This guest post is written by Jeremy Watkin, Head of Quality at FCR.
I’m a huge baseball fan— a Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim fan to be exact. In baseball, the order in which the players bat is called a “lineup.” The general rule of thumb is that the first batter, or leadoff hitter, is one of the best players at getting on base— either by hit or walk. This person also tends to be one of the faster players, so when they do get on base, they can both steal bases and score on hits where the slower players wouldn’t be able to.
Let’s go ahead and take this analogy and mosey on over to customer service. Imagine that our customers are pitching to us and the questions they are asking are the pitches.
Another thing you should know about baseball is that most major leaguers have no problem hitting a fastball— especially if it’s right down the middle and they know it’s coming. It’s often the pitches that move around a lot, like the curveball and slider, that keep hitters off balance.
We tend to be good at answering the fastball questions from customers. After all, we are well-trained customer service experts for the product or service we support. It’s the curveballs that give us fits. Think about the questions we either don’t know the answer to or know we specifically can’t accommodate.
It’s in those moments that we so often take the wrong approach at the plate. We generally approach those curveballs with words like unfortunately, no, sorry, can’t, I don’t know, and a variety of other negative responses. More times than not, responding to our customers in this manner is a sure way to strike out.
When customers consistently throw their best curveballs, and they will, it’s important to have our best responses ready to go. While this is important for all customer service channels, it’s all the more important for the text-based ones like email, SMS, and social media where we may only get one chance to respond— on behalf of the entire company! Clearly this is something we should practice ahead of time.
Practice hitting the curveball (AKA answer tough questions)
When it comes to hitting the curveball, sometimes it’s all in your approach. The approach I’ve seen (and done) over and over again is the one where we respond telling the customer we can’t do something. Hypothetically speaking, let’s say we work for a company that sells widgets and a customer asks if we can overnight ship a widget to them. Knowing full well that we don’t offer overnight shipping, the typical approach is to say something like:
I’m so sorry but unfortunately we don’t offer overnight shipping at this time. Thank you so much for contacting us. Have a nice day.
At that point we’ve essentially struck out. The response focused on what we couldn’t do with no focus on what we could do. Whether the customer states it or not, they are forced to either wait or take their business elsewhere.
Like a professional hitter, let’s change our approach and see if we can hit the curveball this next time. Here’s a response that focuses on what we can do for the customer:
Thank you so much for your interest in our widgets! I’ve provided a few of my personal favorites below as you search for your favorite.
In regards to our shipping, we’ve found that our order fulfillment time is so quick that customers often receive their items faster than our estimates. While we don’t specifically offer overnight shipping, let me know if you have any flexibility on the date you need to receive this by. I want to get a fresh, new widget out to you and will do what I can to make that happen as soon as possible.
The Play by Play
Do you see what I did there on my second response? Like a good baseball analyst, let’s break it down:
- Show Ownership- After thanking the customer for their inquiry and gently sharing some suggestions with them, I very softly touched on the fact that I couldn’t do exactly what they were asking. I did however let them know that I was there to help connect them with a solution.
- Begin a Dialog- In my first reply, I told the customer I couldn’t help them…PERIOD. That’s effectively the end of the discussion unless the customer wants to argue with me and tell me I’m wrong. In my second approach, I sought to find an alternate solution for them that we could easily support. Perhaps the customer didn’t need overnight shipping, that just happened to be the only possible option they saw. If they needed the item in 2-3 days, that’s a big difference and I, as the expert on my product, can determine if we can accommodate that.
- Solution-minded- In welcoming the customer’s response, I’ve shown myself to be open and receptive to what they have to say. In some cases, the customer will have more flexibility than we initially assumed. If the customer does respond stating that they need it by tomorrow, our company then has a decision to make. This is a great place to employ the 1 to say yes, 2 to say no principle. Rather than responding and saying “Unfortunately there’s nothing I can do,” ask someone in leadership if there’s something we can do. What if the customer’s willing to pay extra for the expedited shipping?
The point of this is that we are finding ways to do business with customers and solve their problems. That’s a good thing. While there are certainly times to say no to customers, we say no far too often where even just a little flexibility and understanding would create a customer for life.
Practice Makes Perfect
Let’s try a few more statements on for size before we end this post. I’ll present the negative and then the positive:
Question: What’s the status of my order?
Negative Answer: Unfortunately your order is still in our warehouse because it was delayed by a day.
Positive Answer: Thank you so much for your patience with your order. It is shipping today. If you haven’t received tracking information to your email, it should be there very soon. I hope this information helps.
Question: My online order status says “backordered.” When will I receive it?
Negative Answer: Unfortunately, your order is indeed backordered and will be unavailable for another month or so.
Positive Answer: I’m sorry for the delay in fulfilling this order. It looks like we will be able to ship your product out to you in about a month. If this order is more urgent than that, here are some other products that are very similar that we do have in stock right now. Let me know if you’d like to order one of those instead.
Question: Why is my credit card being declined?
Negative Answer: There are many reasons your credit card might be declined. Are you sure there’s enough money in your account. You are going to need to contact your bank.
Positive Answer: I’m sorry your credit card is being declined. That’s frustrating and we really want you to be able to use our service as soon as possible. I would suggest contacting your bank to see if they have information about the decline. If they say everything is ok, give us a call and we’ll help you try your card again.
My eternally optimistic colleague, Hammer Winn helped me in writing this article and so it’s only fitting to quote him as we think about adopting a more positive mindset in our responses to others:
“This approach not only changes the tone of the interaction, but also creates a customer for life. Practicing this positive approach not only improves your customer service but also has the power to improve your life and relationships.”
Take a moment to think about some of your responses throughout each day and find ways to rewrite them so they focus on a solution, show ownership, and encourage dialog with the customer.
To slightly modify a quote from the great baseball player, Mark McGwire, Customers dig the long ball. Learn to hit the curveball and you will hit more home runs with your customers.
About the Author
Jeremy Watkin is the Head of Quality at FCR, the most respected outsource provider. He has more than 15 years of experience as a customer service professional. He is also the co-founder and regular contributor on Communicate Better Blog. Jeremy has been recognized many times for his thought leadership. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn for more awesome customer service and experience insights.