Build Rapport With Callers From the Start

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Name? Account number? ZIP code? Mother's maiden name? Sort of sounds like a prison movie, doesn't it?


Well, it's not. It's the start of a pretty average call in many call centers. Why? In most cases, the call center agent has not been shown another, less abrupt way to answer a call.


The following story illustrates why it is important for agents to gather information from callers without sounding like Wanda the Witch or Warren the Warden.


My wallet was stolen a few months ago. Fortunately, I remembered the names of the credit cards I was carrying. Unfortunately, my wallet with all the credit cards also contained my checkbook.


My first response was to list the cards that I knew were in my wallet. I then began the daunting task of calling each of the major credit card companies to report the loss. Perhaps because of the type of work I do every day and because of the horror stories I have heard, I have become Ms. Perfect Customer. I don't yell, I don't belittle and I don't get angry. I smile and try to help the call along. I really am a good customer.


With this in mind, I made my first call to one of the credit card companies. "Hi, my name is Nancy Friedman," I said. "I'm in Orlando, FL, and my wallet with all my credit cards has just been stolen, and I want to report it right away."


"Name?" said the agent, with the tone of a prison warden.


I always give my name upfront, as I had this time. Obviously, the agent who answered the phone did not hear it, did not write it down or did not remember it. So I repeated my name and spelled it for her.


"Account number?" the agent said.


I thought one of us had better have a sense of humor, and I could tell it wasn't coming from her end, so I said, "Well, I have my phone number, address and birthday memorized. I never got around to memorizing all my charge card numbers, and if you recall, my wallet with that information was stolen."


Dead silence. Then she said, "Phone number?"


Well, it went downhill from there. I will not burden you with the rest of the conversation. Suffice it to say, I was disappointed. There wasn't one word of sympathy or compassion from this agent. She did not have what I call the "care gene." She had a job to do and, by gosh, she was going to do it - and in record time, too.


I had six credit cards in my wallet. When I called to report the loss of each one, none of the credit card company agents acknowledged my problem. It was hard for me to believe. The worst experience I had was probably when I called the bank about my checks. When I repeated my saga to the woman at the bank, she asked me questions as if I were the one who stole the wallet.


The behavior of the agents at the bank and the credit card companies gave me, the customer, the message that maybe I should take my business elsewhere.


To keep customers satisfied and loyal to your company, it is crucial that agents build a rapport with every customer at the beginning of each call, whether the customer is calling to discuss a problem, a concern or an inconvenience.


The agent who answers the call should acknowledge what the customer says and use the same words that the customer uses, as in the following example:


Caller: I just lost my wallet.


Agent: Your wallet? I'm so sorry. Let me get your name and we'll see how we can help.


Learning how to build rapport is an art, not a science, and it takes practice. For example, the actor Yul Brynner appeared in more than 2,000 performances of the musical "The King and I." Night after night, he said the same words. Yet his performances were award-winning. Why? Because he knew that each performance he gave was to a different audience. Although he probably got tired of the script at times, he made his lines sound fresh for each new audience.


Taking a cue from actors such as Brynner, one of the best ways call center agents can be sure to convey empathy is to practice the lines they say most often so that their delivery sounds natural.


It is easy to sympathize with agents who work in centers that receive enormous numbers of calls. I hear all sorts of excuses for agents' rote delivery. One of the most common is, "Gee, Nancy, we have to say the same thing over and over. It gets so boring." Or, "Nancy, we have limited time for each call." Or, "Our policy is to get on and off the phone as quickly as possible."


These are excuses, not reasons. Although an agent may say the same thing over and over again, it is probably the caller's first time asking the question. And it is not enough for agents to know the answers. They also have to reassure customers that they are going to help them. When customers reach call center agents, they don't care how much they know - until they know how much they care.


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