Service Reps Must Learn to 'Listen' Online

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Janice Noor was excited about her new e-customer service hire, who had extensive call center customer service training, received high marks from supervisors for handling irate customers professionally and had a patient demeanor.


"She's the perfect service rep," Noor said.


That was two days after she was hired. Four months later, Noor's comments about her new employee were less complimentary: "I don't know what the problem is. It's like she's upsetting customers right and left without even trying!"


What Noor didn't realize was that her new hire was auditory-based. She processed most of her information based on what she hears. This served her well in a call center environment but was proving disastrous in an over-the-Web service environment. What Noor's new hire needed was training on how to "listen" to customer e-mails.


Three Steps to 'Listening' on the Web


Just because you can't hear your customer's voice doesn't mean you can't "listen" to customers through Web-based interactions. Statistics tell us we hear only 25 percent of what is said to us. I doubt the figures are much different for what we see in the e-mails we read. Let's face it: Some customers ramble on seemingly forever before getting to the point. By that time, the point is lost. It takes a skilled reader to filter out what's important.


Let's take an example: An e-mail from a customer of an online upscale housewares provider:


"While your products are impressive, your shipping charges are too high. I can go to your retail outlets and get the same product at the same price and not have to pay the shipping charges. I don't mind paying some shipping charge because this saves me a lot of time, but I think your charge is unreasonably high. Your competitors don't charge that much. What can you do for me on the shipping charge?"


At first read, it may seem that this customer is interested only in getting a reduced rate on her shipping. Here's how the e-commerce representative responded to the customer e-mail:


"I understand that you think our shipping charges are high. However, these are our set rates that we need to have. If you do think these are high, it may be best to go to your local retail outlet. Thanks for your e-mail."


Huge misread here. The customer service associate responded directly to the question of shipping charges. But he didn't "read into" the message. First of all, this is a provider of high-end housewares. The customer demographic is older than 30 with an annual household income in excess of $80,000. Do you really think the customer is only concerned about the shipping charges? Taking into account that the customer said she didn't mind "paying some shipping charges because this saves me a lot of time," it seems as if she can't see the value of the high shipping charges. That's the real issue.


The representative missed an opportunity to tout the benefits of shopping online while explaining the reason for the high shipping charges.


A better response would have been:


"Thank you for your question about shipping charges. When you compare our shipping charges with those of our competitors, it does seem, on the surface, that the charges are high. Let me explain why our shipping charges are higher than those of our competitors.


Because we sell high-end, higher-priced products, we want to make sure those products arrive at your home in perfect condition. Just as we only use high-quality materials in our products, we only use high-quality vendors for our shipping. The vendor we use double-wraps everything and uses only the highest-quality packaging materials. This added packaging does save time in damaged returns, etc."


In this example, the e-mail response recognizes the customer's need for a value-explanation, as well as her time needs.


While there are several appropriate ways to respond to this customer's e-mail, the key point is to identify the key words to examine the real issues, then explain the benefits of your policy to the customer.


It also is important to use key words and punctuation to identify caller attitudes. Let's take the example from step No 1. What do you think the caller's attitude was? Angry? Upset? Just seeking information?


Because the customer didn't use exclamation points or phrases like "way too high," the customer seems rational and just seeking information. She was trying to get a discount on shipping because she did not understand the value of the higher charges since the competitors didn't charge as much.


The following are punctuation tips to watch for that indicate a customer is upset:


• Exclamation points.


• Capital letters.


• Frowning icons.


• Short, staccato sentences. (Usually indicates the person wrote the e-mail hastily -- and probably while angry.)


Below are some words and phrases that will help you "listen" more carefully to what's really going on with customers in their written correspondence. These phrases help identify customers' attitudes and personalities.


• Preparers. These are phrases such as, "I don't mean to be a pain, but ... ." You can bet these customers will try to be a pain. They are trying to get you to let your guard down with this phrase before they drop the bomb on you.


• Drawn out words (for example: Waaaay too high priced! Too looooong of a delay!) These indicate the customer is upset.


• Deceptors. These are words that mean the opposite. ("I'm no expert, but ... " "In my humble opinion ... " "I'm just the customer ...") You can bet that if a customer writes, "I'm not the expert here," that he very much considers himself an expert on the topic.


• Challenge questions. These differ from information-seeking questions in that they are positioned in such a way as to make you defensive. An example of how a challenge question may start: "Isn't it true that ... ." "Didn't your Web site promise ...."


• Exaggerators. Exaggerator phrases include, "This is very embarrassing, but ...." When you see a phrase like this, usually what follows is no big deal. Customers who are very astute at price negotiation usually use this phrase. They use these "feel good" phrases to get you to let your guard down. Once you read what comes after the exaggerator phrase, you are usually relieved. This is a very powerful technique used by customers if you're not aware of what's going on.


• Trial balloons. A customer who writes, "Just suppose ... " or "What if ... " is trying to feel you out. He wants to see how far you will go on whatever he is looking for -- price reduction, freebies, etc. Be careful how you respond to these. You could set yourself up to set unrealistic expectations with the customer. You may think you are responding to a hypothetical situation, but the customer will hang on your every (written and, therefore, enforceable) word.


Have you ever been in a noisy room when someone was talking to you? Isn't it difficult to hear? Environmental distractions can substantially reduce the percentage of what we hear in conversations. Similarly, distractions while reading customer correspondence can reduce our "listening."


How can you increase the chances that you'll retain more of what you read in customer e-mails? Here are some suggestions:


• Overcome environmental distractions. Computer screens with high glare can be distracting. Get a glare-reducing screen cover. If there is noise in the background, try to eliminate it. Don't respond to e-mails while you're on the phone. Multitasking is highly rated, but don't let it interfere with productivity and accuracy.


• Read the customer e-mail twice. Scan it once to look for key words and phrases to identify issues and attitudes. Then, read the entire e-mail a second time very carefully to get all of the information.


• Manage personal distractions. Hunger, pain, headache, being emotionally upset about something or just needing a break can interfere with your reading and retention. Find a way to manage these distractions as much as possible. Try not to respond to angry customer e-mails when you have a personal distraction.


• Manage your biases and prejudices. The way someone writes can turn you on or turn you off. Suppose a customer sends you an e-mail that is laden with grammatical and spelling errors. You may immediately assume that you're dealing with someone of lower intelligence and you may -- consciously or subconsciously -- provide a lower level of service to that person. Busy executives often write e-mails in haste and can have misspellings and grammatical errors. Avoid judging a customer based on his written correspondence.


Using key words to identify customer issues and attitudes, as well as managing reading distractions will help you improve your Web-based "listening" skills.

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