I’m still working on the next DAW v DAW article, so in the meantime I thought I’d write something only slightly related to music…

Most people that know me are amazed at the results I get when I interact with customer service or similar. I get the matter resolved and often much better than the goals I set before the CS interaction. (see the preface for more info)

These outcomes are no accident. I’ve spent most of my life reading books about interpersonal dynamics and tangential topics, and I’ve practiced them. Some of the ideas work, some of them don’t work and some are just bunk from get-go.

This is a constant learning process. I by no means am writing this as an end all guide to getting what you want. Sometimes you’re just screwed for a variety of reasons, but you can always increase your chances of success.

The following post is my thoughts on how to increase your chances at getting good customer service.

If you have any questions or comments, please comment below! I read every comment and respond to most. No registration is necessary to comment, so don’t be shy.

Contents

Preface

The #1 most significant factor regarding my authority on this subject is that I have worked a number of support and customer facing jobs where I controlled client/customer outcomes.

  • Custodian (4 years, overlapping with other work) - Frequent patron interactions in this job.
  • Cashier x3
  • Stock Clerk
  • Door to Door sandwich sales (yes, really)
  • Large pizza chain delivery
    • Subsequently Location Manager
    • Subsequently Regional Manager
  • Database software support
  • Banking Form design and support
  • Independent Developer
    • Contract Developer
  • DAW software support x2
  • Sport Kite Manufacturing (direct sales to every continent and 200+ countries)
  • Performing Musician
    • As band leader/frontman x2.
    • Short period working as a booking agent.
  • Moderator of multiple large communities (half-million+ users)

I strive to be a self aware person, and through all of these jobs I’ve attempted to pay attention to the interactions that invoked enthusiasm and those that invoked apathy. I’ve been in awe at how some customers would steer me towards doing backflips for them, while others would ignite a fury of “meh, whatever” within seconds of interacting with them.

I began to notice these interactions in my early teens, and via a bit of serendipity I experienced an influential interaction shortly after my lunchbreak one day. I had just finished reading that famous book on influence and the customer basically followed the tenants to the letter.

Thus began a lifelong interest in how to negotiate.

Let’s not beat around the bush either, spending time with customer service is negotiation. You want something, and they are tasked with providing it… but within certain invisible or implicit boundaries.

Before I get into the meat of it, I want to be very clear: THERE ARE MUCH BETTER SOURCES OF INFORMATION than me. Brilliant books. Fantastic speakers. Personal experiences.

This article is my personal gathering of thoughts and publishing it to the internet. It’s based on my experiences and constant revisions.

Goals

I wish that this didn’t need to be said, but it’s clear that it must: Have a defined goal.

You must ask yourself two questions and have short unambiguous answers to them:

  1. What is my problem?
  2. What is the ideal solution to my problem?

If you don’t know the answer to #1 then you will fail to achieve a quick resolution, and usually fail to achieve a resolution at all.

#2 is tricky because it’s easy to fail with #1. If you don’t know the problem, then you don’t know what a solution would be. If you don’t know what the problem is, then you need to stop and think.

Some examples of good goals:

  • 1 - My widget is broken and I want it serviced under warranty.
    • 2 - I’m given a return label, RMA and an estimate of service time.
  • 1 - I can not access the internet.
    • 2 - I’m able to access the internet with advertised U/D speeds and a reasonable ping.
    • 2 alternate - I’m given an estimate of downtime and a direct callback number.
  • 1 - This package’s seal was broken when I went to open it.
    • 2 - The product is replaced.
  • 1 - I feel sick and want the doctor’s opinion about the cause.
    • 2 - I’m given an opinion and a recommendation about treatment.
    • 2 alternate - I’m given a referral to another party to further evaluate the situation.

Sometimes the goal changes through the process. You might learn new information or change your mind. If you allow yourself to lose the goal then you will not be satisfied with the outcome.

I STRONGLY recommend writing down your goal and your desired resolution on paper if you have the opportunity. If it changes, then make notes. It is easy to lose your goal and wonder why you’re not happy after a seemingly positive resolution.

Poor and False Goals

The goals you set must be appropriate for the situation and have realistic boundaries.

