Active Listening Skills for Customer Service - Updated

Update:  After putting my head together with some of the other operators, we determined a couple of other things that can improve your active listening skills. 

When we bring on a new employee, the first thing they learn is customer service, and the most important skill we focus on is listening. Customer service is about being an active listener. You can't just "hear" what people are saying, you have to really be grabbing onto the words and turning them over in your head.

What does it take to be an active listener? There are a lot of rules to active listening but we break these skills down into basic steps. These steps have improved our customer service responses and our communication.

(NEW) Clarify The Message

One of the best tools when speaking to a customer is the ability to clarify the message they are trying to send.  You never want to make assumptions when trying to decide what a customer wants. Most of the time you will get that assumption wrong and have to go back to the customer. It's always better when you're not clear to make sure you understand. A lot of times a customer uses words or phrases that might not be what you would use. You can just repeat it back to them in another way. "It sounds like you need..." or "Let me make sure I understand..." are great ways to start.

(NEW) Test Your Listening Skills

The Active Empathetic Listening (AEL) measure has eleven key items that test how well you sense, process, and respond when you listen to someone else. Sensing is the way you indicate you are taking in the information, processing is how well you construct the narrative delivered, and responding is how you ask questions to make sure you understand.  Take the AEL test and find out where you stand as a great listener and how you can improve. 

Focus on Understanding

Engage in communication with the goal of "understanding" instead of "understood". When your customer is speaking, it's best to focus on what the customer is saying, rather than trying to get a head start on how you're going to respond. Once someone in a conversation goes on the defensive, you are less likely to come to a resolution.

Give Your Undivided Attention to the Person Speaking

This may seem like common sense but devices like cell phones and the constant access to email are roadblocks to active listening. When a customer calls, disengage from the emails you’re working on, the spreadsheet you are clicking through, or the text message that might be waiting on you. Engage fully in the conversation that is present and not the one that is waiting for you to type a response.

Play Pretend

The more I can act like I'm face to face with a customer, the better our conversation goes. Imagine the customer across from you and nod when you understand. Responding to the customer as you would if you were face to face, you will be an even better listener. I will smile while I speak and even nod my head as the customer tells me what’s going on. It makes me feel like I truly understand the customer's needs.

It's not always easy to listen and even more so when we are immediately trying to figure out what we are going to say or have too many things going on at once. If we can just stop for a moment and become a more active listener, it will improve our communication with everyone.


Looking for ways to improve your speaking abilities? Here are four more resources:

To Better Assist You, Please Hold

I am amazed how often our customers are surprised to reach a real person on the first ring when calling AccuConference.

In this automatic world we live in, the "To better assist you, press 1 for billing, press 2 for account information, press 3 for sales, etc." is fooling no one. If you have to think about what button you fall into, your needs have already been minimized. It is especially cumbersome when you have to press * to repeat the options again.

Technology upgraded and offered us voice recognition "to better assist you." Well my mother was born and raised in Portugal. She does not have the ability to form the T-H (THA) sound. Voice recognition technology "assists" her into eventually yelling, with her heavy accent, the number TREE, TREE, TREE and then hearing "We’re sorry, but we did not recognize your response."

When a customer reaches out by phone, having an automated system that does not guide them properly can make the first, second, third…impression one that is remembered, but remembered poorly.

With most automated systems, if you continuously press 0 enough you may get lucky and get an operator to assist. But, those systems are catching on to this workaround and now you hear, "We’re sorry, but that is not a number we recognize." And worse, is when you choose a number that is not recognized and you hear the words "Goodbye"!

Unless you are the only game in town, then keeping the human spirit as your greeting is still a priority. At least it is here. When the company started in 2002, answering the phone on the first ring with a real human was a top priority, and it still is. At AccuConference, we answer the phone without making you wait.

This post was written by Debbie Vaught, an account manager here at AccuConference. 

When Bad Customer Service is Good

I’m sure the title of this blog might throw you off a bit, but trust me when I say I’m not making this up. A few days ago my husband and I were having a nice conversation about customer service. He and I get into conversations about this a lot, since I work in it, enjoy it, and he would rather… well, do anything else. One of the things we ended up talking about was his favorite place to pick up items – the local QuikTrip.

Why? Because it’s efficient with none of the frilly customer service niceness we have come to expect. It’s easy for me to think that because I expect a cheerful person who wants to chit chat while doing my transactions, and for him a "need anything else – want a bag – here’s your receipt – have a nice night" conversation is perfect.

