Doing the ugly jobs
One of the things about keeping employees happy and enjoying their work is figuring out how to make even the worst job a little less painful. In my business career I think one of the toughest things that an employee might have to do is handle an irate customer over the phone. So how can we make that less painful?
During the last 30+ years I have dealt with many unhappy customers. Well, that didn’t sound good, did it? Sounds like all we did was go around ticking people off. But the fact is, that my largest companies were always in the service industry and so we had a great amount of opportunities to “screw something up”.
One of those companies was Fleetfoot Messenger Service, a local small package courier in the Seattle area. At our peak, we would do 1,200 deliveries in a single day. Even at a 97% on time percentage (most deliveries had to be completed in 1 or 2 hours) that still would leave 30-40 daily deliveries on the late side. Well, there is late and there is late. A 2 hour delivery that takes 127 minutes is late but those 7 minutes probably were not noticed and probably did not cause a problem for the customer. But sometimes, when traffic problems occurred or dispatchers made a blunder, a job might be late by an hour or two or more. Sometimes, bids that needed to be delivered ABSOLUTELY WITHOUT FAIL before 3pm didn’t make the deadline. Ouch! That was a terrible situation and always resulted in an irate customer calling to talk to us … and rightly so.
After years of practice that I would not wish upon anyone, we identified the best ways to handle a complaint call and the steps were as follows:
1) LISTEN. Above all, when a customer calls to complain, let them vent. No matter how difficult it was to listen to, the best course of action was always to let them have their say first and when they ran out of breath, then our Agent could respond.
2) AGREE. If they are calling to complain it is for a valid reason. Either we really did screw up and fail them or they perceive that we did. Even if we did not screw up and they are wrong, this is not the moment in time to educate them. Our Agent was always instructed to agree that it sounds like we let them down.
3) APOLOGIZE. It won’t kill you to utter the words, just say it. “I’m sorry. This kind of thing does not normally happen (if it did, we wouldn’t be in business so you know that much is true) and we will do all we can to make it up to you.”
4) TAKE SOME ACTION. This part is a bit harder to summarize. Much depends on the circumstances. At one end of the spectrum, the Agent may be able to take quick action to resolve the problem immediately – but that is rare. At the other end of the range of all possible problem types, the only action an Agent can take is to say they will research the problem and get back to the customer by ____________ (then give a time that is realistic) and do all they can to rectify the situation.
And whenever possible, we gave all our Customer Service Agents the power to make on the spot discounts and/or no-charge decisions. The customer has already been inconvenienced enough. They do not have to be transferred to another department to find out if the charges will be discounted or eliminated. Do it as soon as you possibly can.
Now, bear in mind, in some businesses you can replace a faulty product with a good one and that solves the problem. But for most service businesses, and particularly for a delivery company, once a service is late … it is always going to be late. Once with a particularly difficult and unhappy customer, I made the terrible mistake of saying what I was thinking rather than what I should say. The customer kept asking me repeatedly what I was going to do about the delivery that was late by 45 minutes and because of that, he lost a big account. On the fifth time that he asked “Well, what are you going to do about it?” I cleverly retorted “Well, my time machine is broken right now so I can’t go back and redeliver it.” After about 20 seconds of dead silence on the other end of the line, I heard the click. Just for the record … sarcasm does not go over big when you are dealing with irate customers.
The bottom line is that we found that how we dealt with failure was extremely Important. In fact, on many occasions, we did research and discovered that it was not our fault after all. We learned that even on those occasions, it was best to fall on our sword and take the blame. Trying to explain it away was worse than having them think we did it. Now we looked like weasels too. Usually the way that we managed to keep the customers calling us even after a major service failure was to do the following:
Listen, apologize, accept responsibility, tell them how we will handle those incidents in the future, make the necessary procedural changes to make sure we really do that, charge zero for the delivery and apologize again. As long as we faced the truth and dealt honestly and fairly with the customer, they seemed to stand by us. Being willing to admit that you and your staff are not perfect; that you acknowledge that now and then you might screw up is a huge step and one that bonds you with your customer. We’re all human and sometimes we actually have to admit it.
Having a plan and a rehearsed procedure for dealing with unhappy customers takes some of the fear and angst out of the task. It makes an ugly job slightly less ugly. And following that up with internal procedure changes to decrease the odds that it will happen again, definitely makes your employees feel better about the process. Less screw-ups = fewer complaint calls … and everyone likes that!