Let’s look at some ideas that look like goals which will usually result in unpleasant outcomes:

  • I’m angry and don’t want to be angry.
    • Sir, this is customer service, not your therapist.
  • This thing isn’t working and I want it to work.
    • What thing? What’s not working? What does working mean?
  • You’re trying to rip me off (and I want to be angry)
    • ??? Try the gym to blow off some steam?
  • I want to feel better.
    • What is wrong? How do you normally feel? How long have you felt like this?

Customer service agents deal with these, variations of these, and many more situations every day. If they care then they have learned to slowly eek out information to work towards a resolution, and if they don’t care - you’re screwed.

The apathetic CS rep is every customer’s favorite strawman. Truly apathetic CS reps are rare. CS reps get worn down by repeated instances of bad customers. They’re like cars that are low on fuel, not cars that “just don’t wanna run”.

Poorly set goals and false goals eat up that fuel fast. By time the rep understands what’s wrong, let alone how to fix it, there’s a good chance they rather not deal with you anymore.

You want help. Make it easy to get help by setting good goals at the outset of the interaction.

Be personable

Let’s keep running with that fuel analogy. CS reps have limited fuel:

  • Time - They are often explicitly time-limited.
    • They might be implicitly time-limited due to an overwhelming support load or other issue.
  • Responsibilities - Sometimes they are overloaded with responsibilities that may trump the priority of your support interaction.
  • Mental Energy - It’s exhausting to deal with irate customers.
    • It’s exhausting to pry information from customers.
    • It’s exhausting to deal with supervisors that don’t understand the dynamics of customer service (from both sides of it!)
    • It’s exhausting to work through corporate policy (scripts, greetings, escalation tiers, etc…) when the CS rep knows how to solve your issue… but isn’t allowed to.
    • It’s exhausting to deal with customers that have encountered issues despite clear warnings.
    • It’s exhausting (for the CS rep) to have the wrong information and watch the customer suffer for it.
    • You get the idea…
  • Physical Capability - Sometimes they can’t physically deal with the stressors of the job. Not all CS interactions are over the phone, and even those people can become physically exhausted.
  • Non-professional energy - We all have home lives. Your CS rep’s home life might not be great right now. No matter how much you think it shouldn’t affect their job (and no matter how much they think it doesn’t) - it does.

The single most important thing you can do to alleviate the potential effect of these problems is to be personable and empathetic.

  • Begin the discussion with “Hello! How are you doing today?” and then respond to their answer.
    • Empathize - You can slowly learn to work in empathetic responses to them like, “Glad to hear you’re doing well, must be difficult dealing with all the people upset over this product recall”. Understand what they’re dealing with and express that you know.
  • Tell them how you’re doing.
    • Empathize - They don’t want to hear about your whole day, but CS reps often forget that they’re working with real people with real problems. Make yourself seem human and you’re more likely to be treated like a fellow human.
  • Tell them if you’re upset, because you probably are.
    • Empathize - Based on my own experience, I was always more tolerant of people that outright said, “I’m having a really tough time with this” compared to people that were clearly upset but never said it. It helped me curb my natural reactions to an angry/upset customer because I was able to recognize the situation before I reacted.

      I almost always say something like this now. It appears to work well to help the CS rep understand that you’re upset at the situation, not at them. If the customer becomes noticeably angered it can be difficult to separate the anger towards the issue and the anger towards the CS rep. CS reps become less helpful when they think that the customer is angry at them.

  • Be honest, but don’t be a dick.
    • Empathize - Understand the difference between “We don’t seem to be making progress despite your best efforts, could you help me get to the next tier of support?” and “You’re not doing anything. I need to speak to your manager”. No matter how much the CS rep sucks, if they’re talking then they are trying to help. Verbally recognize that and reinforce that by asking for help with the next step.
    • Empathize 2 - “I’m not happy with this product so far.” opens up an avenue for help (especially when you explain why clearly! [because you will]). “This product sucks” does not. Make the CS rep feel like there’s a next step for them in the process.
  • No “if you don’t then I will…”.
    • Emphathize - No matter the likelihood of you following through with an action, don’t threaten it. There’s a small chance that the CS rep might respond to a threat, but there’s a larger chance that they know how to shut you down with a lesser resolution. CS reps deal with threats big and small all day long. You never want to trigger an immediate thought of, “I know how to deal with you…” unless it’s to fulfill your desired outcome.