In this case, for someone like my husband, what I would consider to be bad customer service is actually good for him.

So how do you figure out when a little bit of "bad" customer service might be good for the customer?

Learn How To Read People. When I worked in the rental car industry, I got really good at reading people. I could tell when someone walked in and wanted me to hand them keys, walk them to their car, and wish them a fond farewell. I could spot the customers who might be willing to listen to a little idle chit chat and a sales pitch. I knew the boundaries and when to respect them.

Here are three great blogs offering some simple tips for reading people:

Respond Appropriately to the Issue. When someone calls me with an issue like feedback playing into their conference, it's not the time to chat them up and make that connection. This customer wants me to identify and (when I can) correct the problem. Something interrupting their conference call is the main issue and my job is to fix it.

Follow Up When You Get a Chance. Being intimidated by the customer who wants to handle their business and move on isn't the way to handle things. Sure, you can respect their need to get their business conducted quickly, but at some point, you should check in with them. A simple email or phone call later on that day to simply check in to make sure you solved their problem and that the don’t have any more issues keeps the relationship open.

What works for me when it comes to customer service, doesn't work for everyone, and I know that. I want a chatty person on the other end of the phone who will laugh at my jokes and chat with me as we work through a problem.

For others, it is not what they expect or what they want. You just have to know your customers and not all of them will be the same. Get good at reading them and you’ll know just how to provide what they perceive to be great customer service.

Problem Solving in Customer Service

Not long ago, I received a phone call from a customer who was very frustrated that something hadn't gone the way she planned on her conference call. Her participants had been on mute, they were not able to speak, and she could not figure out how the conference had ended up in that setting. As she spoke, I ran through all of the possible things that could have caused the issue. By the time she was done telling me what happened I had a pretty good idea of what caused the issues on her conference call.

That didn't mean that I was about to take over the conversation and tell her exactly what I suspected. I   have a very specific thought process when I'm problem solving with customers and always follow three basic rules.

Remember that the company is guilty until proven innocent. We frequently get calls from customers who have typed in the wrong code. This prevents them from joining their conference and they will call us to see what we can do to help. When we get one of those calls from customers, the first thing we check is within our own system. We check our side to make sure everything is good to go first. This kind of information will help us diagnose the problem the customer is having and we are the cause until we can find out otherwise.

Don't talk down to customers. Once we have determined that everything is okay from our side, it's time to ask the customer some more questions. It's an imperative part of problem solving, but the golden rule here is to not talk down to the customer. When one of our clients is having a problem, it's getting in the way of them conducting business, and they need our help, not a tone that would make a customer feel that I’m secretly saying "I told you so". It’s much more important that we offer solutions to the customer than to prove the customer wrong.

Don't blame the customer. This is a fine line with the customer because you, as the company representative, know that the system wasn't at fault and you're relieved, but it's important to remember that until you hang up the phone, you have to help the customer. It's important that I tell the customer how to prevent the same problem, and not what they should have done to not have a problem in the first place.

Problem solving with a customer can become a he said / she said event if you allow it. I've found that when it comes to a problem, most customers don't want to get upset, they just want you to tell them what is wrong and either fix it – or tell them how to fix it.

How do you approach problem solving with customers?

Customers Expect Speedy Service

Let’s face it – we live in a 'want it now and don’t want to wait' kind of world. Look around you the next time you’re out or while you’re holiday shopping. Black Friday sales started at eight and ten PM Thanksgiving night and one of the biggest reasons for this is that people didn’t want to wait for the sales to start in the early morning hours. Look around at any store and you’ll see the development of the ideas of meeting customer’s on-demand expectations. From self-check isles to overnight shipping, you can see that the world feeds our need to have things right away.

Take a look to evaluate how you’re operating things at your company and see if you’re meeting the right here, right now expectations of your customers.

  • Take a look at your customer service. While not everyone can eliminate phone trees and hold times, there are ways to make things easier for customers. It could be that you hire more people when your call volume is highest or train existing employees to handle accounting or minor technical calls.
  • Evaluate the products that you offer and see if there are any new offerings you can make that customers might expect you to have. For example, if your company sells roofing shingles, you should consider selling roofing nails on your website. Customers to come to your website will consider the convenience of having the ability to buy all of the supplies they need a bonus.
  • How long does it take a customer to find things on your site? Do they have to make a million clicks to get to the contact information or your pricing? If a potential client has to spend too long on your website to find the information they are looking for, you’ll find yourself with a lot of missed opportunities.

