Picture this. A customer who looks like she’s about to breathe fire and brimstone, as well as call down the wrath of the gods, approaches a service counter at a business. The customer service representative (CSR) at the counter sees the customer advancing and notices the grim facial expression, the pounding gait and the deathlike gaze. What does the CSR do? She bolts and leaves her hapless colleague who has been caught unawares, to face the music. The customer, seething with rage about a huge transaction mishap, unloads onto the unprepared CSR, who does his best to respond effectively and to bring the situation under control, but is unsuccessful.
What we have here, is a typical (well, maybe a little more dramatic than usual), scenario that happens across countless counters all over the world, on a daily basis. Explosive customer versus unequipped CSR. In this square-off, the odds are against the frontline employee, with the customer holding court, venting, doing a vexation dump and demanding to speak with a senior officer. At this point, the customer would have had a dismissive attitude, simply because the CSR may not have given an on-spot solution, may not have demonstrated the expected level of empathy and every gesture would have been perceived as rude or offensive. Customers are very sensitive when they’re upset.
“Explosive customer versus unequipped CSR. In this square-off, the odds are against the frontline employee, with the customer holding court, venting, doing a vexation dump and demanding to speak with a senior officer.”
Could this explosive situation have been managed differently? Absolutely. Far too often CSRs experience “engagement reluctance,” when they feel overpowered by the looming encounter. Instead of feeling confident enough to manage the situation skillfully and successfully, many frontline employees feel a range of unhelpful emotions. Dread, fear, insecurity, disempowerment and panic, are just some of the emotions that rush through employees when they encounter “difficult” customers.
“How does a business enable its frontline employees to feel confident and empowered enough to navigate challenging encounters successfully, to the point where customers leave smiling?”
“Dread, fear, insecurity, disempowerment and panic, are just some of the emotions that rush through employees when they encounter “difficult” customers.”
The first step in addressing this question, is to reframe the orientation to the customer and reduce the negative imagery associated with the word “difficult”. I prefer to use the word “challenging” because it generally reduces the fear and aversion to encountering a customer who personifies the word “difficult.” “Challenging” is so much softer in its connotation. So, one of the first shifts that is introduced when I conduct training sessions on customer engagement, is that we stop referring to customers as “difficult”. We say that the customer is “challenging.”
This is the first rule of unfreezing, getting frontline employees to embrace a new level of mental openness to a situation that may have been perceived previously, with a sense of dread. Let’s take a look at some other useful tools that can stretch mental openness into skill readiness.
Scripts that guide the CSR-to-customer encounters, are useful, but scenario mapping and simulations are more productive. Whilst a CSR with scripts for particular situations is more prepared than a CSR without a script, situations that fall outside of the scripted scenarios, may be anxiety-inducing for the CSR. The better approach, in my humble opinion, is to simulate as many scenarios as possible and allow the CSRs to apply critical thinking, problem-solving and design thinking approaches to generating solutions. In this way, the frontline staff learn to think through situations, drawing on their functional knowledge, common sense and a value system that upholds customer success as the endgame.
“Scripts that guide the CSR-to-customer encounters, are useful, but scenario mapping and simulations are more productive. The better approach, in my humble opinion, is to simulate as many scenarios as possible and allow the CSRs to apply critical thinking, problem-solving and design thinking approaches to generating solutions.”
Then there’s good old training in behavioural style flexing. Customers (and people), come in different styles, overlaid with different moods and mental wiring. If CSRs have not been trained in diversity and behavioural style encounter management, chances are that they will only be able to interact well with those customers who are pleasant, who communicate in a courteous manner and who are not “difficult.” That’s only, in my estimation, the minority of customers who interact with businesses on a given day. Superfluous two-day training programs do not deliver expert-level skill. I’m wondering here if I should repeat the previous sentence for the people at the back.
Employee empowerment is another tool in the kit for overcoming encounter reluctance. When employees know that they are supported by their up-line officers, there is a willingness to explore creative ways of solving and resolving situations. If employees live in a toxic culture where shaming, blaming and defaming is the norm, when service failures occur, then there is a huge reluctance to “stick their necks out.” Of course, we all know that a toxic culture breeds fear.
“When employees know that they are supported by their up-line officers, there is a willingness to explore creative ways of solving and resolving situations.”
The frontline zone should be a “no fear” zone, where frontline employees are heroes to their customers. It should be a zone where human and non-human resources are backed by the entire business, for the single purpose of……..delivering customer happiness.
When last you checked, was your frontline zone “fear free”?