From a distance, the sunny world of customer service advice looks just like a manual for being a really good friend. Make them feel welcome. Never lie. Be empathetic. Be available. Really listen to them. Smile more! Like tired tropes, they talk big but signify little.
It’s no wonder then that support people faced with argumentative customers and escalations often feel underprepared to handle their customers. This lack of support causes many of them to burn out and quit.
It’s a big bad world out there and just like any other profession, support teams need a solid, actionable framework to guide and support them. But at many companies, internal customer service training never moves beyond soft skills and smiles.
It’s a shame, because many people who get into customer support do it because they really like to help people. They’re inherently good with people — emotionally intelligent, sociable and natural problem-solvers. That’s why support training that focuses on traditional soft skills training offers diminishing returns.
Smiling more doesn’t help the customer get from Point A to Point B any more quickly or easily easier. Soft skills may make for pleasant interactions, but they don’t retain customers. That’s where hard skills come in.
For internal customer service training use the following hard skills as coaching points to empower your support team.
Experience engineering: ‘hard’ skills for support pros
Soft skills training is what most support reps get on the job, but the value of this sort of training diminishes over time. Being courteous and attentive has little to no impact on customer retention.
Guiding customers through a smart, low-effort support journey on the other hand, has a significant impact on customer loyalty and retention.
Matt Dixon, co-author of The Effortless Experience identified a new approach to bridge the gap between both, called experience engineering:
An approach to actively guide a customer through an interaction that is designed to anticipate the emotional response and preemptively offer solutions that create a mutually beneficial solution.
They found that a solid foundation of support and training in certain “hard skills” — skills that are both learnable and repeatable — had a direct impact on customer loyalty. What goes into this approach? A little psychology, a lot of negotiation and more in-depth than your usual customer service training activities.
For example, here are some of the skills that make up experience engineering:
This goes beyond talking happy and making customers feel good. It’s also about making positive language choices that inspire confidence.
Swapping out “I’m not sure I can help you with that” with “Let’s see what we can do…” tells customers you’re going to work with them to find a solution (or agreement) that works for them, not just go through a checklist.
In fact, much of the the tone and language techniques used by successful negotiators can be incredibly useful for support teams too.
Customers come in all the time with specific requests they don’t really need or perhaps you can’t honor. Since support reps know better than customers what you can do for them, they can offer an acceptable alternative that would still benefit the customer if they found out the motivations behind their request.
Let’s say Cathy finds the perfect dress online for a hot date on Friday. She calls in to see if the store can get it to her in time:
Customer Cathy: Can you ship this red dress to me by Friday?
Support Sam: Well, I’ve got this black dress in the same size available for you take home today. It looks like I can get you the red dress but I’d have it by Monday and that might be a little too late for you.
This requires establishing good rapport, which again, is not a difficult skill to find among support reps. Learning to do this well will help you resolve cases on the spot rather than handle repeat calls.
This method takes advantage of a common cognitive bias called the anchoring effect to make one option sound way better than the other. Reframe an unfavorable situation by focusing heavily (or anchoring) on the option that is more attractive and easily fulfilled by you.
Let’s say Customer Cathy is angry about an unexpectedly high cell phone bill and is demanding a refund. Support Sam goes ahead and credits her account, but he does this too:
Support Sam: What we normally do is charge for international calls and data by the minute. What I can do is upgrade you to one of our international phone plans that covers unlimited international roaming. You’ll pay $20 more per month, but you won’t have to worry about additional charges anymore.
This only works when there’s an anchor. Support Sam isn’t forcing anything, but she’ll probably choose the option that sounds really good in juxtaposition with the other.
Advocacy, as defined in The Effortless Experience, means “demonstrating clear alignment with the customer and supporting them in an active way.”
Apple has elevated this to an art by training its Geniuses to defuse tense situations through advocacy in some pretty clever ways. Check out this excerpt from Apple’s Genius training manual Gizmodo was able to get their hands on:
Geniuses are taught to employ the “Three Fs: Feel, Felt, and Found. This works especially well when the customer is mistaken or has bad information.
Customer: This Mac is just too expensive.
Genius: I can see how you’d feel this way. I felt the price was a little high, but I found it’s a real value because of all the built-in software and capabilities.
The maneuver is brilliant. The Genius has switched places with the customer. He is she and she is he, and maybe that laptop isn’t too expensive after all. He found it wasn’t, at least.
Empathy and politeness and other such soft skills have their place in customer conversations, but they don’t hold a candle to the psychological power of these techniques.
None of this is necessarily common knowledge.
People who do well in customer service generally do have the gift of gab, empathy and so on, but this is not where customer service skills acquisition ends. You don’t just get better and better at empathy. Being nicer doesn’t keep customers.
There’s a much more urgent calling — and a much more effective way — to resolve customer issues in as few steps as possible. To that end, support training needs to evolve to reflect the persuasive, shrewd negotiation techniques needed to do achieve retention goals.
Fuzzy on the outside, an iron-clad grip on business objectives on the inside.