10 things you can do to get better customer service

A few months ago, I asked you to name the practices that annoyed you as customers. I was shocked at the number of responses, and they're probably still coming in. We get bad customer service, unfortunately, far too often. What can we do about it? Sometimes, things are out of our control and there's nothing we can do. Other times, however, we may be able to tilt the odds in our favor.Below are some tips that could help increase the chances of your getting better service. As IT professionals, you may benefit from these tips when you need support from a higher level group or from a vendor. Your own customers may benefit as well if you share this list with them. And if they follow these tips, your job will be easier, too.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: Be clear about your expectations

The clearer you are to the service provider about what you are expecting, the smaller the chance that you'll be unpleasantly surprised. When explaining your expectations, try to be as specific as possible. Frederick Brooks, in his classic The Mythical Man-Month, said that project milestones should be "defined with knife edge sharpness." Think about the Ws: What do you want, when do you want it, where..., etc. Make your expectations quantifiable if you can. That way, there's less question about whether the service provider fulfilled the job.

#2: Separate the person from the problem

Did you ever feel like yelling at the front-line person who tells you that your flight is sold out, the hotel is booked solid for the night, or that he/she can't find your trouble ticket? Go ahead and yell, but it probably won't do any good. It will only alienate the other person, making it even more difficult for you to get what you want. Chances are, he or she had nothing to do with the problem but are only the unfortunate ones listening to you.

I know it may be hard, but try to separate that person from the problem. If you have to complain about the company, use the third person. Instead of, "You guys are all messed up" or "You messed up my reservation," try, "It's frustrating how messed up they are" or "They messed up my reservation." When expressing your aggravation, say, "I'm frustrated by this problem." Even better, try the good cop/bad cop approach. Say to the front-line person, "They really messed this up, but I'm hoping you can help me by straightening it out." Speaking this way helps get the other person on your side.

#3: Find a decision maker

Despite all the recent talk about empowerment, chances are that front-line person lacks authority to make decisions. If so, ask who can make the decisions you need to be made. When confronted by the dreaded statement, "I don't have the authority...," ask in response, "Who does have the authority?" When the person says, "We can't; that's a violation of policy," ask in response "Who can change the policy?"

#4: Make sure they're listening to you

If the service provider misheard you, chances are he or she will make an error and you're going to be unhappy as a result. Therefore, if you're explaining something, ask that service provider questions to see if he or she understands. Consider asking that person to paraphrase what you said, as a test.

#5: Ask about alternatives

I mentioned earlier about asking, "Who does have authority?" or "Who can change the policy?" Always think and ask about alternative solutions. In fact, simply ask that very question: "What alternatives do I have?" The other person may not even be thinking of alternatives, but if you have ideas, one or more of them might work out.

For example, the restaurant you want to visit right now has a long line. When you ask about alternatives and more details, you learn that the nonsmoking section has a two-hour wait, but the window seats in the smoking section have only a 45-minute wait, and the nonwindow seats in the smoking section are available right now. Depending on your priorities, you may wait for the nonsmoking section, sit in either of the smoking sections, go to another restaurant, or just come back to this one another day.

#6: Distinguish between means (methods) and ends (objectives)

When asking for a service or product, distinguish between the result you want and the way that result is achieved. Be careful, in particular, about trying to dictate the latter. In doing so, you may unconsciously sway the service provider into a less than optimal solution.

Suppose you're on a business trip to a remote office and are trying to print a document from a shared folder you need for a meeting. Of course, the remote print capability isn't working. Before demanding that the IT department resolve that capability, ask yourself if you really need remote print or if you really need only the document. If it's the latter, can you get it some other way? For example, could someone print it for you, then fax it to you? It's not elegant, but it gets the job done. In this example, rather than say, "I need to be able to print remotely," try saying, "I need a copy of document X for a meeting."

#7: Develop self sufficiency

Sometimes, rather than relying on others, it's quicker and easier if you can do something yourself. After a problem is resolved, whether it's with your car, computer, or sink, ask the person two questions: "Could I have fixed this myself?" and "How can I keep this problem from happening again?"

#8: Know their procedures

Face it: Sometimes the people who work for the service provider don't know all they're supposed to. In that case, if you know their procedures, you can help them give you the service you're seeking. A few years ago, I went into a suburban branch of my bank to change foreign currency into U.S. currency. I had done such an exchange before, but at a downtown branch, and I remembered some of the details. So when I was at the suburban branch, I volunteered to them the name of a form to use and the particular department they were supposed to call. My supplying that information saved me (and them) time.

#9: Keep track of names and ticket numbers

Keep a record of everyone you talk to and a record of every ticket number you receive. I know that a good help desk/trouble ticket system should be able to look up a ticket by name, not just by number. However, those alternate searches might take longer. The more information you keep, the easier it will be to get your problem resolved.

#10: Recognize good service

If a support person helps you, let that person (and his or her supervisor) know. It's the right thing to do, and in the future, it could help you if you get that same person.