Even though we learn to converse at an early age, sharing information, interests, insights, successes, and failures with others every day, there is always room for improving communication skills. Veteran writer and radio host Celeste Headlee discussed continuous communication improvement in her 2015 TED Talk. And her 10 tips for better conversations are very applicable to customer support teams looking to improve their customer-facing communication.
1.) Don’t multitask—“I don’t mean just set down your cell phone or your tablet or your car keys or whatever is in your hand. I mean, be present. Be in that moment. Don’t think about the argument you had with your boss. Don’t think about what you’re going to have for dinner. If you want to get out of the conversation, get out of the conversation, but don’t be half in it and half out of it.”
Not multitasking can be difficult for customer support agents who have the double duty of listening to a customer while also trying to solve their problem as quickly as possible. It’s difficult for even the most seasoned customer support agents to sound engaged and helpful when trying to do anything but listen to the customer on the phone, chat or any other channel.
2.) Don’t pontificate—”If you want to state your opinion without any opportunity for response or argument or pushback or growth, write a blog. You need to enter every conversation assuming that you have something to learn… sometimes that means setting aside your personal opinion.”
To pontificate is to “speak or express opinions in a pompous way.” What Celeste is suggesting with this point is that customer support reps shouldn’t enter conversations with assumptions. Each customer has specific issues that need to be heard in order to provide the best customer service possible. Support representatives sometimes need to check their assumptions about how an interaction might play out in order to really listen to the customer and improve customer conversations.
3.) Use open-ended questions—“Take a cue from journalists. Start your questions with who, what, when, where, why or how. If you ask a complicated question, you’re going to get a simple answer. Let them describe it. They’re the ones that know. Try asking them things like, “What was that like?” “How did that feel?” Because then they might have to stop for a moment and think about it, and you’re going to get a much more interesting response.”
Celeste is right. Journalists have been using this trick for ages to get interviewees to give more descriptive answers. Asking “Are you having an issue installing our application onto your iOS device?” only leaves two responses: yes or no. Instead, support agents should be versed in asking more open-ended questions that invite customers to expound on their problem. Obvious examples such as, “What problem are you having today?” come to mind, but this technique can be used deeper in conversations as well. Instead of asking “Did you try restarting the device?” which leads to a yes or no answer, “What methods have you tried to fix the issue already?” might uncover the answer to the customer’s problem.
4.) Go with the flow—“Thoughts will come into your mind and you need to let them go. I’ve heard interviews in which a guest is talking for several minutes and then the host asks a question which seems like it comes out of nowhere, or it’s already been answered. That means the host probably stopped listening two minutes ago.”
While there are many talking points that must be covered in a customer support interaction, going with the flow of the conversation can be a good way to dive deeper into the issue. In addition to making it seem like the support agent isn’t paying attention to the conversation, stopping to constantly refer back to stock questions can unnecessarily lengthen the amount of time spent in the customer interaction.
5.) If you don’t know, say you don’t know—“People on the radio are much more aware that they’re going on the record, and so they’re more careful about what they claim to be an expert in and what they claim to know for sure. Do that. Err on the side of caution. Talk should not be cheap.”
Yes, customers contact support agents because they need a problem solved, but sometimes it’s ok for support representatives to take a moment and make sure they find the right solution. The time it takes to pause and look for information or transfer the customer to another agent who can help them better will almost always be shorter than giving the customer the wrong answer and sending them on their way. A customer support knowledge base can be useful in these situations as well, if there are no other agents who can best solve the answer.
6.) Don’t equate your experience with theirs—“If they’re talking about the trouble they’re having at work, don’t tell them about how much you hate your job. It’s not the same. It is never the same. All experiences are individual. And, more importantly, it is not about you. Conversations are not a promotional opportunity.”
The difference in severity between Celeste’s history with this rule and a customer service agent’s is a bit larger than the rest of these guidelines. Celeste is pointing out the problem with saying “I understand how that might make you feel.” For Celeste interviewing someone who lost a loved one, the difference in feeling might be much larger than a support agent trying to understand how a frustrated customer contacting a customer call center might feel. Either way, these comments don’t generally sound helpful or comforting to the person in need of assistance.
7.) Try not to repeat yourself—“It’s condescending, and it’s really boring, and we tend to do it a lot. Especially in work conversations or in conversations with our kids, we have a point to make, so we just keep rephrasing it over and over. Don’t do that.”
Unless it’s for something that needs absolute clarity, repeating phrases or words too many times sounds like inattentiveness to the customer, “I already told them what the issue was and how I tried to fix it. Why are they asking me again?” Reading back phone numbers, addresses, and other critical pieces of information are expected, but make sure to pay attention the first time the customer says something to keep satisfaction levels up.
8.) Stay out of the weeds—“Frankly, people don’t care about the years, the names, the dates, all those details that you’re struggling to come up with in your mind. They don’t care. What they care about is you. They care about what you’re like, what you have in common. So forget the details. Leave them out.”
Customers don’t want to be tied up in interactions with support agents longer than they have to. Understanding the problem and relaying the information needed to solve it should be the primary goal when dealing with a customer. Celesete’s suggestion of “staying out of the weeds” is a balance. Not spending enough time could leave the customer’s need unfulfilled, and too deep into the issue could greatly increase the time spent trying to solve the issue.
9.) Listen—“This is not the last one, but it is the most important one. I cannot tell you how many really important people have said that listening is perhaps the most, the number one most important skill that you could develop.”
Obviously, listening is one of the key components to having a better conversation. Really listening means understanding, empathizing, and dissecting what the other person is saying, which can be a tough task for anyone who isn’t actively involved. Celeste quotes Calvin Coolidge in her keynote saying that “no man ever listened his way out of a job.”
10.) Be brief—“All of this boils down to the same basic concept, and it is this one: Be interested in other people… Talk to people, listen to people, and, most importantly, be prepared to be amazed.”
Celeste’s last rule more applies to her work background, but it serves as a reminder for any industrious customer support agents. If the issue is solved, don’t belabor the point. The point is to make the customer experience as seamless as possible, so remember to be brief.
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