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February, 2000

What Messages Are Your CSRs Really Sending?
By Craig Harrison

(Note: This article was published in the February 2000 edition of Customer Service Newsletter.)

Are customers receiving mixed messages from your CSRs? Are messages within spoken messages also being communicated, ones that send a louder message of indifference or even neglect.

Uncovering the Meta-Message

Customer service trainer Craig Harrison helps companies uncover the meta-messages within responses customers receive. Says Harrison: A meta-message is a message embedded within the message you articulate. When you tell a customer "I'll be with you momentarily," you're relaying several messages. The stated one, that you'll be serving them shortly, and also an unstated message: That you are aware they're waiting and appreciate your patience. This meta-message soothes customers and underscores your commitment to serve.

"But," says Harrison, "sometimes the meta-message belies our stated intentions to serve, satisfy and care for our customers' needs."

Look anew at these common phrases used by service personnel. Consider the meta-message embedded within these phrases. You'll see how these dual messages undermine a company's service commitment.

"No one else has complained!"

This phrase implicitly tells your customers: "Your complaint doesn't count. Yours is just one opinion."

Solution: Meet a customer's complaint with appreciation:
"Thank you for bringing this to our attention,
and for making us aware of your experience."
It takes courage for customers to speak up.
Are your CSRs rewarding or reproaching customers for speaking up?

"That's the way we do things here."

The meta-message here is simple. Customers are being told: "Take it or leave it. We're not budging. We’re not sympathetic. We're too stubborn to care, let alone change! We're intransigent, and proud of it. Our rules are more important than your predicament. You must adjust to us."

Perhaps that is the way you do things there. Yet perhaps it's time you rethink your policies. Oftentimes rules and policies are derived based on what is most expedient for the company. Customer complaints may be a red flag that your procedures need rethinking, retooling or revamping. Hiding behind your rules shows you're less flexible than the customer, who may be experiencing a variable quality of service each time.

Why not consider ways that benefit both your company and your customer, since your avowed reason for being in business is to serve those customers. Are you willing to rethink your policies or procedures as appropriate?

 "I only work here."

When CSRs use this phrase they're telling customers: " I'm powerless. I'm just following orders."

Solution: When customer problems arise the service representative is far more powerful than the CEO in the eyes of the customer. Tell your CSRs: Step into your leadership. You are the company!

Ted Turner shares the story of walking into an elevator and having strangers tell him "I work for you." He quickly corrects them by saying "you work with me." In successful organizations every employee caters to the needs of customers, and every employee has an opportunity to exemplify excellence.

With a better understanding of customer needs, some day current staff may manage or direct the department they're in or even become a VP. Others may ultimately run or own the very business they're in, based on their customer service values. Employees are actually more powerful than they realize. Their help and attentive service insure return business, assists in word of mouth marketing and brightens customers' days. Each employee can have an impact on the customer's experience. Make sure it's a positive one.

"I'm only human."

Employees are essentially telling customers: "Give me a break. You're far too demanding. You expect perfection. Your requests are unreasonable, as deemed by me. You've exceeded the level of reasonableness as defined by me and my mood today."

We all know that humans are fallible. Yet humans have a tremendous capacity for creative problem solving. It's aninsult to us all as human beings to invoke this response, and clearly a cop-out. To be human means you have the capacity for compassion, understanding, and creatively expressing yourself. Being customer service oriented, are you applying your human capabilities to ably serve your customers? Show your humanity in the way you care for customers, rather than the way you complain to them.

"I'm doing the best I can."

The message being transmitted to customers comes through loud and clear: "Get off my back! You can take it or leave it but this is as good as it'll get. Again, I'm defining the limits of service you can expect. It's not codified, it varies with the level of effort I feel like exerting today —but your expectations have exceeded my self-defined level of delivery °© so back off!"

Usually the customers are doing the best they can too. They are entitled to certain expectations: that you not complain about your job, abdicate responsibility or ignore their plight. Few customers expect perfection. They do deserve a good faith effort in every encounter.

By telling customers you're doing the best you can, you are defining your upper limit as a server. Ask yourself this question: If instead a customer took their request to your supervisor would he or she agree you did your best? Are you willing to be challenged in that way? Is that really the best you can do? Does your "best" vary by your mood or work load?

"It's in the computer."

Staff are announcing to customers: "Like an act of God, the problem is beyond my control!" (This is the new version of "I'm just following orders.") Uttering this phrase is an abdication of responsibility. It's telling customers: "The all-powerful computer has taken over and it will take an act of God to modify the computer."

Every computer system allows for a human override. Let's exercise that option! You won't hurt the computer's feelings but you’re hurting the customer's by hiding behind hardware and software! The solution to the problem isn't in the computer...it's within you!

Send the Right Message

Meta-messages send a loud signal of their own to customers. Teach your CSRs how to replace excuses with service responses. The meta-messages within will show customers that your CSRs' commitment to their satisfaction is deeper than the words used to mouth them.

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