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Making the Grade in Customer Service

Improving CSRs' Grades From D's to A's

By Craig Harrison

Note: This article first appeared in the April 2000 edition of Customer Service Newsletter (Vol. 28, No. 4)

Are your employees earning failing grades in customer service? A review of service personnel attitudes and responses may reveal a less than acceptable approach to excelling at service. Help transform your staff's performance from D's to A's with an attitude adjustment.


Many service personnel demonstrate instincts that undermine good customer service. They respond to queries, complaints and problems with less than sterling strategies and solutions. Grading their responses we see a series of D's: they alternately deny, deflect, dodge, degrade or dismiss complaints, or else become defensive. With training, personnel can make the grade in customer service, replacing D's with A's in their report card as they learn to acknowledge, accept, ask, answer and act, doing so accountably. The results: a sterling service report card!


When a complaint is raised:

"This product is broken"

"I was overcharged"

"You lost my reservation!"

You misrepresented the capabilities of this product"

Reflexively service personnel often deny the assertion. They dispute its veracity or blindly deny the existence of the problem. It's more a case of not wanting to see it, of not wanting to believe something's wrong. Let's face it, if you deny a problem exists you're excused from responsibility for its resolution. Examples of denying include responses such as these:

"The product worked when we sold it to you!"

"We don't overcharge here!"

"You never made your reservation."

"The product does what we says it does."

Grade: D


Instead of denying a customer's assertion, the first act of a customer service representative should be to acknowledge the complaint. This isn't an admission of guilt, a consent to refund or even a capitulation of company policy, it's simply the first step in the process of seeking to understand and attempt to satisfactorily resolve the problem.

"We see you've had to return the product. Let's find out what happened."

"Let's review the bill and insure the charges are correct."

"We can see there seems to be some confusion about your reservation. Let' see what we can do about it."

"It seems this product isn't doing what you thought it could do. Tell us more."

Revised Grade: A


Other times, customer complaints are deflected or dodged by personnel:

"That's not our department."

"We would never have done that."

"That's not our policy."

"You'll have to deal with another office for that."

The conflict must lie with other vendors' software/hardware."

Grade: D


However true the above statements may be, they are made in an effort to sidestep responsibility. We are loath to get involved, leery of facing the music brought by unhappy customers. For us it's often just a statement. For the customer it means more time, effort, delay and frustration as they work their way through your system in search of resolution or rectification. Note that they've yet to be salved on any level when their complaint is met with deflection.

Deflecting customers' inquiries forestalls their satisfaction. Instead of deflecting we should strive to accept their assertions as representing a true problem. The sooner we can accept that a perceived problem brought a customer back to us the sooner we can reorient ourselves toward turning their dissatisfaction into satisfaction. Statements showing this acceptance may include:

"Our customer care department is equipped to hear your problem and work through it with you. Here's their location and a map. Ask for Trudy or Jake.

"We can review our procedure with you to insure we followed proper protocols. Call Steven at this number for a policy review…

"Often conflicts associated with our product are the result of incompatibilities with older technology. Our web site's Frequently Asked Questions page helps you identify Known Incompatibilities and what patches exist from other vendors."

Any time we can avoid a curt dismissal of a customer's problem it eases their anxiety. Remember, they're charting unfamiliar territory. Oftentimes dismissive behavior gives customers the feeling they're being given the runaround. The hidden or meta message in these responses: we care and we're not abandoning you, simply routing you to the appropriate site for best resolution to your problem.

Revised Grade: A

Let's face it, sometimes irate customers are accusatory. They're inflamed, and seemingly out for revenge. Their hostility becomes persona in nature. When they're agitated it's easy to respond to such wrath in a similarly degrading manner:

"If you aren't happy you don't have to shop here."

"Which side of the bed did you wake up on?"

"Having a bad hair day?

Grade: D

While it’s tempting to indulge our egos and meet customer fire with fire, the reality is that our response can either quell or exacerbate a disturbing situation. Using customer service akido we can channel customer passion and frustration into a solution oriented discussion. Here’s how: ask questions to more clearly isolate what the problem is. This will also serve to dissipate customer frustration. Their anger is met not with more anger, but with sincere concern for ameliorating strife. Next you answer these specific questions:

"How can we correct this situation?"

What can be done to lessen the disappointment or unmet expectations?

"In what ways can this situation be resolved to both of our satisfactions?

Lastly, after asking and answering, we must act to make good on our charge to resolve customer service problems. Customers who are paid lip service simply go away, or worse yet, tell a dozen of their friends or hundred of the e-mail associates of their dissatisfaction. Cared for customers, however, reaffirm their allegiance to you once you’ve reinforced mere words with solid actions. The accountability you’ve shown demonstrates your organization’s sincere commitment to customer satisfaction. You’ve made the grade!

Revised Grade: A

In today's dynamic and competitive business environment, school's always in session. Your performance is being monitored daily in that your report card is based on ongoing customer satisfaction. To earn high marks make sure you’re replacing the deleterious conduct of denying, deflecting, dodging, degrading or dismissing complaints with appropriate responses of acknowledging, accepting, asking, answering and acting on customer complaints. That’s how you make the grade of A in customer service!


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