      If you must escalate then state your intention clearly with a positive acknowledgement of the process so far. “Thank you for your help so far. I think I need to speak to a supervisor”.

Let me review this again with a definition:

  • personable (adjective) - having an agreeable or pleasing personality; affable; amiable; sociable.
  • empathetic (adjective) - the psychological identification with the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of others.

Go out of your way to understand the other party’s situation, and be friendly about it.

This takes practice! If you feel lost then just ask. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said something to the effect of, “Have you had many jerks on the line today?” or “Wow, it’s busy in here, you must be dealing with a lot of stressed customers, eh?”. Sometimes you get a non-answer, sometimes you get an honest answer, but you are always making inroad with aknowledgement of their situation.

I know that many think that CS reps should be robots that unemotionally respond to customers with logical and omniscient troubleshooting capabilities, but that’s not reality. They are people. They respond better when they feel understood, feel capable and feel like they are helping someone that might’ve helped them if the roles were reversed.

Name

If you know the CS rep’s name then use their name frequently when you address them.

This is a powerful tool that’s repeated in every interpersonal dynamic content out there. It works.

  • NO - “Can you do thing?”
  • Yes - “Christine, can you do thing for me?”

It feels awkward the first few times you do it, but it will change every interaction you have with people once you learn to tastefully throw in directly addressed communication to the person starting or ending with their name.

Information

Every single customer service interaction requires information.

CS resources are limited multi-dimensionally. Every second you waste fumbling through papers or typing or trying to remember something is stressing the CS rep. You will need to find these things anyway, so do it before you begin the interaction.

There are some bits of information that are commonly required:

  • Date of Acquisition - When did you get thing, or how long have you used thing?
  • Date of Problem - When did this problem start?
  • Indicator of thing - Account number, bill number, batch number, version number etc… Information that identifies the thing.
  • Current Status - What is happening now?
  • Relation to Initial Status - Is now different than when it started?
  • Expectations - What was your expectation of thing?
  • Self-Solutions - Did you try to fix thing on your own? WHAT DID YOU DO (for the love of all that’s holy, please communicate this honestly!)

If you are well-informed about “thing”, then you should gather any information that you can. See the next section

I will re-iterate: CS resources are limited. Every second you spend fiddling around finding information will potentially…:

  • Increase the chances of a disconnection (phone? backlogged ticket? person tunes out?).
  • Increase pressure on the CS rep from their supervisor or other pressuring variables (timers? other responsibilities? performance metrics? just about to clock out?)
  • Increase likelihood of supplying the wrong information.
  • Increase your frustration level.
  • Waste your time.
  • Waste their time.

Think about what information might be required and have it ready. You may not get everything necessary, but every little bit counts.

Well-informed customer

I hope that all of my readers are intelligent people with focused interests, and that means that you all have deep knowledge in one or more domains.

We’ve all experienced situations where we know more about the product than the CS rep. If you’re potentially in that situation then you should gather as much information as you can and have it ready for the appropriate time.

DO NOT:

  • Assume you are the expert - Remember, you are the one searching for assistance. Even if you absolutely know more than the CS rep on every possible level, you are still the party that wants assistance. The moment you make the CS rep feel like they can’t help you, they won’t. (except in very rare cases)
  • Interrupt with information.
  • “Well actually…”
  • “You don’t understand…”
  • Utilize information as a goal - “My logs say that X and Y”. Ok? That’s not a problem, nor does it present a proposed outcome.
  • Lecture - “So first in 1963 they made this then in early 1964 they did this but changed it in July, and I have the August model and…”.

CS reps aren’t amoeba, they have functioning brains. If you provide information quickly, accurately and use appropriate terminology they can usually figure out the interpersonal dynamic.

Demonstrate knowledge, don’t try to convince CS of it.

Empathize Part 2

CS reps usually know when they aren’t helping.

This is REALLY IMPORTANT.

If you are prepared, have clear goals and are personable then the CS rep will often become your advocate soon as they realize they are helpless.

