In recent years, our team has increasingly been asked to help mentor young leads, supervisors, and managers in their leadership, interpersonal, and communication skills. In the process of doing so, we began using Enneagram personality types to help facilitate personal understanding of self and others. It's been tremendously successful.
The team at Intelligentics has provided Customer Experience research and Service Quality Assessment for B2B clients in the manufacturing, distribution, and electronic component industries for over thirty years. The breadth and intensity of our current global supply chain disruption is unprecedented. At the same time, it’s certainly not the first time we have assisted clients in navigating market and supply chain turmoil.
One of the critical lessons we’ve learned in these seasons of back-orders, customer frustration, and line-down realities is how best to effectively communicate news that customers don’t want to hear.
From a strategic point of view, it’s important to embrace the reality that you’re never going to win a lot of raving fans during this season. You can’t expect customers to reward you for not being able to deliver on time and alleviate the acute pain they are experiencing in their own circumstances. We always tell clients that the number one rule of Customer Service is “to do the best you can with what you have.” That means doing what is necessary to diminish escalating customer dissatisfaction as much as possible while building integrity that will position you for long-term loyalty.
Three key drivers of satisfaction when supply-chain agonies are most acute are: timely response, knowledgable answers, and empathy. Here are some proven tactics we’ve learned and taught our clients over the years:
Don’t Avoid Painful Conversations: Respond Quickly
Most people prefer to avoid conflict. Front line Sales and Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) are no exception. When the phone is ringing off the hook and the inbox is filled with customers asking when their parts are going to ship, demanding to speak to a manager, and making threats to never do business with you again, it’s easy to let the call roll to voice mail or ignore the emails for which you don’t have a good answer. We’ve known countless agents, departments, and companies who choose to say, “I’ll wait, and respond when I actually have a solid ship date” which conveniently avoids the hard conversation.
Don’t take this approach. It’s ineffective at diminishing customer anger and frustration. In fact, it only makes a bad situation worse. Instead, pick up the phone quickly. Respond to the email as soon as possible. In a B2B world in which poor customer service is too often the general rule, you want to build the reputation of being one of the few suppliers who respond quickly and communicate directly.
One of our clients distributes electronic components, and the Intelligentics team provides Quality Assessment for their Customer Service team’s email communication. In recent months, they’ve had a huge increase in order status questions and expedite requests on back-ordered parts. This is on top of an increasing volume of regular quote requests and Purchase Orders. Despite this, our assessment revealed this past month that their customers could faithfully expect a personal response to their emails within an hour. It can be assumed that customers are dealing with supply chain issues on multiple fronts and with multiple suppliers. When other suppliers are playing “duck and cover” to avoid a tough conversation, our client’s timely response will stand out as a positive differentiator. We even witnessed customers responding to our client’s emails and saying just that.
Direct and Honest Answers
Over the years, we’ve observed companies who want to placate customers in the moment of truth when you’re interacting with the customer. It’s another common avoidance tactic. We have actually heard managers and executives telling their teams: “Give them a date. Any date. Make it up. Just get them off the phone and get to the next customer in the queue.” Once again, this only makes things worse as the broken promises pile up, consumer trust tanks, and customer escalation rises to extreme levels. In one case, we know of an irate customer who got on a plane, flew across the country, and stood outside the manufacturer’s plant holding a sign that read “Give me my f***ing Parts!”
In contrast, we encourage our clients to be honest and direct to the point of advising customers when orders can’t be fulfilled and when estimated dates aren’t solid.
“As of right now, the system shows a ship date of December 1, but I know that it’s already been pushed back twice and there’s no knowing how firm that date is.”
“The truth is that we do not have a firm date, and any date I gave you would simply be a guess.”
“Here’s the quote you requested, but please be advised we can only provide a partial shipment based on current stock and we do not have a firm date for when we will have more stock on hand.”
Again, you’re not going to win any momentary popularity contests being honest and direct, but our research has shown that customers ultimately value a supplier who responds with honest answers. That honesty and integrity will eventually translate into loyalty as customers say, “At least you’re the one supplier who I can trust to give me a straight answer, even when it’s not the answer I want to hear!”
Empathy is hailed as the most important business skill that one can demonstrate, yet our experience is that empathy is the most difficult skill for Sales and Customer Service agents to embrace, demonstrate, and consistently communicate. Believe us when we say that the topic of empathy would require an entire book to unpack completely. Let us summarize a few key points.
First, a Customer/Sales Representative is your company to the customer on the other end of that phone call or email. If a colleague walks in on your customer while you’re talking on the phone and asks, “Who are you talking to?” your customer will respond in most every case with the name of your company. In yet another example of conflict avoidance, we regularly have agents we’re coaching say “but it’s not my fault that the parts are back-ordered.” This is true, but it’s also true that in the customer’s mind you’re not communicating with that customer as yourself. You represent the company, and it’s critically important that your company communicates empathy to that customer, and that can only happen through the individual who is interacting with them.
Next, the easiest, most simple, and most effective way to express empathy is with a clearly stated apology.
“I’m sorry, but we don’t even have a tentative date when we’ll have your parts.”
“Because of supply chain issues on our end, your order has been pushed back to January. I apologize. I know that’s not what you want to hear.”
The worst customer service scenarios are those in which you can’t resolve the customer’s issue. Going back to our number one rule of customer service, the key is to do the best you can with what you have. Aometimes the best you have is empathy and honesty.
One of the mistakes agents make in these scenarios is to over apologize to the point of annoying the customer. The best Customer Service artists learn that after apologizing once, empathy needs to take the form of empathy statements that communicate an understanding and concern for the customer’s predicament.
“I hear you, and I know that this has put you in a difficult position.”
“Believe me, I really do understand that you’re between a rock and a hard place right now, and I wish I had better information for you. At the same time, I don’t want to mislead you.”
“I get it, and you are not alone. Supply chain issues are affecting everyone. I realize that it’s no consolation, but we are literally doing everything we can.”
No Magic Pill
Handling escalated customers and difficult situations is the number one topic our training and coaching team is asked to address. One of the challenges we face whenever we address these issues is the reality that there is no magic pill. There’s no sure-fire solution. There are only best practices that can help avoid making an already tense situation worse and, in some cases, can actually help defuse an explosive situation.
As we navigate on-going supply chain issues for the foreseeable future, it’s critical that your team do the best they can to diminish customer dissatisfaction and build long-term customer loyalty through timely response, honesty, and empathy.
Intelligentics is where “intelligence meets tactics.” We have provided a full array of market research, quality assessment, and training services firm that has successfully helped clients measure and improve the customer experience since 1987. We not only help our clients gather the data and business intelligence they need, but also assist in making the right tactical decisions that will profitably grow your business. Be sure to subscribe to our Intellitalk blog at intelligentics.com, and follow us on LinkedIn.