Please note, I am not the best person to be around when my “cherub-like demeanor” dissipates. I continue to invest time and energy in preparation and in unhooking emotion from knee-jerk responses to provide a better customer experience for those I connect with. I am not perfect; I am not trying to give advice that I am not trying to implement every day, in every situation. I have read story after story about “how to handle difficult customers,” “how to provide excellence in difficult customer situations,” and I have read the nightmarish tales of agents not allowed to control a call.
While I am a subject matter expert on customer service, customer relations, and customer attentiveness, I miss my high standards often. I am not bragging; I hate delivering less than exceptional customer service. I have been a difficult customer when I do not understand, and nobody is willing to explain. I fall into many of the same traps I work to avoid and appreciate customer service agents who will see through the barbs and help me understand. When discussing customer agent abuse, I am a bit of a bear when someone makes my people cry and feel there are solutions to challenging customers that do not require ending the transaction. However, I will not tolerate abuse of customers or customer service agents, ever!
Back in the 1990s, when I started at a call center on Friday, there were no locks, no badges, no traffic control, and minimal security presence. Monday morning, we had badges, electronic key cards, traffic control security points, and a host of new security measures. Why; because a customer showed up at an agent’s cubicle, he had stalked this employee for months, and the only thing saving this person’s life was that she went into labor that morning. Her stalker showed up with a shotgun and a dozen roses. While not perfect at controlling my responses, I can clarify and support customer service agents against abuse.
What is Customer Agent Abuse?
Customer agent abuse is any actions conducted over a phone that would not be tolerated in person. For example, only in the US Navy was going toe-to-toe with another person, threatening bodily harm, and using the foulest of language acceptable behavior. Even in the US Navy, this behavior was only “tolerated” if you outranked the person you were hollering at, which made no sense during my time in service and even less sense now. Customer agent abuse includes threats to personal property, life, or family. Customer agent abuse includes making personal derogatory remarks.
While some may add or subtract to this list of agent abuses, I prefer simplicity. Thus, I repeat, only for emphasis, if the behavior is not tolerated in front of a police officer, that is customer agent abuse, and should not be accepted. Is speaking loudly customer agent abuse; probably not. However, the situationality of defining customer agent abuse is such that professionals will need clear and specific directions. Let us clarify a few topics.
What is a Customer?
A customer is anyone asking for assistance. That is the entire definition, and when we understand this definition, our whole mindset and attitude swings from “customer service is someone else’s job” to “how may I assist you today?”
Who is a Customer Agent?
A customer agent is anyone able to provide the assistance being sought. Will you be the one today to provide the service needed? Do you realize this is a choice made every time you engage another person?
Would you ever see your family as customers; why? Do you think those definitions are too simplistic; honestly, when you think about it, no. Your fellow employees are your first customers. Your leaders are your first customers. Then come vendors and shareholders and external customers. I have never agreed with separating internal and external customers. Some try to claim an external customer pays the bills. Sure, but without your team of employees, there are no products or services to sell.
A business owner once told me that this method of thinking was as valuable as arguing about what came first, the chicken or the egg. Yet, before you can grow into a small business, you must provide a service or good for purchase. Hence the most essential customer is your fellow employees, and failing to understand this simple fact, breeds an Us vs. Them mentality in employee and customer relations. Worse, this aggressive attitude only grows as the business grows and is heard by your customers in every transaction!
Customer Agent Abuse
Tell me, as a business leader, would you allow an employee to scream, swear, act belligerently, and raise their voices to another employee? If the answer is no, why do you allow any other customer to act similarly? I have worked in many different call centers, I have had my share of abusive customer calls. I have suffered the slings and arrows of contempt from fellow employees and customers in hostile work environments. I have been physically assaulted, threatened, sexually harassed, and more in professional settings, including call centers. So, why do we allow customer abuse?
What is driving business leaders to excuse irrational and detestably unprofessional behavior by customers? Honest question, if we would not tolerate behavior in person, why is it allowed over the phone? Why is the customer agent taking the brunt of the abuse when we all know the problem originates much higher than the agent you are talking to. Customer service, customer appreciation, customer attentiveness, customer relations, customer retention, etc., all circle around the customer culture bred into the business from its days as a small business. Worse, the leader’s approach to customer service is felt and observed by agents all over the company and soon will imitate that leader’s attitude and behaviors.
I have led teams where my agents were reduced to tears from the verbal harassment. When I discovered this, I pulled the quality records and calls, documented everything, and exercised my right to refuse service. Yes, I invited customers to leave employment and my company without batting an eyelash or caring a single bit. Nobody deserves to be harassed, sworn at, screamed at, or belittled, all in the name of “customer service.” Customer agent abuse is a failure of leadership!
Ending Customer Agent Abuse
Some of what I am proposing will be anathema to your organization; I realize this. I understand that some of what I propose will be hard to implement, face tremendous pushback, and might cause some organizational design changes. All of what I am about to suggest is achievable through leadership and customer service.
- If employees cannot abuse each other, then neither can anyone else!
- Invite those who swear to call back when they are more emotionally under control. End the call, end the transaction, make notes.
- Invite those who habitually abuse to stop being customers or employees.
- Make notes, keep documentation, and refer to legal if additional problems arise.
- Make your policy known to your customers, all of your customers.
- Set high standards of behavior and train to meet those standards.
- Revise business policies.
- Listen to the transactions.
- Make notes on pain points and process problems that irritate customers, and then dedicate yourself to fixing those pain points.
- Enter the customer transaction with the intent to act!
- Listen… Listen… Listen… verify what was said; listen some more.
- Appreciative inquiry, learn it, love it, live it! Your customers know where and who the problems are. Repeat as often as needed to ensure understanding, then take prompt action!
- Write cohesive and clearly understood policies.
- Train to the policies.
- Adjust the policies as needed.
- Revisit policies every 12-months for applicability.
- Revise policies as needed to meet customer expectations.
- Set high standards and train customers to meet those standards.
- Use rewards for improving customer interaction and transactions.
- Not all rewards cost money!
- Embrace Change
- Many claim they already do this, but they secretly refuse to change and act opposite to any change that threatens their power source. Eliminate that customer!
- Change requires courage, tenacity, and imagination. All of which become available when appreciative inquiry becomes a principle for achieving excellence!
- Set shelf-lives for processes, policies, and procedures.
- Delegate to achieve new blood and new thinking on old topics.
- Demand excellence, train for perfection and watch people achieve.
- Honest, sincere, and regular praise will demonstrate an attitude of gratitude to your people, who will then pass along the praise to everyone else.
- Observe people until you can even reprimand with praise.
- Never criticize!
- Never demean!
- Never allow anyone to denigrate or deride your customers, and your customers will always be at your back.
- If employees cannot abuse each other, then neither can anyone else!
It does not matter whether your business is a manufacturer or a service provider; it does not matter if you are a non-profit or government agency; what matters is your customer. Be the customer agent they deserve. Admit fault, always understand that you cannot know everything, and asking questions is not an evil act. You customers today are your customer agents tomorrow, and being a better customer is a job!
© 2021 M. Dave Salisbury
All Rights Reserved
The images used herein were obtained in the public domain; this author holds no copyright to the images displayed.