When it comes to giving a customer what they need, it goes beyond simply creating and selling and product. You have to provide those services in a way that is both informative and an efficient use of their time.

How do you make sure that you’re meeting the on-demand desires with potential customers?

Delivering Promises to Customers

A few weekends ago, I wanted to order some sandwiches for deliver to my house. I assumed that since there were two locations of a chain within a reasonable drive to my location, that surely they could keep their “freakishly fast” promise. After being denied at both locations, I decided to look and see exactly how far they were from my house.

The two sandwiches places were mapped out to be five miles away and searching around the sandwich site, I didn't see anything that restricted delivery mileage and it seemed it should have that information.

Your website is the portal to your business and what you offer to customers. So does your website deliver the truth to customers?

Are there old promotions hanging out on different pages? Take an hour and go through your landing pages to make sure that you are still honoring the offers on the site. Trust me, if there’s a deal available online, a customer is going to find it and ask for it. If you find anything that’s old or out of date you should change it or update it.

Are the terms and conditions clear? If a promotion requires new customers to send you a picture of them talking into a banana like a telephone, then make sure you put that on the website. If a customer understands the things that have to be done to have a special deal they can make their own decisions, then it builds transparency between you and the customer.

Most customers can understand why or why not a company can do something as long as they don’t try to hide the reasons and requirements behind it. How do you make your websites and promotions transparent for customers?

What Sports Franchises Teach Us about Customer Loyalty

As I’m sure everyone has realized that I like a good sporting event. While baseball is my sport of choice I like any event where I feel like I can get emotionally invested in something happening on the field or court. Last week, I watched some of the Giants / Cowboys NFL opening game because it seemed like it would be a good one. This week, ESPN released its Ultimate Team Standings for 2012, which polls “fans” on their approval or disapproval of professional sports franchises.

The teams that ranked in the top 10 were not at all surprising, ranging from the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder to the MLB’s Arizona Diamondbacks. (Sidenote: Congrats to my Texas Rangers for ranking #9!) In determining top ranked franchise teams there are a number of factors that ESPN takes into consideration and since we’re all trying to get “fans” on various social networks and boost referral customers, I thought I would break down some of the factors and how you can apply them to your business.

Fan Relations.

Are you providing excellent customer service to your fans? How accessible are you day and night for your customers to get the help that they need? Do you respond to Facebook comments or even negative remarks about your company? It’s important to meet your customers’ needs and be ready to respond if they need something.

Bang for the Buck.

When it comes to a sporting event, fans expect that their experience should be worth the amount of money they have spent for all aspects of their time at a park. This is everything from ticket prices to food prices, and even parking. If a fan doesn’t feel like it was money well spent, they won’t rank that team to have a good reputation and they probably won’t visit again. This one is pretty simple – a business should make sure a customer is getting what they are paying for.

Players.

Are the franchise team players accessible? Is it easy to get an autograph or attend a warm up practice? Even the demeanor and attitude they have in television interviews can be a factor in determining a player’s effect on fan perception. Step back and take a look at your customer service representatives and make sure that they are going above and beyond for clients. Do they smile while they are on the phone? Are they patient and understand when trying to walk a customer through steps? These are factors that will make a mark on customers that will affect your team, and business, as a whole.

Those are just a few factors that can cause a positive or negative reception of your team and business. While the Toronto Maple Leafs (dead last) and the Sacramento Kings (next to dead last) haven’t quite figured out how to make their fans happy, your business has a unique opportunity to learn from the mistakes of those franchises and improve customer relations immediately.

After all, fans always reward their team in the end, one way or another.

8 Things I Learned From Subway

My first job was working at Subway Sandwiches in my small little town. Since the town was small, it meant that I didn't often get slammed by a rush of customers, but sometimes - a school bus would stop for sandwiches on their way home. I was sixteen years old, working until 10 PM on weekends, and I would have rather been uptown with the other kids my age. Eventually, my grades started to suffer so my parents told me that I had to quit - a decision I didn't mind.

I didn't realize it but working at Subway prepared me for any job I would have after it, including this one. Now that I'm older and more mature I look at teenagers who are working fast food and I just want to reach across the counter and tell (punch) them that they are missing a huge opportunity to learn about customer service. Working in fast food taught me eight things that every teenage employee needs to know and these are things I use every day.

