accurately understand the exact situation, instead of being put on hold forever.

Always give your users a wide range of options, and explain them clearly and simply

All too often, a major source of customer complaints is that if they had known about an option, they would have taken it. A common example is the advance RMA. Most users do not know about it, and accept the basic RMA policy. If they later find out that there was an advance RMA option, they may get upset because they would have preferred to use it. Always give your users the wide spectrum of options, but be sure to explain what they are as well. For example, “we also offer an advance RMA” is not nearly as helpful as, “if you require the replacement part sooner, we have an option for that as well.” By giving your users options, they feel as if they are in control. When the user feels as if they were a crucial part of the success of the call, they are happy with the call.

Ending the call

Always try to end the call on a positive note, even if their problem cannot be solved. Remind the customer of your name, and thank them for calling. Like the greeting, it can be difficult to sound sincere when thanking you for calling in, but also remember that callers can detect insincerity quite easily. Even if the call was “challenging” (a euphemism for, “the caller insulted my religion and my mother, told me I was born out of wedlock, and ended up taking a blowtorch to the unit”), be polite until the very end. Especially when the user is upset or the problem could not be solved, any sounds or hints of displeasure on your end (even a loud sigh) will be interpreted as displeasure with them and they will react as if you are angry with them. Your job is to solve problems, not create them. Any negativity on your part will ruin the call. At the end of the call, always ask the user if they have any additional question or concerns, or if there is anything else that you may help them with. Never give the user the impression that you are trying to push them off the phone.

I hope that these guidelines help you deliver great customer service to your customers!