What's the problem with customer service? Everywhere you look, customer-facing employees are surly and undertrained. It's not even their fault, half the time: they're underpaid and unsupervised, more often than not.
And companies vow to change the situation, and commit themselves to service. They spend millions on ad campaigns to convince customers to give them another chance. And they miss, regrettably often, a basic piece of the puzzle that would make a difference for their customer support staff AND for their customers.
The magic bullet is this: managers need to teach customer service people that saying I'm Sorry isn't the same as saying any of these things:
1) I made a mistake.
2) Our company is responsible.
3) You're getting your money back.
4) I am incompetent,
or even 5) You are right.
Sure, it would be nice if the customer were always right, but that's not always the case. But, whatever the rightness or wrongness of the situation, I'M SORRY is always appropriate. Why is it so hard to say? Why does it appear that the lost-baggage clerk at the airport, the waitress who mis-totalled your check, or the hotel desk clerk who double-booked your room would rather walk over hot coals than say “I'm sorry?" Because his or her employer has never explained that “I'm sorry" is a good thing to say. In too many organizations, saying “I'm sorry" is associated with refunding the customer's money or otherwise incurring expense for the company. And no one wants to do that, not unless a manager tells them to.
But “I'm sorry" is the start of every decent customer service call, or face-to-face conversation. It comes in many forms. “I'm sorry you had that experience, it sounds awful" is one version. “I'm so sorry that happened to you" is another. “I'm sorry your bag was lost; that's so annoying" or “I'm sorry we don't have a room for you" are more all-time favorites. Solving the problem is step two: identifying with the unhappy client is step one. And it's the step, painfully often, that gets dropped out altogether.
I went to my kids’ elementary school for back-to-school night, and I got angry. I sat in the third grade classroom for an hour, listening to the teacher explain her methods, never knowing that the first-grade orientation was going on at the same time in another room. Had I known of the overlap, I'd have bailed on the third grade class to hear what the first-grade teacher had to say: after all, first grade is a pivotal year. But I didn't know. Who would book these two sessions at the same time? So when I realized that I'd missed my chance to hear about first grade, I walked down to the principal's office, to let him know I wasn't happy.
And here's what he did: he tried to give me facts right away, to provide solutions. “Don't worry, " he said. “The first grade teacher left right after her orientation session, but you can speak to her any day after class. " “Yes, " I said, “I understand that, but my first-grader made a drawing for me to see tonight, and it's in his desk, and I won't be able to see it or to leave him a note to find tomorrow. "
"Well, " said the principal, “I know the teacher would be happy to talk to you anytime. " “What I'm trying to tell you is that this orientation night was not well planned, and I'm not pleased, " I said. “What do I tell my first-grader when he asks me what I thought of his desk, and his classroom?" “Well, the teacher will be happy to talk with you tomorrow, " said the principal.
"I AM NOT FEELING HEARD, " I finally said. “This was bad planning tonight, and poor communication. Two other moms who have first- and third-grade children like I do, were likewise disappointed. It's not a good process. I am unhappy about that and I want to hear that you understand me. I already heard your solutions. "
He was shocked. They must not teach customer service in principal school, either. But it's critical in all walks of life. Hear Me Now, and Appease Me Later. If you can't hear what I'm saying, how can I hear the facts and solutions you're dishing up?
If you never spend a dime on customer service training, teach people to say “I'm sorry" and to mean it. Teach them that truly hearing an unhappy customer is more important than taking another call in the next thirty seconds. Get them comfortable with “I'm sorry" and don't let them move on to data collection and account numbers and serial numbers until they've said it as many times as the situation requires. Love may mean never having to say you're sorry, but customer service is absolutely useless without it.
Liz Ryan is a former Fortune 500 HR executive, a workplace expert and the founder and CEO of WorldWIT, the global online discussion network for women (http://www.worldwit.org ). Liz is an international speaker on workplace issues, management, and networking in the new millennium. She lives in Boulder, Colorado.