Even the worst CS reps can sense this, and the worst of the worst know it from the outset of the experience because they don’t care. They will tune out and give you a show of the utmost in apathy. You can convince these people to help you by acknowledging their experience, frustrations or just being a cool person about it. I’ve some of the most apathetic, non-caring CS reps track down “that smart guy” to help me out because I empathized with hating doing CS work sometimes.

The best CS reps will pick up on their impotence and try to pass you along to the appropriate party.

Frustration sets in with the in-between of the worst and the best CS reps. Mediocre, poorly trained or new CS reps will pull you along for the ride more than necessary or struggle to recognize when they need to adjust their support trajectory.

Do not become upset. You have experienced this many times, only to look back and realize you participated in a discussion where you didn’t know what you were doing/saying. What helps this situation?

  • Ask about your desired resolution - “Is this going to help me get fiddly-widget fixed?”.
  • Ask about next steps - “Is there another department that can help?”.
  • Be personably honest - “I’m frustrated, and I bet this isn’t much easier on you”.
  • Don’t be a dick, and be thankful (even if you’re not) - “Hey man, thanks for helping so far. I know this has been quite the quest”.

The general idea is to help nudge them towards realize they aren’t helping, but be patient about it. When the situation becomes clear, then you want them to be on your side.

If you can’t handle yourself, then just disengage and try again with another rep. If this is the only rep then once again be honest (and don’t be a dick). It’s not hard to say “I’m getting really frustrated here, can we look into this issue tomorrow? I don’t want to take out my frustrations on you.”.

It starts over

Your first interaction with support may not lead to resolution, and then you get passed on to another department, supervisor or CS rep.

START OVER FROM SCRATCH.

Greet them. Be prepared. Be personable. Do not assume that the information or rapport you built up with another person will carry over.

I’ve experienced this both as a CS rep and watching others interact with support. Starting over with a new person is the most frustrating part of the process, but if you want results then you need to wipe the slate clean and do it.

It starts over again

The MOST discouraging scenario is when you are bounced between departments or even worse - inside the same department. I struggled with learning how to deal with this for a while. In the last 5 years or so I stumbled upon a technique that seems to work well:

Plea.

Not beg, but plea. I use some form of “Good afternoon [name], I’ve been bounced around departments here and this has been very frustrating. I could really use YOUR help to get [issue] resolved”.

Not “some help”, not “someone’s help” not “assistance”. You need their help.

The first time I said this was when I was at my wits’ end and uttered the phrase out of desperation. The CS rep seemed to jump to my aide and personally worked through departments until they were sure they had the right person to help me. I’ve used it many times since and the percentage of positive outcomes has been very high.

I can remember a specific scenario where I had been bounced around for days. I called and made my plea to the operator and she lept into action to become my advocate. I had the supervisor of the correct department in a few minutes then I made the plea again. The supervisor, who I’m certain could have helped me, forwarded me to the executive of the branch concerning my issue. One of the biggest tech companies in the world and I was communicating to a name you see in tech news about 15 minutes later.

I’ve had this fail when reaching low-fuel apathetic CS reps, even after some vocal empathizing, but you can try again.

Books

I was going to give book recommendations, but after realizing that I can only make these recommendations with a plethora of footnotes, I decided not to. Consume books on persuasion, negotiation, interpersonal dynamics, leadership and other social sciences then realize they are all nonsense. Read some ideas, try some ideas, take notes on successes and failures.

Then every once in a while recognize that your ideas probably suck too. Repeat the process and re-integrate your previous findings after verification.

Not much different than anything else :)

Conclusion

This entire post can be summarized in 5 succinct points.

  • Have an unambiguous goal.
  • Have an unambiguous resolution.
  • Be prepared.
  • Don’t be a dick.
  • Empathize.

If you can manage any one of these things then your levels of success with CS will improve measurably. Get all 5 down and you’ll look like some sort of conman wizard.

There are specific ways that you can implement these points, and you must recognize that they require constant repetition through the process, however with them at the forefront of your mind you can build your own system.

Sometimes you can stuff them all in one sentence and get fast results. “Hey Chuck, looks like you’re having a busy day. Maybe I can be your easiest customer of the day. My widget arrived missing an ear on [date]. Can you grab me a replacement ear? Here’s the model number of the replacement part.”

They’re not all that simple, but there’s no point making it more difficult for you and for the person that you want help from.

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