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How to Fix the Sorry Side of Customer Service

Customer service is a tough job. People who work in a pure service role (as opposed to those who but also take orders, provide sales support, or do real selling themselves) spend the vast majority of their day dealing with unhappy or angry people. As one rep put it, “Sometimes it feels like we say we’re sorry all day long.”

That’s why it’s so important for the business to recognize the challenges of service work — and where it fits in the organizational context.

Do the Math

Most service reps don’t get to talk to the vast majority of customers, who range from happy to satisfied to even just okay, so they don’t realize that the dissatisfaction and anger they hear on the phone or read in emails and chat isn’t the full picture. They think the downside is all there is. And unfortunately, frequent experience with unhappy customers can lead reps to believe very negative things, as if their organization causes or sells nothing but problems — products that are poorly packaged, shipped inaccurately, and a deep disappointment to customers upon arrival.

You can help right this unbalanced perception by showing reps just how small a minority of customers actually contacts the company to complain, and how the vast majority of their problems get resolved satisfactorily. Put charts up on the wall, graph the team’s progress, and report that progress to the reps in weekly meetings. Give them enough data so they can feel proud to handle service — instead of feeling ashamed to say where they work.

Optimize Operations

Once the numbers are clear, tackle any aspects of the business that really do create service problems. Here are some examples of the kinds of operating processes that don’t make sense to customers and cause particular stress for reps:

  • If they can’t find an order five minutes after it was placed and the customer wants to add an item or correct an address;
  • If they can’t recall — or stop the processing of — an order three minutes after it was placed;
  • If they can’t automatically send out a replacement item even though they can tell that a package has been delivered to the wrong address or that the wrong items (through no fault of the customer) have been shipped.

When items frequently run out of stock, or when sale merchandise is already gone even when customers try to place orders the day they receive your sale catalog or email, customers may suspect that the company is engaging in false advertising — and reps become the target of that suspicion. Although it’s pretty obvious that reps suffer from absorbing and coping with customer negativity, it’s less obvious that they also suffer from fearing — or from actually believing — that unhappy customers’ accusations are true, that the company either plans badly, manages stupidly, or lies.

When there isn’t enough staff scheduled to handle the volume of calls, emails, and other processing, customers end up having to wait too long for access or answers, and the reps suffer too. They have to deal with customer unhappiness, and feel the pressure of calls in queue and emails piling up in inboxes while they struggle to complete paperwork or research problems. At the worst part of this cycle, the reps may also have to work overtime or cut short their breaks, so it’s reasonable for them to feel on edge or overwhelmed.

Show You Understand

Whenever management is working on fixing a problem, let the reps know exactly what’s being fixed, how it’s going, and how long you expect it to take for the problem to be resolved. Keep the reps in the loop to help boost their — and management’s — credibility.

And when the problem is fixed — the staffing levels are rebalanced, the stock is replenished, the shipping backlog is cleaned out, and the billing errors have been rectified — make sure to leave the details of the resolution visibly posted so that the reps remember that you fixed something that’s important to them. Display the information on bulletin boards or whiteboards, present it at meetings, and publish it in the weekly newsletter.

Let the reps know exactly what’s going on: how improvements are being made, how problems are being resolved, how obstacles are being eliminated, and which issues are still open. Then they’ll know you’re attentive to their needs, and they’ll feel valued. Let them know you’re sorry for how hard it is — and how much you appreciate their good work.

Onward and upward,


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