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Opinion: Stop punishing your customers on the phone

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In 1985, my father, Dr. Karl Albrecht, wrote a book called “Service America!: Doing Business in the New Economy.” It sold nearly a million copies and put him on the map as the go-to expert for the concept of customer service as a managed event.

As we sit here 35 years later, during a global pandemic that has changed how and where we do our work, the idea of customer service seems like something too many companies now only pay lip service to in their online ads and websites.

Few service interactions create more grief with new or returning customers than online websites that won’t allow for any human contact – no 800 number, no chat feature, not even an email. Ever try to get a refund for a product that didn’t arrive or arrived broken from a site, that doesn’t offer that feature? Ever try to cancel a recurring monthly fee when there is no button for that option on the site?

Second only to the online sites that appear ghostlike in their lack of the human touch are the 800 numbers we call and only get the runaround instead of our preferred solution. At least with the 800 number companies, you may get to speak to an actual human being. If you’re lucky, that person has been interviewed, screened and trained for that position to be truly service-oriented, authorized to think for himself or herself, bend the rules as necessary to solve the presenting problems and serve as the customer’s advocate.

If you’re not so fortunate, you’ll get someone on the phone who is burned out, tired of his or her job, experiencing chronic fatigue from too much human contact, who is forced to read from an overly prepared script – known in the call center business as smile training – and not given enough discretion or information to really solve the customer’s concerns. The result is frustration on both sides of the phone and anger and disappointment on the customer’s line for sure.

As the owner of a credit card, car insurance policy, airline ticket, or TV cable or satellite subscription, you have to use the phone to get information or solutions. You know when you have been served well by a true customer service professional. You got the distinct impression he or she saw you as an asset to the business and not just a problem to be solved or only an account number and not a name.

If your organization serves its customers using inbound 800 numbers, ask yourself, “Do we truly serve our customers or are we only make them navigate our systems? Do we focus on their needs or do we have too many limitations to do that well? If the end result of service is a feeling, how do our customers feel about us after they hang up the phone?” Consider this list of phone service sins as it relates to your call center:

• Stop punishing your customers with too-long wait times on terminal hold. That fix usually means one thing: Hire more people. Stop running lean. Have enough staff. No one wants to hear this recorded message: “We’re experiencing unusually high call volumes, so you should go to our website instead.”

• Don’t punish patient customers again by transferring them from one on-hold experience to another one. Same problem, different hold music.

• Stop asking customers to keep entering or saying their account numbers, PINs and passwords, as they get passed from department to department. Once should be enough; connect your software screens and systems to reflect a one-time verification approach.

• Develop software that works and works fast. Customers don’t want to keep hearing, “I’m waiting for my screen to load,” from the service rep.

• Authorize your telephone employees to think, not just read “I’m sorry” from a written script over and over.

• Train your people to have real empathy when customers are angry. It’s all about venting and validation.

• Make it easier for a manager or supervisor to get on the line and solve the problem. Don’t allow the transfer of the caller to a boss who never answers.

• Don’t train your service reps to keep trying to talk the customer out of stopping the service or closing the account. If they want to quit, help them quit. The more you try to negotiate them out of stopping, the angrier they get.

• Stop asking customers to take a survey at the end of the call. We don’t want to.

Model your call center after the best ones that hire, train and supervise their employees well. We all know what good service looks like, sounds like and feels like.

Steve Albrecht is a Springfield-based trainer, human resources consultant and employee coach. He can be reached at


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