  1. Smile - When I am on the phone with a customer they can tell if I am smiling or not. It's important that my tone is friendly and welcoming. There's no way you can hide if you're smiling or not when you're infront of the customer. Smiling at your customer is an important part of all customer service and helps the customer feel like you're glad they are there and chosing your company to so business with. It makes a huge difference to the entire transaction when you simply greet them with a smile.
  2. Acknowledge their presence - Even when you have a line out the door you still need to acknoweldge the presence of the people who are walking in. No, you don't have to call out across the resturaunt that you will be with them in just a moment - they can see that, but when they get up to the counter and are ready to order, simply thank them for waiting. They could have chosen to walk out the door and go down the street to your competition but they didn't.
  3. Put away your cell phone - When a customer is infront of you that customer should be the most important thing in your world. End of story.
  4. Take It Seriously - You are working in food service and, sure, a lot of people would look down their nose at you, but don't let that affect your work attitidue. You're handling food and have the potential to seriously affect someone's health - be sure you keep that in mind and wash your hands, follow cooking instructions, and don't do anything that's going to make me call the health inspector.
  5. Each Customer is a New One - I know that working in fast food might mean you deal with the overly angry customer who treats you like dirt simply because he or she can. That customer is a jerk and he shouldn't treat you like that just because he/she thinks that behavior is acceptable. We have all had bad customers or people that we couldn't communicate with but once they walk away you have to let it go, otherwise every customer will be that guy to you, and you're guranteed to have a horrible day.
  6. Respect the Order - If your company allows for special orders it is really unfair to your customer to roll your eyes when they try to place one. If I want a cheeseburger with extra cheese and no onions please don't make me feel like I've ruined your day by placing such an order.
  7. Keep Opinions About Your Job to Yourself - I know it's not where you see yourself working forever - but for now, it's the job you have and it only makes your customers uncomfortable to know that you dislike your job.
  8. Find Something You Like or Leave - When I worked at Subway, one of my favorite things was to chop tomatoes. It sounds silly, but there was something stress relieving about the giant tomato slicing machine. I looked forward to that time of day even as silly as it was. Find something you like to do and try to look forward to that.

Bonus Tip for the Customer - Sometimes, we make food service jobs very hard. If you walk into a resturuant and have to stand in a very long line to get your food, why are you so mean to the teenager behind the counter? Do you think they wanted to be short staffed today? I know it's easy to just assume that the business didn't properly staff the location but there's a good chance someone called out sick or there was a problem with a register before you got there. If it's noisy in the location and the cashier has to ask you to repeat yourself why do you get so upset about that?

When it comes to customer service, most people are generally understanding of issues that might arise and we try our best to be patient when we're hungry and cranky. One of the things that makes customers less cranky is having a kind, polite, and friendly person behind the counter to speak with.

How to Squeeze More Out of Your Weekly Meetings

It’s hard to imagine anything more routine than a weekly meeting. Typically scheduled at the same time every week, the meeting starts ten minutes late. People filter in and chat about the week. You try to get some things done: discuss the previous week of work and projects, lay out a foundation for the next week, some people take notes, some don’t, and then someone says meeting adjourned and everyone gets back to work—most likely grumbling. Okay. It may not be this bad—but still, it may not be all that good either. Routines are helpful, but they can lose their spunk. By this I mean they turn more into a rut than a routine. With regard to weekly meetings, your team may start to think they’re mundane, a formality, a little unimportant. In reality, a weekly meeting is very important: it can catalyze new ideas, get people back on track with their projects, and it’s a great way for everyone to keep abreast of the bigger picture, keeping some perspective on what your company or organization is doing.

So here are some ideas to help squeeze more out of your weekly meetings.

