When ‘helpful’ is anything but

When ‘helpful’ is anything but

We are all familiar with dealing with utilities and services that purport to ‘value’ calls but then keep customers in a queue for long periods. To cap it off, businesses then have the gall to ask what people think of their ‘service’.
Many complaints, if not handled well, will escalate to a new problem. 

Whether during a face-to-face situation or in the virtual context, you have probably encountered a ubiquitous lack of problem-solving when you’ve run into a snag of some kind. You explain the problem succinctly and politely, but continue to receive ‘cheese’ when you want a practical bread-and-butter response. Some service staff are over effusive, over bubbly, too jokey and even at times inappropriately affectionate.

The angrier customer

We do not want to create the angrier customer, someone reacting to a lack of attention or inappropriate responses. If your company is going the social media route, this problem has already ballooned into a public relations nightmare. People vent on Twitter or in online forums, and depending on the news of the day, you can discover you’re enmeshed in the social media equivalent of an impossible to extinguish bushfire.

Last week I heard a man grappling with a service help desk trying to complete a payment. He was so frustrated and, as he was using a public phone in a lounge area, one side of the call was shared by many others, including me. He was getting nowhere fast and said: “I am never flying with this airline again.” At the end of the call he became infuriated as he was obviously responding to that robotic finale question: “Is there anything else I can help you with?” He said: “I just want help with the one issue I have, so don’t ask about anything else you can help me with when you have not helped with the issues I called about.”

Service platitudes and maddening menus

It makes it even more annoying to see (whether in an office or on a website) inane and insincere platitudes about service when it doesn’t in any way match the delivery. So for anyone managing service staff, let’s remember to keep going back to what our customers need and how can we best deliver it. Close that gap.

Speed, choice and connectedness have spawned more competition and more demanding and frequently more informed consumers. Lack of help engenders unhappy customers. An unhappy customer is someone ready to become an advocate, as they are already talking about your business and service, but in the wrong direction. It is not as though companies set out to be unhelpful. Many businesses are availing themselves of voice recognition software and phone ‘menus’, the better to field customers’ queries and delegate responses. To an extent this backfires, because much of the time all a customer wants is to talk with a human being who listens and responds thoughtfully. 

Websites likewise offer multiple opportunities to give feedback, but their interface may be lacking in sensible solutions to common problems, with a poor design and user choice, prompting more complaints than might otherwise occur. 

Make this my responsibility

The best managers of service staff are the ones who say: “This is my responsibility – if my staff are not handling these cases well, it is my lack of appropriate training, or insufficient practice.” 

Sounding helpful and positive is but a small part of the service equation. For example, a person rings up to complain. If you say sorry, and can’t take an action to fix the problem or find a solution, then you are not helpful, you are helpless. 

It is clear that managers need to train staff in service roles so their ability to make decisions that resolve a problem are enhanced. It is good to ensure that staff members are knowledgeable, sympathetic and listen. People can smell indifference and mediocrity from quite a distance. We may have evolved in thousands of years, but every warning instinct to trouble remains primed in most of us.

A positive attitude is not enough when it comes to providing good service. We also need to see answers, problems solved and an efficient delivery of the service or product, which must have the required quality.

Use scenario training, for example give staff actual case studies (you’ve probably recorded or noted some and if not you should). Workshop these and other likely scenarios in your business, and ensure the staff decide appropriately what they can offer or do, no matter whether the business or service is a hotel, restaurant, equipment supplier, health organisation or consultancy.

By being prepared to train and wise up your staff, by rewarding helpful behaviour, you might actually end up with repeat business, satisfied customers and clients, and best of all – less stress all round. 

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.


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