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Stop saying sorry to your customers

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

Face of a furious woman screaming.

In our stressed out, always-on lives, we don’t have time for apologies anymore. At least when it comes to calling a customer service agent. Two different studies show that consumers expect action and not empathy when they call with a problem.

The studies show that customers can actually have a negative opinion of customer care representatives that keep apologizing. What they value most is someone that can solve the problem, guide them in the right direction and give them solutions.

Jagdip Singh, a professor of marketing at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, USA, spoke about his extensive study on a recent Harvard Business Review podcast, Ideacast*.

Singh’s work included a qualitative study of 111 videos at airport customer service desks. They followed it up with a lab experiement to test their findings and came up with the same conclusion: it’s ok to apologise at the start of a conversation but after the first seven seconds, any apologising usually reduces customer satisfaction.

Harvard Business Review themselves also carried out a study based on the personality traits of frontline support staff. The most dominant category of person hired as a customer service agent was what they called ’The Empathiser’ – a person who listens sympathetically, works to understand the caller’s behaviour and situation and enjoys solving their problem. But this kind of person was less popular amongst customers than ’The Controller’ – a person who took over the conversation and controlled it and guided the customer to a solution.

Both studies highlighted the need to solve the customer’s problem. The only difference between the two was that Singh’s research showed that customer’s were happiest once they were presented with options that they could decide upon together with the support agent. The Harvard Business Review study indicated that the customers want to be directed to the best solution available.

Based on his study, Singh told the podcast that if customers wanted to really mobilise their frontline support, they needed to do three things.

Number one: make these agents more effective in the work they need to do. And effectiveness of agents is not just personality. It’s also training; it’s also culture. It’s also giving them autonomy to be empowered, to listen to the customer and to respond with effective solutions, not a scripted solution.

Number two is to provide the agents with the resources and data and inputs that are needed to make good decisions…and to make that data flow to the front lines so that it can be used by the agents effectively in order to solve customer problems. Organisations really need to pay attention to and be more effective in making that connection.”

Number three is finding a way to make the big data useful for frontline support. ”The big data that organisations currently work with and analyse is looking at broad patterns, whereas agents are responding to individual, specific, contextualised problems. … I think the key lies not in just moving data to the front lines but to learn from the frontline creativity and make the big data better, smarter, and more effective.”

As networks become increasingly intelligent, the problems that people ring in about are also often more complex than they used to be. It means that when a person rings in with a problem, they require and expect a highly competent person at the other end of the line.

If that person is armed with the right information, they can skip the small talk straight away and go into problem-solving mode immediately. Lets say a customer rings the operator with an issue making calls and the customer care representative can already see what smartphone is being used, when it was last updated to the latest OS and if there has been a widespread problem with that update. If there has, then the customer can be informed immediately and directed in the right way. No more apologies required but rather direct action and information explaining the problem.

Armed with the right information staff can significantly reduce call-time which will, in turn, significantly improve customer satisfaction and at the same time significantly cut costs internally. Everyone wins.


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