Always Be Connecting: The ABCs of Exceptional Customer Service

Let's be honest. We've all had our fair share of bad customer service experiences. In today's highly complex, highly automated technology world, it's all too easy ending up feeling that the companies with which we do business just don't care. And the consequences of customer dissatisfaction can be profound. A RightNow Customer Experience Impact Report found that a whopping 89 percent of consumers stop doing business with a company after experiencing poor customer service. No organization can afford to lose customers at such a high rate.

While it might not be realistic for customer service organizations to solve every problem in a single interaction, it is possible to engage and connect with customers each and every time. We can do this by being empathetic, which means seeing through the customers' lens and understanding their experiences and emotions. Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, stated that "When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That's when you can get more creative in solving problems."

Empathy is crucial for great customer service. And showing empathy as quickly as possible not only can change a customer's immediate perception of the company, but it can go a long way toward turning it into a long-term relationship.

Written Communications Can Be Misinterpreted

In our omnichannel, connected business world, customer service organizations have a wide range of social and CRM tools at their disposal. The tools, in and of themselves, don't equate to exceptional service that drives repeat business and loyalty. While omnichannel tools certainly have a place in this hyper-connected world, they can lack the most important ingredient: an ability to show empathy that comes from human interaction.

The problem with these tools often boils down to tone. Unfortunately, the written word isn't always effective at conveying nuances associated with empathy. It is all too easy to unintentionally come across as cold and direct in an email or text. When using these tools, I always make it a point to start off with a friendly greeting or introduction before getting into the details of the customer incident, which helps to keep my intent from being misinterpreted.

Always Be Connecting

When customer service professionals are empathetic, they connect with customers. The level of connection and the amount of empathy displayed will often determine the quality of the customer experience. It goes without saying that solving the customer's problem is the primary goal of any interaction, but how well we connect with the customer will strongly influence how he feels about the company.

Customer satisfaction can often be tied to how she connects with the customer service representative and how well that representative is able to demonstrate empathy. This is where using the latest technology can help. I call this the empathy curve. 

When a customer can't connect with customer service, there is no empathy, and therefore customer satisfaction is negative or poor at best and the tweets start flying. As we move up the curve, a text message, chat, email, or social media response offers a minimum amount of connection and an equally minimal opportunity for empathy. While better than no response, the level of customer satisfaction is probably going to be fairly low. Case in point: I recently contacted a customer service organization for help on choosing the best cloud storage option. What I got was an automated email response from The Help Desk. My first reaction was who in the heck is The Help Desk? Even though this was clearly an autobot response, it should have included a real person's name. For me, this communication was devoid of any empathy.

The highest level of connection on the empathy curve is a face-to-face exchange. While it might not always be possible to meet in person, two-way video conferencing makes it possible to deal with customers face-to-face without having to be there. Empathy is at its highest when two people can read each other's expressions and share that emotional connection. This can even work when only the customer service representative's face can be seen.

I'll give you an example that recently happened to me. I was working with an important customer, but they didn't have video conferencing capabilities on their end. So, I set up a half-duplex video call, where they could see me, but I could only hear them. I positioned my notes so I was able to look directly at the camera at all times, which showed that I was paying attention to them. It also allowed me to engage and show my empathy. Not only did we solve their problem, but they knew they had a partner in our company who really cared that they were satisfied.

Connecting by phone is the next best thing to being there. According to an eConsultancy survey, 61 percent of consumers prefer assistance over the phone. Obviously, a voice-to-voice call provides a tremendous opportunity for customer service professionals to connect with a customer and be truly empathic. By listening to the customer's issue and understanding their frustration, a service representative can show the company cares.

Training to be More Empathetic

It's safe to say, being empathic comes more naturally to some than others. But fortunately, empathy can be learned, which is especially good news for customer service organizations. In the end, being empathetic is all about seeing things through the customers' eyes. By putting yourself in their shoes, you can better understand the emotions behind their experience. This is the very definition of empathy.

Being an active listener is also crucial. Paying attention to a customer's tone and allowing her to express her emotions, whether it be stress or frustration, is key to an empathetic response. Basic customer service training that focuses on always be connecting can go a long way toward becoming more empathic with customers.

A combination of using the highest level of communication that allows the greatest empathy, staying focused, and closing out issues in a timely manner, will drive a deeper, more satisfying customer experience. And that can only be good for the business.

Tracy Steele is vice president of global technical support and services at NetScout.