Last Updated Dec 6, 2010 5:12 PM EST
Great customer service does not have to be complicated, costly, or even "procedural." Sometimes it's as simple as just tweaking your speaking. The very specific ways in which we speak to our customers can make all the difference in the world. The qualities of real customer-focused speech can be so subtle as to seem like nuance. But this is an area in which a little goes a long way, and one in which a surprisingly high number of companies fall short.
Just a few common examples and alternatives:
BAN THIS: "I can help who's next" - I'm sure it goes unnoticed by most people, but this phrase drives me crazy. It's usually uttered by someone behind a counter or register while looking off into space with what the Marine Corps calls the "thousand-yard stare." Aside from the fact that the phrase is not even proper English, it is passive, ambivalent, and even insulting, especially when customers are waiting in line to be helped. The person behind the counter knows who's next and exactly where she is standing, but instead of addressing that person and welcoming her business, the employee is essentially making a vague statement that he has the ability to take the next customer, whomever that random customer may be.
Instead, if your business is of the face-to-face variety, look the very next customer right in the eyes, smile, and say "hello, may I help you," or any gracious, personal variation thereof. If the word "you" is not in the sentence, it's probably not right. This modification changes the customer from an object into a person of value to your business.
BAN THIS: "You need to / You're gonna have to / I need you to" - Very common among airline employees and others in positions involving some level of control or authority (as in "I need you to put your phone away.") It's usually delivered in a passive-aggressive, condescending manner. Also commonly used in one form or another in many phone support interactions.
Instead, simply ask nicely. There's no place for passive-aggressive or haughty down-talking in customer service. Saying "Miss (or Ma'am or Sir), can I trouble you to turn off your phone" can be done without compromising anyone's authority. Or if helping someone over the phone, try "I'm so sorry for the hassle, but I have to ask if you can track down the serial number so I can solve this for you." There's a universe of difference between that and "You need to find me that serial number if you want me to help you."
BAN THIS: "I don't know who told you that, but..." - a common and infuriating response when a customer can't get efficient or satisfactory service and is forced to move up the customer service ladder (which shouldn't happen in the first place). Basically this statement tacitly suggests that the customer is lying. Even if you think the customer is wrong, has misunderstood something, or even bending the story a bit -- probably in a desperate effort to get help -- don't belittle or subtlely accuse him.
Instead, say "It sounds like we might have given you some incorrect/confusing information (even if you didn't). Let me see if I can get the right information to try to resolve this for you." No matter what you think or know, this is no place for pride or defensiveness. Take it on yourself, keep the customer's frustration from escalating, then just try to help solve the problem as best you can.
BAN THIS: "I'm sorry, there's nothing I can do" (or any variation thereof).
Instead, find something you can do. There is almost always something you can do. Maybe it's not 100 percent of what the customer wants, but can you do 50 percent? Can you make a gesture that will make the customer feel a little better? Most of the time I'll bet you can if you're motivated.
You may think that some or all of this sounds ridiculously obvious --"duh" suggestions, if you will -- but the fact is, very few companies consistently master the simple art of customer-focused speech.
Most customers begin an interaction expecting a blah experience at best, while hoping against hope to be pleasantly surprised. If your company is the one to deliver that surprise, it will pay dividends... and it costs you nothing but common sense, compassion and a dose of the golden rule.
There's a very easy way to know how your customer-speak measures up: Just see if you can make 'em smile (even on the phone -- you know if someone is smiling). The smile says it all, and more times than not, if you say the right thing in the right way, you'll get that priceless reaction and the returns that come with it.
What other words and phrases do you think should be banned, and how would you replace them?
(Flickr image by Dave77459)