  1. Make Sure You Have a Weekly Leader – Your organization may be somewhat informal and your meetings are more like discussion time. While in some respects this is good and can breed fruitful ideas, in other respects it can be quite damaging to your meeting’s productivity. Having a leader is important because he or she will keep things moving. They can settle disputes, bring up the next point on the agenda, make sure the meeting starts and ends on time, make sure people stay on topic. Your leader needn’t be the same one each week. But a meeting without a leader is like a ship with no captain at its helm – it will drift off course. To watch a discussion about the importance of a meeting leader, see Broken Meetings (and how you’ll fix them).
  2. Make Sure Your Meeting Starts on Time – People are busy, and it’s annoying when others don’t respect others’ time. Therefore you should always start your meeting punctually. This seems like a given, but how many times have people showed up a few minutes late apologizing and everyone just shrugs it off? This can actually be damaging because it subconsciously primes people to take the meetings less seriously: they figure, meh, no one cares if I’m on time, it’s a pretty casual meeting anyways. A simple system of rewards and punishments will encourage people to show up on time. It doesn’t necessarily be anything big—you could reward those who show up on time with their first choice of projects, for example. Or, for those who are late, they may have to do more work that week. Or, more simply, the person who is late might have to take meeting notes and email them to everyone. For a more exhaustive list of ways to get your meeting kicked off on time, see here.
  3. As Meeting Leader, Set Clear Agenda – Weekly meetings will run most efficiently if you have a clear, step-by-step agenda. This can be organized with a broad topic and a checklist. For example, this week’s broad meeting topic may be “Increasing Customer Base.” Under that broad topic you would then have an agenda by which you proceed: Brief Intro – 3 minutes; Brainstorm – 10 minutes; Pick Strategies – 10 minutes; Plan for Implementation – 7 minutes. Having a time-stamped breakdown will keep things moving fast, keep things on topic, and generally help keep the meeting productive.
  4. Keep Meetings Short – A meeting should waste no unnecessary time just like a painting should waste no unnecessary paint. One of the common ailments of a weekly meeting is simply that it’s allotted too much time. Keeping them brief-20-25 minutes-is good because it allows your team to focus on a few key items, lets people get back to work, dissuades people from showing up late, and is respectful of everyone’s time.
  5. Use Tools Available For Organizing and Timing – The Internet has recently sprung to live several free web apps that will help you organize meetings. For keeping meeting notes, we recommend Evernote – it syncs all of your notes in the cloud, meaning they’re available on all of your devices and can be shared with your whole team. Another great app for minutes is minutes.i, which is devoted to meeting minutes. You fire up the website and it generates a minutes template that can be shared immediately after the meeting. Timebridge coordinates everyone’s calendars, finding the best times to hold your weekly meeting, check it out here.

4 Little Things That Matter

A lot of customer service happens through communication mediums that aren't the telephone. Most companies have recognized that and provide tons of ways for their customers to get in touch with them. (For example you can get us here, here, here, or here, and you can call us too!) While we still have a lot of customers that like to talk to us on the phone, there are many who prefer to contact us via email. Over the phone, it's easy to gain a connection to your customer by simply smiling or having a brief chat about something that's not related to the purpose of their call. Without your voice to back you up in an email it becomes even more important to do those "little things" to get close with your customer.

Spelling

Did you spell the customer’s name correctly? This might seem like an obvious common sense kind of thing, but I can speak from personal experience here. I have a unique spelling of my name and while I am usually pretty forgiving of the misspelling, I feel like an agency that gets my money should spell my name correctly. Email correspondence already loses some of your interaction with the customer, so make sure that the extra second is being taken to spell the customer’s name right.

Making The Offer

I'm not talking about additional products and services here, just the general let me know if there's anything else comment. The way we handle customer service is a policy where anyone can help a customer but we know there are customers who want one contact. By making the offer to help with anything, we let customers know that the person they are corresponding with can help them with any of their questions.

Please & Thank You

Losing the vocal connection with a customer means that they can't hear your tone. I've warned before in posts that one of the biggest concerns about email should be the lack of tone. A customer can infer what you're writing however they want and that can be good or bad for you. By using please and thank you in the email you're letting them know that you're asking them for more information. Don't overuse the phrases and end up sounding condescending.

Know When to Call

I've said it before and I'll say it again - if an email takes longer than two replies to resolve an issue or answer a question, pick up the phone and give the customer a call. Once you start firing a long chain of emails back and forth things are going to get very confusing. The third email you have to send to a customer should include the sentence When is a good time to give you a call so we can talk?

Customer service is something that needs to be available on all platforms that a customer might be using. Businesses are available on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks because their customers are there, but in the end, it's mostly the main forms of communication that remain - customer service by phone and customer service by email. When you lose the phone portion of customer service you lose some of the connection with your customer. You can do a little more in your email correspondence to make sure the customer feels the same kind of connection. What other "little things" can you do to make sure that customer service is translating across email?